Mason Bates: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

The arc of the life of Steve Jobs is pretty well-known in the popular culture, and has been detailed in a number of films and books. Herald of the personal computer era and the co-founder of Apple Computer, Jobs was a college dropout that started as a video game designer but soon went into business with his longtime friend Steve Wozniak. They designed a new personal computer that was an immediate success. Subsequent issues, though, led to his firing from Apple. Other ventures, including the building of Pixar into a major animation studio, led to Jobs’s return to Apple and the creation of the iMac, iTunes, iPod, and, of course, the iPhone. But he contracted cancer, and died in 2011 at age 56. Jobs was a complicated person and led a complicated life, one possibly ripe for operatic treatment.

Enter Mason Bates, a rare combination of acclaimed classical composer and dance music DJ, as well as the most-performed composer of his generation in a recent survey of American music. Born in 1977, Bates won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008, was the first composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and was Musical America Composer of the Year for 2018. A large part of that latter award was likely due to the acclaim won by his first opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which was premiered in 2017 by the Santa Fe Opera and was a huge hit, selling out multiple performances. The recording of the opera on Pentatone Records won the 2019 Grammy for Best Opera Recording.

When Bates initially had the idea for the opera, he sought out librettist Mark Campbell, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his libretto for the Kevin Puts World War I opera Silent Night. Campbell found out all he could about Jobs and Apple, and picked out a set of key themes and incidents that could be structured in operatic form. As to the main characters, as Bates has written, “Mark soon fell in love with the complex, duel protagonist-and-antagonist role of Jobs; the soulful figure of Laurene Jobs; and the mystical character of Kōbun, the Buddhist spiritual adviser to Jobs.”

In the opera, Bates and Campbell give, in one assessment, an “intimate perspective of a public life, examining the people and experiences that shaped Steve Jobs: his father, his Buddhist practice, his rise and fall as an executive, and finally his marriage to the woman who showed him the power of human connection.” But the events of Jobs’s life that the opera focuses on – Jobs’s youth in the 1960s, his initial work with Steve Wozniak and the founding of Apple in the 1970s, his discovery of Buddhism, the ups and downs of the 1980s, his marriage and professional comeback, the launch of the iPhone, and his death in 2011 – are arranged in an unusual, non-linear way, jumping back and forth in time. The twenty-four episodes – a prologue, eighteen scenes, four instrumental interludes, and an epilogue – form a single act in what Bates has called a “‘pixelated’ structure” that allows the events and characters to interact and comment on one another.

Bates’s music features his usual blend of the acoustic and the electronic. Each of the characters has her or his characteristic sound. An acoustic guitar, for instance, is associated with Jobs throughout the opera, often with electronic sounds in the background that help depict his busy, fragmented life – sounds that Bates in large part derived from Mac products, little electronic noises from hard drives and keyboards. Later, by contrast, the appearances of Kōbun Chino Otogawa, Jobs’s spiritual adviser and the person that helped him to convert to Buddhism, are accompanied by calm music, including alto flute and electronically-processed Japanese wind chimes, prayer bowls, and gongs. Jobs’s wife Laurene is accompanied by soaring strings and consonant harmonies – she, after all, is the reconciling force in the opera between Jobs’s multiple facets, positive and negative. Jobs’s girlfriend Chrisann Brennan tends to be accompanied by flutes, and his partner and friend Steve Wozniak by saxophones.

The following listening guide for the opera is based on the aforementioned recording of the opera on Pentatone Records, which features Edward Parks (baritone, Steve Jobs), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano, Laurene Powell Jobs), Wei Wu (bass, Kōbun Chino Otogawa), Garrett Sorenson (tenor, Steve “Woz” Wozniak), Jessica E. Jones (soprano, Chrisann Brennan), Kelly Markgraf (baritone, Paul Jobs), Mariya Kaganskaya (mezzo-soprano, Teacher), and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra conducted by Michael Christie. The entire recording can be found on YouTube; selected highlights are included below.

