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A Conversation with David A. Jaffe


Composer, musician, technical wizard, experimentalist in the tradition of Brant and Ives – David A. Jaffe is a unique figure in the American musical world. He went from professional bluegrass to undergraduate study with Karel Husa and Henry Brant, and then on to Stanford University, where he arrived in the midst of a remarkably creative period for what was just becoming known as Silicon Valley.

We spoke on April 30, 2010 via Skype.

Davi Jaffe

TM: What sort of musical background was there in your family?
My father was an amateur mandolin player, and his father was also a mandolin player. My grandfather played in a Jewish mandolin orchestra in New York City – there were a couple of them. Depending on how far left your politics were, that would dictate which one you would play in. He was in the one that was associated with the newspaper called the Morning Freiheit <>, which was a Yiddish newspaper. My father took mandolin lessons – he was quite a good player, had excellent technique, and enjoyed it a lot. My mother played piano, but not so much.

I started playing violin at school when I was in fourth grade. I later studied with Samuel Applebaum, father of Michael Tree. and a well-known pedagogue who wrote a lot of books on violin technique and literature. I started playing oboe a couple of years later, then started playing guitar, and moved through a lot of different instruments, picked up the five-string banjo, and played fiddle music on the violin, then started playing mandolin, and at some point dropped classical violin, played a lot of bluegrass music, and different kinds of music – rock, jazz… I played bass in a jazz band with a couple of saxophones and piano; I played in rock bands – lots of different kinds of things. Around eleventh grade I started composing, and also picked up the cello. I was taking a music appreciation class, and they were playing recordings of Mozart. I thought that the cello parts sounded pretty easy, so I asked if I could borrow a cello. They lent me one, and I went home and learned the cello parts. Then I started studying cello more seriously and was composing string quartets in high school. I was thinking of going to college as a cellist, applied and was accepted at various places, but instead decided to join a bluegrass band called “Bottle Hill” fulltime, and toured with them for a couple of years.

TM: I was interested to hear about the mandolin orchestras. I wouldn’t have thought that there would have been one Yiddish mandolin orchestra, let alone several. How did those get started?
The mandolin was a very popular instrument in the early twentieth century, and a lot of immigrants played it. There were also several male choruses in New York City. There were plenty of Yiddish newspapers, with lots of people to read them. It was a vibrant secular culture, and the Communists and Socialists each had their own summer camps and their own mandolin orchestras. Now, of course, so many of the members of these groups have died that a few years ago there was a reconciliation, because the two mandolin orchestras decided that they didn’t have enough players individually, so they combined into one: the New York Mandolin Orchestra..

TM: So it’s still going.
Yes – My friend Barry Mitterhoff, who played in Bottle Hill, was the concertmaster  for a while.

TM: You grew up in New Jersey? Where?
West Orange, which is a suburb of Newark.

TM: Please say a little about your string quartets. Who did you play them with?
There was a teacher there who was very supportive of string players. He organized a quartet in which I played the cello, and he would give me passes to get out of my classes in order to come and play. We played things like the Dvorak “American” quartet, Mozart quartets, and other things. I tried to write music in styles that sounded like the music that we were playing, and I wrote music that for me, at that time, was experimental. I wasn’t yet familiar with the radical music of the 20th century,  but I was doing my own exploring. I wrote for other groups – there was a school concert band, and I wrote a piece for that.

TM: Do you still have those pieces in your files?
I don’t know – I might. I have a lot of early pieces, but I don’t know if I still have ones that early – probably somewhere.

TM: Please talk about how you got started with bluegrass.
My parents were very interested in folk music, and a lot of that came out of the left-wing perspective. I grew up going to Pete Seeger concerts, and rallies, and so forth. That was part of my upbringing. When I started playing guitar, I was playing rock-and-roll and electric guitar, but I also got interested in playing various kinds of folk guitar, blues, finger-picking, bluegrass. There was a folk club in northern New Jersey, and all kinds of folk music was presented there. I got started jamming, and the more I learned, the more I liked the bluegrass music. I took banjo lessons from a guy named Eric Darling, who was part of the fifties and sixties folk scene in New York City and replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers.

I started sitting in with Bottle Hill during my last year in high school. They asked me to join, and then we all lived together in a farmhouse in upstate New York, and toured around most of the east coast.

