Stephen Jaffe: an Interview by Tom Moore

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

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 AndrÈ 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

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

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
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
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
; 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

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

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

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

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).

here for program notes for Songs of Turning

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