1965: The garage of the Jobs family home, Los Altos
We hear the musical sounds associated with Steve Jobs (“Steve” from hereon), acoustic guitar and electronic noises, in this initial scene, in which Steve receives his father Paul’s encouragement along with the present of a workbench. Immediately noticeable is the accessible, melodic nature of the vocal writing.

A minimalist, rhythmically lively transition as the stage changes.

Scene 1
2007: Product Launch, the stage of a convention center, San Francisco
Steve is at the famous 2007 convention at which he announced the iPhone, extolling his “one device” that “does it all,” with a mere “tap” taking care of so many of one’s needs. There’s lively syncopation and building energy in the music as the chorus/audience expresses its excitement, as well as some skepticism. As Steve’s energy flags – a hint of his health problems to follow – the music calms for his exchange with his wife Laurene.

Scene 2
2007: Corporate Offices, Cupertino
Laurene tries to convince Steve to slow down, tend to his health, and “come home” to his family, in music that is lyrical and almost Impressionist.

Meditative Interlude
This transitional music includes Steve’s acoustic guitar, pizzicato strings, more ethereal electronic sounds, and a gentle beat that propels the music forward.

Scene 3
2007: The hills around Cupertino
Kōbun Chino Otogawa, Steve’s spiritual mentor, makes his first appearance to the sounds of the flute. They take a walk in nature as Kōbun reinforces Laurene’s warnings, telling Steve he’s “dying” and “diminishing.”

Scene 4
1973: A calligraphy class, Reed College
We jump back in time as a teacher explains the “grace, freedom, simplicity” of the circular endo of Japanese calligraphy, which Steve finds inspiring. The endo represents both his fascination with Japanese and other Asian aesthetics, which inspired many design choices in Apple products, and the wholeness that Jobs is attempting to find in his life.

Scene 5
1973: The garage of the Jobs family home, Los Altos
A slightly jazzy quality enters the music as Steve and Steve Wozniak, or Woz, have a playful, humorous exchange about their new phone design and the fact that “Ma Bell was just taken down” by them. They sound like anti-capitalist revolutionaries, singing of their fondness for “rebels, freaks, reformers.”

Scene 6
1974: An apple orchard near Los Altos
A year later, Steve and his girlfriend Chrisann Brennan take LSD. String tremolos create an expectant atmosphere as the orchestral colors constantly shift. They discuss his desire to leave school, and drop out of society altogether. She already has recognized how erratic his behavior can be – “he could be a genius or a psycho.” As the drugs take effect, Steve starts to hear Bach’s music – snatches of acoustic and electronic sounds – in the atmosphere around him. As they start to make love, Kōbun appears.

Scene 7
2007: The hills around Cupertino
1975: The Los Altos Zen Center
Kōbun’s flute and chime sounds emerge again as Steve remembers their first meeting. Kōbun also sees how difficult and scattered Steve can be, and tells him how he needs to understand the nature of the world, and his own nature, better – “take one step,” “simplify,” and “never force it” – if he wants to stay at the Zen Center and become a monk as Steve had contemplated doing. The music is calm and ethereal, with gentle support from the choir, but there is also humor in Kōbun’s words.

Scene 8
1989: A lecture hall, Stanford University
This short scene documents the first meeting of Steve and Laurene, and their immediate mutual attraction.

Scene 9
1976: The garage of the Jobs family home, Los Altos
We jump back in time again. As Steve and Woz are working away, Chrisann enters and tells Steve she’s pregnant with their child. Steve is angry, telling her simply to “get rid of it.” Steve and Woz have an exchange, highly ironic given how he had just treated Chrisann, about the clutter of their computer mechanism and how it needs an attractive, elegant case and interface. In a subsequent lyrical interlude, Steve gives voice to his visionary side, escaping the intense reality of his life as he meditates on the wonders of his new computer, “something we play” like a musical instrument.