TM: A different experience for your college years than most people would have, so that by the time you went to college you were a little older.
I also got to compose a lot for this group. Even though it was ostensibly bluegrass, there was a lot of interest in different kinds of music. There was a jazz bass player, and most of the people were good sight-readers. I got more and more interested in composing.

When I finally went to college, I went to the Ithaca College School of Music and studied with Karel Husa. At that time I was very much trying to follow a European model of what I thought composition was supposed to be, listening to a ton of music and studying scores. I wrote pretty much all the time there. In 1975, I transferred to Bennington College, where I found a somewhat more congenial situation, as they were more committed to playing student pieces, and had a collaborative workshop environment, as opposed to there being a big division between the faculty and the students. I had a lot of opportunities to perform and to hear my music played. I first studied with Marta Ptaszynska, a wonderful percussionist/composer. I learned a lot from her – she was very much out of that Polish/aleatoric style of notation. I also studied orchestration, conducting and sixteenth-century counterpoint with Henry Brant, who was to prove to be my most important musical influence. He enormously changed my point of view. For one thing, he suggested to me that all this folk music and all the different styles of music might be something that I could incorporate into my composing somehow. That was a revelation. He also helped me to compose in a faster, more structured way. Most of what I feel is essential about composing came from him. I continued to be friends with him until his death at the age of 94 a couple of years ago. He moved out to California, and I would see him every year or so, and play him what I had been working on. The other person there who was a big influence was Joel Chadabe. I had been introduced to electronic music at Ithaca College, but went a lot deeper into it when I was at Bennington. He had a very different aesthetic, which was intriguing, but somewhat confusing, as it contrasted sharply with Brant’s approach. Still, he was inspiring, and he was the one who encouraged me to go to Stanford to work with the computer music group there.

TM: A question regarding Ithaca and Bennington – my memory of the seventies was that people who were doing classical music had very little interest in music outside the Western European notated tradition, and that popular music was entirely on the other side of the fence. Was that true at Ithaca? It certainly sounds like it was not true at Bennington. Was Bennington an exceptional place at the time?
The way I remember it was that that was the time of the “uptown/downtown” division in New York City. I went to a lot of those concerts, of both kinds, and found them to be intriguing in different ways, and limited in different ways. It was an extreme division. I wouldn’t say that other musical influences were not a part of the musical consciousness – there were plenty of twentieth-century composers, including Stravinsky, Charles Ives, and Bartok, who drew on many musical influences – but there was this kind of ascetic, supposedly purist point of view that arose on both sides of the Atlantic in the 50s and 60s. There was a big list of things that you were not supposed to have in your music. Charles Ives seemed to me to be the opposite extreme, where everything was allowed as raw material. What was important was what you did with it, how things combined, how they interacted, how they collided, creating a synthesis and hybridization of musical elements. I am not just talking about popular music vs. European classical, or whatever you want to call it. From my point of view it’s all musical influences, whether historical European classical styles, folk styles, or so-called ethnic styles from different places. It’s all music, and each has distinctive characteristics, and you can put these together using formal and inventive techniques, in order to make emphatic what you are trying to express. This is also a point of view that I got from Henry Brant. He was heavily influenced by Ives, and I found that Ives offered almost an encyclopedia of permission to go in this direction.

Davi Jaffe

David A. Jaffe

TM: 1974 was the peak for Ives awareness in the United States, with his centennial being celebrated, and performances of the piano sonatas and the symphonies. There has been a decrescendo since then.
Unluckily for Ives, his centennial coincided with Watergate, gasoline shortages, and a perceived crashing and burning of the American dream. The promotion of Ives’ music as “Americana”—a gross over-simplification of what his music is about – was not helped by that climate. In addition, many of the pieces dredged up at that time were mere sketches, filled in by others not necessarily up to the task. In contrast, I highly recommend Brant’s orchestration of the Concord Sonata, which is not just one of the most important works of American music, but one of the most important works of music, period.

TM: Please talk about Stanford and what was going on there.
First, a couple more things about Bennington. First and foremost, they believed in doing music, as opposed to studying it. That is, you studied it by doing it. There weren’t music history courses and music theory courses per se. If you wanted to learn to write like Palestrina, then you studied what he did, and wrote pieces in his style. If the music department got some money, rather than bring in a big name to give some lectures, they would hire a bunch of New York freelancers, get an orchestra, and everybody would write for orchestra, even people who were taking their first music course ever. I had the opportunity to have a couple of orchestral pieces played that way, by top-notch New York professionals. They didn’t get a lot of rehearsal but that’s always the way it is. That’s another thing I learned from Brant and my time at Bennington: how to write music that can be effectively put together with a minimum of rehearsal time.

