There’s been a lot of buzz recently about the new film portrayal of Steve Jobs, which one critic dubbed a “kind of talk opera.” Turns out there’s an actual opera about Steve Jobs in the pipeline, and it’s by one of the most interesting young American composers at work today: Mason Bates.
The project, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs and with a libretto by Mark Campbell, was announced as the latest commission by the Santa Fe Opera, whose idyllic open-air setting in the mountains of New Mexico has been an incubator for some powerful new American operas – like Jennifer Higdon’s adaptation of the Civil War-era novel Cold Mountain.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs won’t premiere until 2017, but there’s plenty more of Bates’ music to discover before then. Few composers active today are as well suited to the challenge of transforming Jobs’ iconic story into a compelling piece of music theater as Bates.
The 38-year-old has become a hotly sought-after artist over the past decade thanks to his rethinking of the concert experience. In “Alternative Energy,” a piece that, like many of Bates’ works, mixes a traditional orchestra with electronica and sampled sounds, he spins a fascinating story about how humanity’s consumption of energy is consuming us. Starting with the invention of the car motor, “Alternative Energy” travels through time to a dystopian future, all the while electrifying the soundscape with jazzy riffs, hip-hop beats and futuristic eruptions.
The mix of orchestral sounds and electronica to create sweeping, immersive textures is a trademark of Bates. He grew up in Virginia, where an early mentor of his was the one-of-a-kind Dika Newlin, a former student of Arnold Schoenberg who retooled herself into a punk-rock cult figure when she was in her late 70s. Bates started writing music for orchestra while still a teenager and ended up training with masters like John Corigliano in New York City.
In the Big Apple, Bates also began developing another side of his musical personality. Intrigued by the thriving techno club scene, he became adept at the art of turntablism. Since then Bates has evolved dual careers as a classical composer and a DJ who goes by the name Masonic, curating musical happenings all around the country.
In the concert hall, Bates has developed a compelling musical language that fuses his free-flying imagination with a dazzling ear for the coloristic possibilities of the modern orchestra and a rhythmic urgency he’s inherited from John Adams and others in the post-Minimalist generation — all spiced with his electronica and DJ savvy. In fact, last year a survey of orchestral programming trends among almost two dozen American orchestras found that Bates came in second only to Adams as the most frequently performed living composer.
It doesn’t hurt that Bates has had the likes of powerhouse conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Riccardo Muti as his champions. Both the San Francisco Symphony (MTT’s orchestra) and the Muti-led Chicago Symphony – among the most vibrant orchestras playing today – have commissioned major works from Bates as part of his high-profile residencies with each. Last year San Francisco Symphony showcased the music of Bates as part of a festival they called “Beethoven and Bates,” which paired his compositions with ones by the mighty Ludwig van.
Bates clearly has an affinity for at least one aspect of 19th-century Romantic composers: their obsession with narratives, with telling stories through music. Bates says Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony still speaks to us so strongly because, in addition to the genius of what happens in the music, Beethoven used the symphonic form to make a “work of art imbued with a desire to explore larger human issues.” In the program notes for the Beethoven and Bates festival, he said he takes that approach himself because “I’m trying to continue with these works, using the new palette and sounds of the 21st century. For me, music can be more than process driven: it can be deeply evocative and tell stories.”
“Digital Loom,” his piece for organ and electronica, imagines a face-to-face between an organist and “his modern-day club counterpart, the DJ,” Bates writes on his website. “The mysterious ambience of a dusky church, with faint organ harmonies wafting up from the stone floor, inspired a pairing with the abstract beats of ambient electronica, and in this space ‘Digital Loom’ begins.”
On what may be Bates’ best-known piece to date, “Mothership,” the music began as an unprecedented commission for the YouTube Symphony, spearheaded by Tilson Thomas – the planet’s first online collaborative orchestra, whose members were recruited via auditions they posted online. (At their live concert debut in 2009, the conductor joked that the way to get to Carnegie Hall, where they performed, is simple: “Upload, upload, upload!”) For “Mothership,” Bates came up with a narrative concept involving the orchestra as a mothership, with four visiting soloists who temporarily “dock” there, one after the other, and contribute wild improvisations.
Bates has already established himself as a master storyteller in the concert hall. Add to the mix singing actors and a libretto dramatizing one of the most influential visionaries behind the world we live in, and Bates’ operatic debut *The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs *is all but guaranteed to be a major cultural event.