JD: Your Steve Jobs opera, how have you worked with the production staff about these concepts?
MB: It has to start with the libretto and story. One thing that Mark Hamill, the librettist, and I wanted to do is to have a non-linear, almost pixelated presentation of the life of Steve Jobs. We didn’t want this to be another bio-pic movie. We wanted to drop into various parts of his life, all of which connect to the idea of a man who wants to simplify our communication with beautiful devices. But life doesn’t look like this; it’s much messier. You might have cancer. You might have a daughter out of wedlock. You might have employees you don’t like. So the idea of a pixelated narrative was one element of the story-telling, but how this gets into the production is that there’s a huge electronic component. Every character has a very different sound-world. Steve Jobs might be quick-silver electronica and acoustic guitar, whereas his wife might be oceanic strings, and the Spiritualizer is like an electronic nirvana of prayer bowels and windchimes and things.
The piece kind of begins and ends in the garage, one’s creative space. In Silicon Valley, the garage is a mythical studio. And it begins with that. And as we see the young Steve Jobs, and his adopted father, who is a mechanical engineer, work together, we realize that the garage walls are blowing apart, and they become projection surfaces that, throughout the piece, build different scenes. They’re a creative space that you work in. You can project that to become the different scenes throughout your life. So from the electronic sounds, to the complicated projection surface, down to the telling of the story, we’re trying to bring new story-telling to Opera.
JD: When we create things, we’re fully engaged in the act of creation itself. But do you ever think about what you hope people will take home with them following a concert? How it makes them feel, think, etc.?
MB: This is an interesting question because I can remember when I was a younger composer, at Juilliard, the idea of considering the listener’s experience was almost taboo! I was coming in at the end of the period of the listener-be-damned! John Corigliano transformed that for me. He would say, “Let’s think about how this will impact the listener.” My first response was, I don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator. And he said: It’s not like that at all. If you’re writing a piece of music, everything is going to turn on the way the theme is transformed. You better make sure that that’s perceptible! If your theme is buried under a lot of orchestration, or if it’s not a very clear theme, your entire musical experience is not going to happen.
So, first of all, what is perceptible? Basic question. But that transforms outwardly to: What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want the take-away to be? I think what I found is that I really enjoy the element of surprise, and the psychology of expectation, that music offers us, that a lot of other artistic forms don’t. Visual arts is kind of, you see it: there it is. But you give someone a piece of music that starts to unfold in a certain way. Maybe it’s rhythmically based, or minimalist. I love the idea that then you can go into a deeper space. Once you have the listener with you, you can take that deep dive. So I believe you want to take the listener to all manner of deep experiences. But you have to engage the body. You have to be visceral. Whether that be through harmony, rhythm, or perceptible, clear, melodic material, otherwise you won’t get there.
JD: I’m reading a book about the way the body stores trauma. And it’s all well and good to discuss things with psychologists, but if we don’t release the stored energy in the body, it stays there. Which makes a lot of sense. This piggy-backs on what you’re saying: That if you don’t engage the body, you’ve missed the golden opportunity. Engaging the mind, soul, and heart, is paramount, but if you can also engage the body, you have a more powerful tool at your disposal.
MB: Think about something like jazz. I’m so fascinated by it. It’s the most complicated harmony you can get, that you still feel. I love 12-tone pieces, and serial composers. But no matter how complicated those frameworks are, you don’t really feel them! Often, you don’t even hear the 12-tone row. But with jazz, you have these amazing artists doing incredibly complicated things with harmony, and you can FEEL that. It’s a complex experience, and yet it hits you as a human being. That’s important.
JD: Maybe that’s what the riot was about after the premiere of Rite of Spring. It’s such a visceral piece, and it’s engaging the body (at that point in history, perhaps for the very first time). It unleashed something, inside, that kind of frightened people about themselves!
MB: I think the Russians are the best at doing this. If you listen to some of the great ballet scores, they have this quality that’s practically etched! The music, whether it be the Nutcracker, or the Rite of Spring, the material is so vibrant that it leaps off the page. Not just the choice of the notes but the character of it. When you shackle that power of the etched Russian sound to the very radical harmonies, I think it did provoke people to get up and scream and yell. On the one hand they were so moved by it, and on the other hand, they were so frightened.
JD: Like holding a mirror really close to your face!
And your music, the way you use beats! I can’t listen to your music and sit completely still as if I’m meditating or something. It pulls me in on a physical level. You’ve built that signature in your music.
MB: Well it’s something buried in American music. Gershwin’s infectious rhythms and French harmony are also incredible. I always like the Yin and Yang. If you have something that is incredibly infectious, it’s nice to take the plunge. If you take a piece like Alternative Energy which SFS recorded here a couple years ago, it’s very much propelled by a bluesy recollection of Henry Ford in the late 19th century (junkyard percussion, fiddle). But by the time you get propelled into present-day Chicago, and you get this massive particle accelerator waking up around the audience, swirling around, you’ve really been taken on a journey further than you expected. You really need the visceral elements of music, rhythm and harmony, and very perceptible, clear melodic material to get to that deep space. I think the challenge is always that Bernstein question of: It needs to be fresh. Can it be powerful and absolutely inevitable and still original? And that’s what I spend so much time doing in my studio, throwing out material that’s possibly beautiful or interesting, but it’s already been there.
to be continued …