Scene 10
1989: Steve Jobs’s home, Palo Alto
Laurene is moving into Steve’s sparsely furnished home. She is quick to realize that Steve has by this time ceased to feel the joy and excitement that he used to find in his work.

Scene 11
1980: Corporate Offices, Cupertino
As Steve describes how he wants to create a “lean and clean machine,” Chrisann appears again, but Steve coldly, abruptly rejects her from his life. Woz realizes how much his friend Steve has changed in just a few years. Woz and Chrisann both sing “You’re losing it” as Steve continues worrying over his “lean machine.” The dreams that Woz and Steve shared, and the love that Chrisann and Steve shared, are “all gone.”

Interlude: The Rise and Fall of Steve Jobs
This frantic, mercurial instrumental interlude, with its powerful chugging rhythm, encapsulates both Steve’s successes and the complexity of his life.

Scene 12
1981-1986: Corporate Offices, Cupertino
This extended corporate scene begins with the choral ensemble demanding faster, better, cheaper products. Steve is self-absorbed and angry, with them and with everyone, as his life seems to be flying apart. Chrisann enters and asks for financial help for herself and their new child, Lisa. But she is dismissed again. He denies being Lisa’s father, even as he borrows her name for his new business computer. In what is essentially a cry of despair, Woz tells Steve “You’ve become one of the people we hated. A Goliath.” Their old dreams have vanished, and Steve has become another person. But Steve doesn’t care, and Woz angrily quits. The Board decides that they need to move Steve to a new division, and he likewise quits in a dissonant flurry and musical collapse.

Dark Interlude
Near the end of this instrumental depiction of Steve’s mental state, with its portentous outbursts and growling brass crescendos, the strings take on an almost Mahler-like intensity.

Scenes 13-15
2007: The hills around Cupertino
1989: A lecture hall, Stanford University
1989: Steve Jobs’s home, Palo Alto
These three short scenes are linked as flashbacks. In Scene 13, Kōbun reappears, undercutting all the preceding fury and darkness with a humorous “Karma can suck.” But he also admits that, after all those incidents, Steve “died” his “first death,” and then recovered and did good work again, in large part due to the influence of Laurene. Scene 14 recalls the first meeting of Laurene and Steve from Scene 8. In Scene 15, Steve remembers the moment he fell in love with Laurene, and Kōbun reminds him again of all the good she has done him.

Scene 16
2007: Steve Jobs’s home, Palo Alto
Steve is once again angry and distracted, is deluding himself about his poor health, and he has pulled away from Laurene. She, however, won’t have any of it, and confronts him with some necessary truths. The music is intense, but calms somewhat as her honesty and trust wins him over. Now uncomfortable but repentant, he says he will visit the doctor and attempt to remake his attitude. His change of heart is signaled by the return of the acoustic guitar.

Lyrical Interlude
This pretty, delicate interlude, led by Steve’s acoustic guitar and Laurene’s strings, takes us to their wedding at Yosemite.

Scene 17
1991: The wedding, Yosemite National Park
As his delicate chime-like music sounds, Kōbun chants as he officiates at the Buddhist wedding ceremony. This tender scene with Steve, Laurene, and Kōbun, merging the events of 1991 and a commentary from much later, ends with the information that Kōbun actually died in 2002, drowned while trying to save his own child.

Scene 18
2011: The memorial service, Stanford University Chapel
Kōbun informs Steve that he is watching his own funeral service. In typical fashion, Steve comments humorously and wants to micromanage the details. After the crowd leaves the funeral, Laurene and Woz remember him in a duet, honest but kind in their memories. Laurene is left alone, and considers, in an emotional, gently melancholy aria, what Steve might be thinking if he were watching: don’t spend so much time on the work, “look at the stars … take another sip … steal another kiss.”

1965: The garage of the Jobs family home, Los Altos
In the final moments of the opera, we return to where we began, the Jobs family garage, and Steve with his father as their voices and Laurene’s intertwine: “Be here now, and now is a fine place to start.”