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Stephen Jaffe
22 Apr 2010

Stephen Jaffe: an Interview by Tom Moore

Composer Stephen Jaffe is the Mary and James H. Semans Professor of Music Composition at Duke University. We spoke in his office there in Durham NC on June 25, 2007.

Stephen Jaffe: an Interview by Tom Moore

Above: Stephen Jaffe


TM: Your father was on the faculty at UMass, where you studied music. It doesn’t seem like the immediately obvious choice for studying music in Massachusetts.

SJ: I studied at UMass when I was in high school. My parents were both geologists, and moved around a lot. I was born in Washington DC, where they had met. They both worked for the Bureau of Mines, Department of the Interior. When President Eisenhower vetoed a pay cut for federal employees, my father took a job at Union Carbide, working for industry in New York, and then they moved to Massachusetts when Union Carbide planned to move the plant to Buffalo – where neither of my parents wanted to go to.

My father’s career ended in teaching, which is how I ended up in Massachusetts. I studied at the University of Massachusetts while I was in high school, with Frederic Tillis, a very interesting composer and poet. Nduma Eaglefeather is his poetic name – I just came across his poems at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida.

When I would have been entering tenth grade I went to Geneva, where my mother had lived until age thirteen. I went to the conservatory there, and studied with a composer named André Francois Marescotti, who remembered the earlier 20th century, when “les jeunes, on voulait Debussy: (“the young people wanted to hear Debussy”-with the implication that the established order didn’t want to program his music. Imagine!). When I came back to the US I studied a little more with Frederick Tillis before I went down to study at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, with teachers that I especially wanted to work with, notably George Crumb and George Rochberg. It turned out that Richard Wernick was also a wonderful teacher.

Throughout my teens, I studied a lot of piano, studied voice, sang in lots of choirs….

TM: How was the musical atmosphere different from that in the US in the seventies?

SJ: I can’t really say what the atmosphere was like in the seventies. I remember being excited by a bunch of things. I had a friend who went to study with Harry Partch, worked with him, and learned to play his instruments. I remember driving -- in a ‘63 Valiant with pushbutton gearshift--to hear Pierre Boulez conduct the New York Philharmonic and the Rug Concerts – George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children was on the program.Geneva was perfect for me at sixteen years old. First of all, it was a conservatory. Secondly, it had very active international concert life. Alberto Ginastera was there, because he had been exiled, I gather, from Argentina, and came with his wife, Aurora Narola, who was a cellist. Boulez came through with various orchestras. I heard lots of Stravinsky, all the Swiss composers. Honegger, lots of Berio – very interesting music all the time.

I had been composing quite seriously before I went there, with a whole concert of my music in Massachusetts, but when I got to Geneva, I didn’t have to go high school, except for University of Wisconsin extension courses, so I would either practice, or do solfege, or sing in a choir, or work on harmony. I would sit for full days in composition lessons with Monsieur Marescotti. If you can imagine one sixteen year-old kid, and the other students at the level of graduate students or post-graduate students from all over Europe, with pieces for guitar and string quartet, or orchestra pieces – they were very much in touch with what was going on. It was quite a wonderful atmosphere to be around. I could see quite deeply into what was going on. Even if my lesson was from 1 to 2 PM, I would stay for the whole afternoon and listen to a conductor talk about his orchestration for cello and orchestra of a Bartok Rhapsody, or see the latest piece by Andre Richard, who is now a professor at the Hochschule in Freiburg. It was great.

TM: So many composers born in the fifties come to classical music, to writing in the Western classical tradition, from a background in popular music, whether rock and roll, or jazz, or pop, which has an effect on their approach. But you seem to have come from a French conservatory tradition.

SJ: I played in a lot of rock bands, sure. The reason I went on to other music was because it was more interesting! I would say by the age of 13, 14, I was already doing both simultaneously, or had moved on to other things.

