Expanding Memory
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Expanding Memory

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is an unconventional look at the cofounder of Apple, Inc.
By Charles Shafaieh
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

Expanding Memory hdl 717
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan 
Nowadays, death in the U.S. has been made INVISIBLE.

THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS  opens in the garage of Jobs’s childhood home. His father, Paul, has given him a present for his tenth birthday—a worktable. “Putting things together, / Taking things apart, / You’ll find how they run, / Learn what makes them tick,” Paul sings to his son. “Only plywood and nails, / Still, it’s a fine place to start.” Since Jobs’s death in 2011, the inventor and Apple, Inc. cofounder’s success in understanding how things are made has become a central facet of his public hagiography, and the credit is not unwarranted. That many of you are reading this essay on a smartphone or tablet points to just one of many ways in which Jobs radically changed how we experience and live in the world. Music, especially, has been affected by the advent of iTunes and the song-based listening attitude it inaugurated. But the implicit lesson from this moment with his father that took Jobs nearly his entire life to learn is that everything—inanimate and animate objects alike—that has been put together will eventually fall apart.

Over multiple decades, Jobs made rare public appearances wearing a custom-made Issey Miyake black turtleneck and Levi’s 510 jeans. More than a uniform, this sartorial rigidity was a personal expression of the mechanized, even unnatural, perfection he sought to achieve with his products. Like the seemingly screwless and seamless iPhone that evokes a coffin without nails or the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, he gave the mysterious appearance of having no interior components. It was as if he were suggesting he had come into existence ex nihilo and would never change, much less disappear. But due to pancreatic cancer, the wires eventually revealed themselves, and as the turtlenecks grew baggier and his body underneath them more gaunt, the lie of eternality at the surface of Apple’s devices and Jobs’s own life began to unravel.

While Jobs took the denial of his own humanness to the extreme, his attitude was symptomatic of contemporary America’s widespread disavowal of one side of the life–death dialectic. Victorian women turned mourning into pageantry, and in many other cultures, memento mori remain omnipresent. In Varanasi, India, corpses can be seen atop vehicles on their way to the open-air cremation sites on the Ganges River. Bodies are mere vessels for Tibet’s Vajrayana Buddhists, who believe in the transmigration of spirits and take their dead to mountaintops, where they are chopped up and left for vultures in a practice known as “sky burial.” Nowadays, death in the U.S. has been made invisible. Though casualties of war have never been a secret, even publishing photographs of soldiers’ coffins was illegal from 1991 to 2009.

Opera houses are a rare public space where, almost nightly, people come together to confront their own finite existence, as they have since the form’s beginnings, when both Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi set to music Eurydice’s tragic descent into Hades. “Opera has to have blood, or else it’s […] kind of dull,” Rufus Wainwright once said. Though perhaps not meant altogether literally (his own Prima Donna is rather calm, after all), this assertion has been proved correct by popular consensus. Comedies aside, of course, the majority of operas in the canon, and scores outside it, feature death in its many guises, from Mimì’s tubercular demise in La Bohème to John Adams’s still-controversial depiction of the murder of Leon Klinghoffer. Opera heightens every stake and every emotion. With no tolerance for the banal, it demands human sacrifices. 

The closing acts of great works of literature, theater and film sometimes feature death, but not nearly with the frequency of opera. In The Glass Menagerie, Tom must stay alive so that we can observe how he grapples with the guilt of abandoning his mother and sister. Scarlett O’Hara’s hubris need not push her to suicide at the end of Gone with the Wind. In opera, Tristan und Isolde best exhibits how the necessity of death manifests itself, on both visceral and metaphysical levels. And how much less satisfying would we find the finale of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites if Blanche did not return to martyr herself with her sisters? Would Don Giovanni move us if the lothario were not taken to Hell before the curtain falls? During these final moments and deaths of characters, opera raises even its villains to transcendent heights.

Whether this is inherent to the form is a question The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell, will help determine when the opera has its world premiere this month in Santa Fe, under the musical direction of conductor Michael Christie. Jobs, whose posthumous reputation has already reached mythic proportions (the phrase “modern-day Leonardo da Vinci” resounded throughout his obituaries), led a life replete with the melodrama that opera amplifies so well: being fired from the company he helped build, then returning years later to save it; his longterm, violent rejection of his first-born daughter and her mother; his avoidance of treatment after first receiving his diagnosis; and other tumultuous events. That much of this biographical material appears in the opera is expected. Surprising is the absence of Jobs on his deathbed, his funeral, and even the word “cancer.” 

