Stephen Jaffe is the Mary and James H. Semans Professor of Music Composition at Duke University. His status as an acclaimed American composer was affirmed last year when he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters. His music has been featured at the Nottingham, Tanglewood, and Oregon Bach Festivals, and it has been performed by major ensembles both in America and abroad. Three discs from Bridge Records are dedicated to his work, including a 2004 recording of his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra that won the Koussevitsky International Recording Award. And that just scratches the surface of a very rich career, as his web page and his publisher's attest.
Though his works are performed by prestigious ensembles from around the world, Jaffe finds great pleasure in writing for children and for the local community, and recently composed a piece for the Durham Symphony and KidZNotes, a local organization that brings music education to underserved children in the community. More on that below.
The beginning of Stephen Jaffe's Still Life with Blue, played by the Durham Symphony. To hear more of Jaffe's work, see Volumes One, Two, or Three of the recordings issued by Bridge Records.
Jaffe is also a dedicated teacher and a generous mentor. Now beginning his 33rd year as a professor at Duke, he sees himself as "a link in the chain" of musical tradition. He is a link, most directly, to his own teachers, including George Rochberg, Richard Wernick, and one of the most original and indelible compositional voices in American music, George Crumb. But the chain stretches back many generations — much further, in fact, than any idea of "American Music."
The deep and essential attachment to centuries of history makes classical music a slow-moving thing, but the world is moving quickly around it, with profound effects on its place in the broader musical and cultural landscape. When I sat down recently to talk with Jaffe in his office, change was on my mind — in particular, how much of it there has been since I started music school in the 1980s, when a great deal of musical and professional energy was still spent negotiating fault lines from the early 20th century.
When I brought this up, Jaffe agreed there has been a sea change. But it is still, he said, "our privilege" to introduce students to the musical scores at the heart of the classical tradition, and those scores are as persuasive as ever. You can begin to understand his effectiveness and appeal as a teacher from his answer, from the way he presents himself as a guide and as a model and from his faith in the innate curiosity and musicality of those who come to him as students.
From that beginning, our conversation turned to more practical matters — the graduate composition program's evolving approach to performances of its students' music — and then to his recent project with the Durham Symphony. What follows is an edited transcript.
Everything has changed but students are still the same
Is it fair to say that today's composition students live in a much different musical and professional world than we did when we were in school?
As Virginia Woolf reported amusingly about the early 20th century, somewhere around 2008, it became the 21st century. I'll bet if you asked 10 contemporary composers and artists, they’d reply that something big did change. I don't think we quite know what it was. Obviously it has to do with technology, with the artist and her audience, and with the really global world.
My students now bring in their pieces on their phones, some of them, and they're pretty amazing.
You mean just the audio, or do they have the score on there, too?
Well, it might be that, too. "Oh, you want the score? Well, sure, we'll get the score."
We get to work with sensational students at Duke. It's really gratifying to see them develop and then go out and do music. But even the ones that finished around 2000, 2002 have witnessed immense sea changes. The sea changes come from the more tenuous links to the classical musical tradition (or for that matter to jazz traditions or other traditions that require depth of exposure.) Classical music, growing up in America today, is a genre, among hip-hop, Motown, and Indie rock.
Luou Zhang has covered a lot of ground since he graduated from Duke in 2011 with a degree in Economics. He was born in China but moved to the U.S. at the age of 6 and grew up as an American. His first trip back to China was in 2010, when he went to Zhuhai with DukeEngage. In a recent telephone conversation, he said that he thought of it as his last chance to visit China before graduating and taking a desk job in Boston or New York.
Zhuhai changed everything. In is senior year he assembled a group of students to perform at the 2011 Summer Universiade in Shenzhen, and it was another intense and successful trip. He was hooked by the incredible dynamism of China. So many things that are settled and institutionalized in the West are open questions there.
He accepted a job with Bain Consulting in Hong Kong, which felt like a place where he could get a feel for life in China and improve his grasp of the language and his business and organizational skills. While at Bain he did some pro bono work for Teach for China, and it got him wondering if he could design an educational experience of his own. Within a year, he met the director of a educational non-profit based in Beijing called IDEAS (Initiate Development for Education And Service). An anticipated one-hour conversation turned into a seven-hour marathon, and he was invited to join her organization as CEO of the "Gehua Camp."
His core mission is to promote and provide experiential education — a new concept in China. He arrived at his new base on the mainland with a title but no staff and no facility. It was exactly what brought him to China, the open space--conceptual, institutional, and physical--to build something. He convinced people to join him, and a beautiful "phase 2" structure for IDEAS "Gehua Camp" was built in a matter of months.
When he was at Zhuhai Middle School, Luou passed out paper and crayons and asked the students to draw their future. It was, among other things, a nice way to get around the language barrier. He remembers them asking for more time, because they needed to draw the sun, and another tree. They needed to get it right. And that spirit, that need to get the picture right, represents for him the missing piece in an educational culture where, as he sees it, 90% of children will say they want to be a banker or a doctor or an engineer.
The arts are a key part of the experience he is striving to create. They promote exactly the things that are lacking in Chinese education — creativity, passion, and self-awareness.
In the summer of 2013, he was able to invite a group of five dancers from Duke to Gehua Camp to lead dance classes. Luou was also kind enough to send these recollections of a recent trip back to Zhuhai.
Luou and Joanna during DukeEngage 2010
Luou and Joanna during Joanna's 2013 graduation ceremony
A bright red Chinese banner with the characters - 珠海二中 2013 届高三毕业典礼 - hangs triumphantly on the stage as I walk into the school auditorium for the graduation ceremony at Zhuhai No. 2 High School. I'm here to send off my students to college. As I hang out with the graduating seniors, a girl called Joanna pulls me aside to take a photo. When she stands next to me for the photo, I can’t help but be amazed at how tall she has grown in the past three years.