Abbey Road is from 1969? The Late Stravinsky albums with the Requiem Canticles and the drawing by Giacometti on the cover – those are from the same time, and that was really amazing.

Something which I think about often, which distinguishes American composers from composers who follow the traditional conservatory route, is that we really do live in a plurality of traditions. Certainly you have found that in Brazil – you travel in and out of popular music, and in and out of concert music.

That’s very much to be found in my family. My parents had said “you guys can enjoy music as children, but don’t try to make a living at it.” And so we have three musicians. My brother is a wonderful jazz pianist and composer, runs the Mass MoCA Jazz Festival, and teaches at Williams College. He can sit down and play anything, in any key. It’s quite something. My sister Marina is an oboist. We all did it, and so I have tried as a parent to avoid saying “You can’t do that” because it might turn out that they try to do it…..

TM: The Songs of Turning, which is on poems by Jewish writers, was written in response to a commission reflecting the heritage of J.S. Bach, which seems like a different perspective.

SJ: It’s not quite correct to say that it is a Jewish-themed work – it’s actually more ecumenical than that. Songs of Turning is a piece that was written for the Oregon Bach Festival in 1996. It’s for chorus and chamber orchestra, responding to a festival around “Bach and the Americas”, which was the brain-child of OBF director Helmut Rilling. Four composers and performers from across the Americas were invited to create new works. Osvaldo Golijov wrote a piece based on Neruda, called “Oceana”, for the Schola Cantorum of Caracas and the Bach Festival Orchestra. Linda Bouchard, representing Quebec, composed her “Pilgrim’s Cantata” for soloists and chamber orchestra. Robert Kyr composed a cantata called “The Inner Dawning”, and I wrote Songs of Turning.

Although I have done a lot of vocal music, Songs of Turning is quite exceptional in my catalog. What I wanted to do in writing this piece, in terms of reflecting Bach’s tradition, was to have the audience, and the chorus, and the soloists to be involved in a story with resonance in real life--as Bach sometimes explored in his cantatas (especially those associated with pietism). In preparation, I looked at all kinds of texts relevant to the Americas–-from the Civil Rights movement and from pioneer women’s narratives in particular, and I designed several of those as librettos. I finally settled on a three-part text stemming from contemporary life, and based on different ways, and manners of turning or spiritual reorientation. Thus, each of the three main parts of Songs of Turning (“The Letter,” “Last Instruction” and “Transformations”) deals with some aspect of turning. These are preceded by a Prologue uses a refrain which paraphrases the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer from the High Holy Days in Jewish tradition, which I translated as “Faith, prayer and action alter a harsh decree.” The Prologue’s music is very close to a mock-Bach cantata, with a long chorale tune present throughout. After a dramatic cadence, the music launches immediately into Part One, “The Letter”, for which the text for a soprano aria begins with what was actually a real letter to Ann Landers from a woman who has caused a terrible accident. It’s visceral, and quite real; she is a contemporary American. The writer is looking back at the scene from six years after the accident. I had discovered the letter in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “Who Needs God?”-- and following the soprano aria, there is in fact sung text taken from Harold Kushner’s commentary by the baritone soloist, which ultimately leads to biblical texts in the chorus (from the Psalms and Jeremiah) when, like in Bach’s music, a chorale is heard. The text for Part Two of Songs of Turning uses Mary Oliver’s poem, called “The Buddha’s Last Instruction”, and is cast for baritone and a smaller ensemble of strings. As related in Oliver’s poem, the Buddha’s last instruction was “make of yourself a light.” Her poem also mentions turning, the moment of spiritual turning, which is a theme that has come up a lot in pieces of mine. (“Offering” for flute, harp and viola is another piece in which at least poetically evokes the moment of impulse when a human being is turning). In this case, the concern is spiritual turning. “Transformations” is Part Three of Songs of Turning. In it, I employ two poems: David Rosenberg’s modern paraphrase of Isaiah in a book called The Poet’s Bible, and a poem by Denise Levertov called Making Peace; following Levertov, the text for this movement asks: what it would take to make peace? Characters return from Part One; it’s as if the soprano who has intoned “The Letter” is looking back and asking “how do you live life, knowing that you have caused some terrible damage, or even knowing that your very existence could damage other people?”

