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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.