The 2013 Duke Arts Festival invites student artists to imagine how their paintings, prints, sculptures, videos, photos, media, music, dance, poetry, and theater might address sustainability during Duke Arts Festival. To kick things off, on Friday, September 20, students, staff and faculty are invited to join in a day-long project and help build Fort Duke, a structure made of cardboard boxes collected during move-in.
Volunteer participants will come together to construct a cardboard labyrinth on the West Campus, Chapel Quad. Duke is competing to break the world record for the largest cardboard fort, currently held by Naperville, IL. Our goal: to use 3,500 boxes! Fort Duke is a creative way to shed light on the impact of student move-in and opportunities to reduce waste during this busy time of year.
Sign up, join in, and share with your friends the Fort Duke facebook event and build Fort Duke!
In 1969, black students at Duke who were fed up with the status quo on campus took over the Allen Building. In the hallways those students occupied four decades ago, an exhibition has been mounted to document the event. “The Long Road to Integration: The 1969 Allen Building Takeover” is part of the campus-wide retrospective “Celebrating the Past Charting the Future: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke.”
The exhibition includes historical photographs from the Duke University Archives, The Durham Morning Herald and The Durham Sun, prints from The Duke Chronicle’s front-page headlines, participant interviews, and a multimedia presentation. There are interviews with students from the time who relate their experience of campus life during those momentous days. A comment book allows viewers to respond to questions or ask their own.
Caitlin M. Johnson, a 2012 Duke graduate with a degree in Public Policy, researched and curated the exhibition, which is an outgrowth of her senior capstone project in Documentary Studies. She is now a legal reporter at the Daily Journals in Los Angeles, CA.
A reception to officially open the exhibition was held in the first floor lobby of the Allen Building on Thursday, September 12. The exhibition will be up through October 22, 2013.
Hsiao-mei Ku is Professor of the Practice in Duke University's music department and a violinist in the Ciompi Quartet, Duke's resident string quartet. She is faculty-in-residence in Pegram residence hall, as well. And for the past four years, she has led groups of students to China as part of the DukeEngage program. She recently wrote to describe the experience.
Life's Symphony Never Ends
By Hsiao-mei Ku
From high to low, east to west, my musical journey has been a remarkable roller-coaster ride. Concert performances have taken me to many countries across the world: from Beijing Concert Hall to Carnegie Hall in the U.S, from the Turpan Basin in China, 154 meters below sea level, to the highest capital in the world, La Paz, Bolivia, at 3,567 meters above sea level. As a young artist, I performed many times for China’s leaders and at age eleven, I first appeared on television. In addition to serving as concertmaster in symphony, operatic, and chamber orchestras, and being a member of quartets, I have released two albums of Chinese composer Ma Sicong’s violin solo music as a Naxos artist. However, for the last four summers, my artistic creation has expanded to include Duke University students who join me to score another movement of life’s symphony.
During the summer months, I lead 12 Duke students to carry out Duke University’s DukeEngage “Empowerment Through Arts” program in Zhuhai, China. There Duke students have created beautiful melodies for the symphony. By teaching 16 integrative arts classes at Zhuhai No.9 Middle School, Duke participants encourage young Chinese students to pursue their dreams, try out novel art forms and motivate them to create endless possibilities. To support the upper voices with vigorous rhythmic energy, Duke students fill rich harmonies underneath every possible moment. They immerse themselves into the surrounding community and listen to the street noise or smell the odor of the neighborhood; they catch the different intonation of Putonghua and Cantonese languages; they awe at the rich history of Chinese civilization in Xian and Beijing during the excursion trip, and have a chance to catch a glimpse of the mixture of east and west influence on Hong Kong and Macau; they fill the joys of host brothers and sisters, and taste food from different regions; they play games and sing along with adorable children at the orphanage, and exchange ideas with Chinese university students or share their experiences with high school international track students who chase their dreams by applying to American universities; they dance and sing, sharing a fun experience with their No.9 students during the final show on stage, and then the next minute are squeezed into all kinds of shapes, becoming drops in the vast human sea when No. 9 students flood the stage after the show; they all laugh first and then begin to sob and howl, tears and sweat zigzagging down their faces. Do you hear this human symphony now? Does this beautiful music resonate in your heart?
It is during this two-month period when Duke students create this symphonic movement, that they rediscover themselves, and reevaluate their strengths and weaknesses; they extend their limits and confront their fears, they test what they have learned in Duke classrooms and verify their own ideas and goals. It was a jaw-dropping experience to say the least when I watched what DukeEngage students can achieve and it is hard to imagine the richness of what these students can experience each summer. This program is mentally challenging, physically exhausting, and emotionally exhilarating for both the students and me. It has provided me a once in a lifetime experience. There are no words, no pictures and no video clips that can ever capture the gigantic scale of this symphony accurately - the DukeEngage China Zhuhai program. There I feel renewed and reborn.
Duke's Visiting Artist Program is bringing a diverse lineup to campus during the 2013-14 academic year, including a visual artist from Pakistan, a dance troupe from Brooklyn, and a theater director from Duke (class of '98). Music residencies feature the premier of a new setting of St. Luke's Passion and three exceptional ensembles who will work with Duke composition students.
The goal of the Visiting Artist Program is to support projects that will enrich the life of the university and broader community, augment the curricular efforts of a range of departments and programs, facilitate the interaction of artists and scholars, foster the reputation of Duke University as a place where the arts are vital and diverse, and contribute to the arts as a whole.
• Imani Winds and The Hilliard Ensemble
• Shahzia Sikander
• Urban Bush Women
• Hoi Polloi
• James MacMillan