By the time I left I Bennington, I didn’t think I knew what kind of music I wanted to write, but I was already doing things that were distinctively my own style. My style has evolved since then, but some of the pieces from the last year or two there I am certainly still proud of–pieces such as “Dybbuk,” based on Klezmer music. There were other pieces that were in very different styles from what I’ve done subsequently and were more like the abstract “uptown” style or the meditative “downtown” music; I was baffled by the huge divergences in philosophy at the time, with every composer claiming to have the uniquely valid point of view. I remember thinking that I should hire a philosopher to figure out what kind of music I should write.

At that point I had student loans that I didn’t want to have to start paying, so thought I’d better go to graduate school. I asked Joel Chadabe, and he said definitively “You should go to Stanford”. I hadn’t even heard of Stanford. I applied to a few graduate schools – SUNY Stony Brook, UC San Diego, Stanford. It seemed to me that there were three possible reasons to go to graduate school in composition: to get your music played,  which argued for going to a big place, like University of Michigan, or Indiana, or to study with some luminary, and there was nobody like that that I wanted to study with at the time, because I had already found a mentor in Henry Brant, or to work at a unique technical facility, and at that time you could only do computer music at a big center. When I visited Stanford and San Diego, San Diego struck me as a music department that focused on new music, whereas Stanford was more like a laboratory where everyone was working together to discover new territory; and like Bennington, there was no big division between the faculty and the students – everyone was working together because no one person could possibly know everything in that young field. We realized that there was so much to do, and that we had to do it together and cooperate. It just seemed like everyone was mature – they didn’t act like students; they were professionals who were publishing papers and advancing the state of the art. I was also attracted to the fact that there was no dominant musical style at Stanford. Everyone was writing in his own musical style. What they had in common was that they were using and developing technology in innovative and new ways. It seemed like the right place for me.

I went there, and at the time there was very little curriculum. There was one class that you were supposed to take, but other than that you just spent twenty-four hours a day in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) Lab, which is where the music group was at that time. It  was fascinating, because the whole AI Lab was filled with a can-do attitude of people creating solutions to all kinds of difficult problems. I recently went to a reunion of the AI Lab, and they were listing all the firsts that came out of the Stanford AI Lab – it was unbelievable. By far more awards for innovation and achievement in computer science went to these people than went to researchers anywhere else. Pretty much everything you can think of involving computers today came out of the Stanford AI Lab in some form – there was robotics, there was visual processing, there was graphics – I could go on and on. And computer music was one of those things. It was an incredible atmosphere, and I was completely blown away and fascinated and immersed myself in it. That was the first year.

The AI lab at that time was housed in a bizarre building built by GTE in the sixties. The company was trying to entice people from the east coast to come out and work there, and they couldn’t get anyone to come to California, because it seemed like the boondocks. In the end GTE gave up and they donated it to Stanford – it was a strange semi-circular building built in the middle of the hills. You would walk around the top floor, and in some places the ground came up to the top floor, and in others it was two or three floors beneath you. There was a circular driveway around the outside of it. It was huge, and there was tons of dead equipment all over the place – giant electromagnets (used for an early experiment with mass storage), and different projects from the Stanford AI Lab, including several secret projects, such as a very low frequency troposphere/ionosphere propogation study, investigating submarine communication.

In 1980, they made a new computer science building at Stanford, and the AI Lab moved down to campus. The Music Group stayed up at the lab, and they needed people to live there to act as caretakers, because it was too expensive to hire security guards. I was one of the people who lived there, and I lived there for about six years. At this point, the Music Group, which was now called CCRMA, the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, had the whole building. Those were really great years – that was when we had the Samson box, which arrived right around that time also. The Samson box was a big refrigerator-sized computer specialized in sound synthesis. Everybody used it together. Everybody shared it, so it was very communal – everyone wrote software for it. Some years later, CCRMA moved down to the Knoll, after the Music Department got a new building. The original AI Lab building was eventually torn down, and is now a horse farm. Strangely, it wasn’t just torn down, it was entirely demolished and re-landscaped, so there is there is no trace of it at all anymore.

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