I wanted a story where the chorus and soloists had an opportunity to participate in the story-telling, and every time it is done it has proven to be a very meaningful experience for people, not only the listening audience, but the chorus soloists, and chamber orchestra as well.

TM: I suppose it reflects the invitation by Bach to his listeners to put themselves in the place of Peter in the Passion, for example.

SJ: I was thinking more of the Pietistic cantatas – “I will carry the Cross”, “I was shipwrecked”, “My life was in tatters” ….until I found Jesus.” In contemporary practice what that is very similar to is gospel music, where you have religious testimony, with musical vamps, people coming up to the stage, body movements, clapping, bodies being taken over – it’s very powerful.

TM: To pursue a little further the contrast between the Christianity of Bach and the choice of Jewish texts, this was written in 1996, when scholars were starting to problematize the anti-Semitism of the text of the St. John Passion. It seems like an interesting choice.

SJ: What I was looking for, in Songs of Turning, was to create a piece that “purposefully and provocatively attempts to cross boundaries of sacred and secular.” It might be unusual to have aspects of the Yom Kippur liturgy standing side by side with the last words of the Buddha, but I was hoping in that regard to be provocative, both for those who consider themselves religious and those who don’t. That was what I was after in the piece.

TM: In a more general sense, it would be interesting to hear what meaning Bach has for you. Bach and Beethoven are the two fundamental figures of Western music, and perhaps Beethoven more so than Bach. We think of Bach as the consummate contrapuntalist, but that is certainly not all there is, and that is not what is most prominent in the cantatas. What special meaning does Bach have for you as a composer?

SJ: Bach is a touchstone for me. I heard the WTC and the instrumental music of Bach all the time as a child, and I continue to play the keyboard music a lot. Robert Schumann advised young musicians to play Bach every day. When I was waiting outside for my lessons at the University of Pennsylvania, very often George Crumb would be playing incredibly beautiful Bach, or Chopin, also one of the things he played, and I learned a lot from that. By osmosis!

Earlier, I had sung a few of the cantatas, but did not come to the cantatas as a body of sacred work until much later. That would not be the side of Bach, though I realize that it is fundamental to who he was, that I have spent the most time with.

I read an interview recently with John Cage, in which he was asked about what composers he would spend time with, and mentions various composers whom he would like to have a conversation with, but he said “If Bach were on the other side of the street, I would let him pass!” [Laughs.]

TM: An interesting take on Bach is the essay by Taruskin, which discusses the perversity of Bach, the quasi-Sadism, the intentional ugliness of Bach, the way he writes things in the cantatas which are impossible for the instrumentalists to play, precisely because it is in line with his theology that man is hopelessly sinful, and only redeemable through the sacrifice of Christ. This is something that you don’t get from the WTC, but rather through the cantatas. This must be part of what Cage is talking about.

SJ: ….but you would want to hear him practice!

TM: Linda Bouchard, your fellow composer at this festival said that “Bach is the music of these last centuries, the soundtrack for the modern age.” Do you agree? Disagree?

SJ: I assume she meant the contrapuntal tradition, the fact that his music has been so important for so many composers.

TM: So that what composers take from Bach is not expression, but pure technique.

SJ: No, not just pure technique. The technique is amazing, but what attracts us to the music is expressive geometry, the incredible architecture, the way that you build a fugue, or a cantata movement--and such amazing fingerprints, locally beautiful music that makes it seem that he was in touch with a deity, that he had a direct line. Any great composer that I have known, and I have met maybe four or five, has had stunning technique, but also has had ideas driving that; you could call a spiritual core, or a fire within. They all were in touch with things that were much bigger than just the notes – that is the job of the composer.

