The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

What fascinates me about the story of Steve Jobs is that it exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication – and I think that can make for thrilling opera.

I’ve been working at the nexus of creativity and technology as a symphonist, having a grand time pushing orchestras into the sounds of the 21st century with works that conjure large, often narrative forms with an expanded electronic palette. After years of bringing ‘theater to the concert hall,’ I’m excited to turn to the opera house.

Opera is perhaps the perfect medium for a massive soundworld.  The bigger your palette, the more dramatic you can be.  Imagine, for example, the possibilities for bringing to life Kobun, the spiritual advisor to Steve Jobs – an important and overlooked figure who receives stunning treatment by librettist Mark Campbell.  A panoply of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs drift across the electronics, sometimes sounding purely ‘acoustic,’ sometimes imaginatively processed as if in a nirvana-esque limbo.  Think of how eerily beautiful those sounds can sound when supporting the mystical textures of a low bass voice.

Or imagine the music of Steve Jobs himself : quicksilver textures in both orchestra and electronics, with the latter being built by samples of early Mac gear.  His expanded soundworld also includes an acoustic guitar – an instrument whose predecessors appeared quite often in early opera, but one that has scarcely been heard in opera houses since.  Jobs loved the guitar, and the energy of a finger-picked steel-string will illuminate the busy inner world a restless man.

In fact, Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of the opera – which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again.  The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acted as the electrical ‘ground’ to the positive and negative charges of Jobs.  His buzzing inner energy made for a visionary of Jesus-like charisma, but he could quickly become a cold tyrant.  Laurene is a soulful and strong woman who convinces Jobs of the importance of true human connection, the person who reminds him that people don’t have one button, that they are beautifully complicated.  Imagine her slow-moving, oceanic harmonies colliding with the frenetic music of Steve.  How does one music impact the other?  How do they merge?  How can Laurene slow down the busy inner world of Steve?

In an opera about a man who revolutionized human communication, this technique of “musical worlds colliding” will be key.  The primary roles in this work – Steve Jobs, Laurene, confidante Steve Wozniak, girlfriend Chrisann, spiritual advisor Kobun – will be associated with highly distinct music.  As they interact, their musics will blend almost like on a DJ rig.  I’ve always looked to exotic forms to pull new sounds out of me when writing symphonic music – from my ‘energy symphony’ to a new piece about mythological creatures – and for me in opera, that will happen on the level of character.

The telling of this tale, at the hands of the master librettist Mark Campbell, is quite different from a see-Spot-run biopic.  Because the subject is so well known, we’ve taken a poetic and non-linear approach.  Anchoring this imaginative, non-chronological telling are numbers – real musical numbers – and a clear-as-crystal through-line: how can you can simplify human communication onto sleek beautiful devices – when people are so messy?  We’ll travel with Jobs on his journey from hippie idealist to techno mogul and, ultimately, to a deeper understanding of true human connection.  In Santa Fe in July 2017, you can take that journey with us.

Chicago Tribune

“[Anthology of Fantastic Zoology] recalls the conclusion of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, but on a meth high.” – John von Rhein

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San Jose Mercury News

“If Mason Bates’ Rusty Air in Carolina is any indication, this 30-year-old composer (who is based in the East Bay and has a parallel career as a DJ) also has a voice…A Virginia native who summered as a teenager in South Carolina, his new work recalls sticky Southern nights, filled with the chatter and buzz of katydids and cicadas. …You could feel the humidity, while luxuriating in Bates’ exquisite, almost Impressionistic, atmospherics.” -Richard Scheinin

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The New York Times

“Contemporary composers can integrate high-definition recordings of sounds they want to evoke, as Mason Bates does in his cleverly constructed Liquid Interface. The first movement, “Glaciers Calving,” begins with an ominous recording of glaciers crashing into the Antarctic Ocean, soon followed by dense, haunting swirls from the strings and electronic beats that accelerate to lively drum and bass rhythms. Mr. Bates’s colorful four-movement tone poem, which uses a vast orchestra and electronics to evoke water in both soothing and menacing forms, received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall -Vivian Schweitzer

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The New Yorker

“Mason Bates’s Digital Loom, for organ and electronics…transformed the hall into something between a decaying cathedral and an East Berlin club.” -Alex Ross

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New York Magazine

“Take Mason Bates’s Digital Loom for organ and electronics, a centennial commission. Definitely a voice from the younger generation, Bates reimagines the king of instruments as a surreal creature inventing its own space, the illuminated stops flashing like an enormous pinball machine and presided over by the organist as D.J. who programs wild sequences of hip-hop, funk, and ambient electronica” -Peter Davis

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The Washington Post

“Mason Bates, 30 years old…knows how to command an orchestra just as well as he does his touchpad. Bates’s Liquid Interface, a National Symphony commission that received its world premiere last night, surpassed in sheer sonic beauty even the works by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky that rounded out the program.”

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The Los Angeles Times

“Be it mixing trip-hop and funk at a club or writing a symphonic or chamber work, composer Mason Bates is getting noticed for his straddling of classical music and electronica. … Young, Juilliard-trained and already celebrated, he’s become a fixture not only in concert halls but in the world of electronica as well. … At a time when symphony orchestras nationwide are trolling for audience magnets – the type of new material that can lure members of generations X and Y along with older subscribers – Bates just might have that bait. ”
Concerto for Two Universes, Donna Perlmutter

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