Although (R)evolution begins in Jobs’s childhood, the one-act piece progresses as a nonlinear narrative—a rare structure for opera, which almost always takes a conventional narrative approach or eschews plot altogether, as in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Over twenty short scenes anchored in March 2007, when his health began declining again, Jobs looks back on his life—jumping fluidly between memories from the development stages of various products, a Japanese calligraphy class in college and his wedding to his wife, Laurene—in addition to glimpsing his soon-to-occur memorial service. Akin to Virgil with Dante, Jobs’s longtime spiritual advisor Kōbun Chino Otogawa, a Sōtō Zen Buddhist priest, acts as his guide along this journey of recollection and foresight and helps Jobs admit that he is mortal—to himself but also to Laurene, whose frustration with her husband over his state of denial creates the opera’s central tension. Kōbun teaches Jobs to “simplify” and to understand that he needs to accept what is ultimately a simple truth, articulated by his wife—that he is not “a lean and clean machine” but rather “a human being. / With an illness,” and that, like all humans, he will “fail.”

This Buddhist conception of time and our collective, transient existence within it—where beginnings and endings, births and deaths, slide across one another and form an infinite number of layers as past, present and future continuously overlap and collide—finds expression throughout the opera in Bates’s music. Though his roots lie in the Episcopal choral tradition, Bates has become known for his use of electronic sounds. (R)evolutionhis first produced opera, continues these compositional innovations. Throughout the piece, Bates has placed the buzzing and whirring of early Apple products alongside traditional classical instrumentation, collapsing the distinction between modern and classical sound worlds and even the notion of what is and is not music. Additionally, Steve Jobs is characterized by a smooth-picking acoustic guitar that Bates noticed has fallen out of use in new opera, and which connects his work as much to Vivaldi as to Verdi. Ko¯bun introduces yet another, even older, soundscape through Thai gongs, wind chimes and prayer bowls.

The planned production scheme by director Kevin Newbury and his design team reinforces the theme of blurred boundaries effected by this fusion of heterogenous musical styles and Campbell’s pixelated, hopscotch-like text. Spatially, the walls of the set explode and contract in order to accommodate, in one act, numerous locations, from Jobs’s Palo Alto home to Yosemite National Park. The design concept also makes heavy use of advanced technology, such as digital projection and video mapping, which Newbury hopes will create a sense of wonder and magic by making it difficult for audiences to differentiate between lighting, scenery and video. One constant will be a small bench at stage left that seats four. Inspired by the jiutai-za in Noh Theater—the space where the chorus sits, in full view of the audience, throughout the performance—this bench is rotationally occupied by Jobs’s business partner Steve Wozniack, Laurene, Ko¯bun and other important figures in his life, when they are not playing an active role in his travels through time. Their lingering presence onstage symbolizes the way in which an individual’s influence remains constant in one’s life regardless of his or her physical whereabouts; this is further exemplified in the final bars, when Jobs revisits that early formative experience with his father in their garage.

“We start at nothing, / Return to nothing. / The circle ends where it was begun,” Ko¯bun tells his student, illustrating the continuous revolutions through which life, on a grand scale, proceeds. The opera concludes in the same way, with Jobs having now internalized this message, as well as Laurene’s assertion that “Humans are messy, / Awkward and cluttered. / Look at us closely. / Open our cases, / You’ll only find chaos.” Through this understanding, Jobs finally found a way to connect with his once-estranged daughter, Lisa, his wife and others—in a manner he no doubt hoped his invention of the iPhone would achieve globally. By accepting himself as human, and thus acknowledging his own imminent death, he finally allowed himself to experience the world again, to indulge in its pleasures and to exist with and for others. In this way, Jobs’s death in the opera is not tragic. This “rebirth” in his latter days makes it clear that, paradoxically, cancer was not the destructive disease from which he needed curing. Rather, the illusions he maintained about himself—his too-close attachment to and identification with his “perfect” machines—had to be eradicated, so that he could not only die but live. spacer 

Charles Shafaieh is an arts critic and curator living in New York City. 

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