TM: You have said “I don’t work with any particular religion”. A huge part of Bach’s output was religious music. In the 21st century we have a disjunction between music with the highest aspirations in terms of expression and technique, and music that is written for service in church or synagogue, music for use. Is writing music for the religious service something that appeals to you? Is it possible to write meaningful and challenging music for the religious service in the 21st century?

SJ: There are composers, some who have studied with me, writing music that is usable in a liturgical setting, week in, week out. That’s not my aspiration.

All these things are very localized. There’s a wide variety of religious practice, to borrow from William James, and there is a wide variety of musical practice. Gospel music, which I have mentioned before, is an interesting practice in our area. There are churches and synagogues in New York, Boston, and other cities, with interesting music being written and performed.

In Songs of Turning, I was trying to deal with these religious questions as they apply to everyday life. That seems very important to me. One of the things that I value about art is that it will provoke and move you in certain ways, perhaps through its beauty, its passion, through an image, to think differently than you did went you went in.

You can aspire to a spiritual statement, to a life of passion and transformation, if you are an atheist, if you are religious, if you don’t know. What I have done in Songs of Turning is free of doctrine – that distinguishes it from Bach. This could also be said of pieces like Ligeti’s Requiem or Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony, pieces that call forth a religious attitude.

TM: Transcendence.

SJ: Yes.

TM: You have said that a “‘humane way’ of living may be enacted by or modeled in music”. Is this the mission of music? Lawrence Kramer writes in a new book about Why Classical Music Still Matters, and you might say that he argues that classical music teaches us important things that cannot be said any other way about what it is to be human. Should music be politically correct? Transgressive? How do we view composers who are not politically correct but have greatness, like Wagner?

Or to boil it down, what is the fundamental mission of music for you?

SJ: Something like “to sing the soul”. Almost nobody has succeeded in writing a singable manifesto. It’s been tried, and I have some students looking into that now.

I think the purpose of art is to make us feel more alive, more attuned to the moment, more attuned to intention, what it is that we want to do. Another of my pieces is called “Homage to the Breath”, and has a text by Thich Nhat Hanh. “Knowing I will get old, I breathe in. Knowing I can’t escape old age, I breathe out// Knowing I will die I breathe in. Knowing that I can’t escape sickness I breathe out”. ) There are some doctrinal ideas behind that which Thich Nhat Hanh has written about in a book called The Blooming of a Lotus.

I think that the purpose of art is make us feel more alive and aware of how the fires within, if you like, can lead to larger leaps of intention, decisions about what you do not want to leave out, and what you do want to leave in, what is really a touchstone, what is crucial. That doesn’t mean that art has to be serious, searingly serious all the time – lightness is also important in my music. But I don’t want to go to a concert or listen to a CD by someone who is giving me a lecture. The listener and performer are participants, the composer is a participant. That is vital, fundamental. If you are alive, there is no way that you can’t notice some terrible things going on, things which need to be changed. Some of those things may be out of your control – some you can address in the sphere of art, and some you can’t. Your politics, your religious beliefs, your every act, if you are a creative artist, whether a photographer, or writer, or painter, these are bound to come out in your work, and be very much at the fiber. It will be boring if it is only about ideas, absolutely boring.

NB: Stephen Jaffe has written about his musical background in the notes which accompany his recent CD The Music of Stephen Jaffe, Volume 3. (Bridge 9255), which contains Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Poetry of the Piedmont, Cut Time, and Homage to the Breath: Instrumental and Vocal Meditations for mezzo soprano and ten players. Performers include: David Hardy, cello; Odense Symphony Orchestra of Denmark (Paul Mann, conducting); North Carolina Symphony (Grant Llewellyn, conducting); and the 21st Century Consort (Milagro Vargas, mezzo-soprano, Christopher Kendall, conducting).

Click here for program notes for Songs of Turning.

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