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Duke University Arts

Department of Music

Sep 11, 2013

Stephen Jaffe on Teaching in the 21st Century

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.

-Robert Zimmerman

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.

Feb 27, 2013

Never The Same

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Supko with sheet music from his original composition "Inland Ocean" for string quartet (Credit: Les Todd)
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Composer John Supko creates carefully calibrated, utterly unpredictable music that requires listeners to confront ambiguity.

Read full story in Duke Magazine here.

Nov 7, 2012

John Supko's Factory of Sound

Every two years, the town of Romont, Switzerland, transforms itself for a day. Or, to be precise, for 20 hours. 20 Heures de musiques Romont is a music festival that showcases a variety of genres, including jazz, pop, and classical. Usually, new music doesn't take the main stage, but on September 22, 2012, the headline act was a daring, new composition by John Supko, Hunt Family Assistant Professor of Music at Duke University.

Usine("factory") began when the festival opened at 4 am and continued, without interruption, for 20 hours until the festival ended at midnight. The piece was commissioned specifically for the event by six-musician ensemBle baBel, based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

ensemBle baBel considered performing a transcription of French composer Erik Satie's Vexations, a piano work consisting of a short theme that the performer is instructed to repeat 840 times in a row. However, the ensemble decided they would prefer to present a new work that paid homage to Vexations and Satie's aesthetic. "They contacted me because my dissertation was on Satie," says Supko, "but Usine was inspired by a number of other things, as well, including the work of John Cage, since this is his centennial year. The title itself comes from a chapter in Les champs magnetiques, a book by early surrealist writers Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault. Les champs magnetiques is an experiment in automatic writing, and my piece employs a similar technique with musical materials."

Continue reading on the Music Department blog

Sep 11, 2012

Duke Graduate Students' Works Recorded By The Bad Plus Scheduled for Release September 17, 2012

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The Duke University Department of Music proudly presents recordings by Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson, and Dave King of The Bad Plus of four new compositions by Duke doctoral students in composition.  This collaboration, the first of its kind by this world-renowned jazz trio best known for their inventive compositions, grew out of a yearlong residency at Duke University. This project received support from the Music Department, Duke Performances and the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts.  The residency by The Bad Plus received support from the Council for the Arts Visiting Artist Program.

The recordings are scheduled to be released on September 17, 2012 to coincide with The Bad Plus’ return to Durham for a pair of concerts presented by Duke Performances at Motorco Music Hall on September 21 and 22, 2012.

Read the full story at http://www.music.duke.edu/news/2012/09/10/tbp-recordings

Mar 15, 2012

Duke Composer Jaffe Elected To American Academy of Arts and Letters

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Tune in to "The State of Things" on WUNC 91.5 FM (Tuesday, March 27) at noon to hear an interview with Stephen Jaffe, the Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Professor of Music at Duke University, who has been named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

See the featured story at the link below from the NY Times ArtsBeat section published on Friday, March 9, 2012 and read about it in Duke Today or in The Chronicle.

Learn more about Professor Jaffe here:  http://www.duke.edu/~sjaffe/

Nov 30, 2011

Paul Swartzel: “I Love the ‘80s”

Paul Swartzel is a graduate student in Duke University’s music department.  Today he will talk about '80s music with Frank Stasio on "The State of Things" (WUNC, 91.5 FM) from 12:20-12:40 pm.  Listen if you can!  Paul was interviewed earlier this month by Eric Ferreri about his class, "I Love the '80s."

Apr 17, 2011

Music Professor Creates Online Catalog of Compositions by Frescobaldi

Alexander Silbiger, Professor Emeritus in the Music Department, has launched the Frescobaldi Thematic Catalogue Online (FTCO), an innovative venture that for the first time brings the dynamic qualities of online publication to a major composer’s thematic catalogue. 

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) was the most influential composer of keyboard music preceding J. S. Bach, and this first catalogue of his complete works contains excerpts of over 800 compositions, along with annotations and citations of the original sources, modern editions, and literature.  Unlike a printed catalogue, all these elements can be searched by multiple criteria; for example, compositions can be searched by title, genre, key, instrumentation, etc., or any combination of these. Furthermore, the online catalogue will be continually updated, so that at any time it will provide the most recent information on the works and up-to-date bibliographies of editions and literature. 

Silbiger has worked on this catalogue for more than two years, with the assistance of four music graduate students: Jessica Wood, Chiayu Hsu, Roman Testroet, and Andrew Pester. He made several trips to European and American libraries to search for Frescobaldi’s works. As a result, the catalogue includes numerous previously unknown and unpublished works.  He also had to deal with difficult questions of authenticity for many of those works—questions that are addressed in the catalogue.

Silbiger’s project was made possible by an Emeritus Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He also received indispensable assistance with database and website design from the Office of Technology Services of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

Mar 16, 2011

Duke Music Department Premieres New Work

At 8 p.m. on Friday, April 15 and Saturday, April 16, the Duke University Department of Music will present a world premiere double-bill of new works: Kathleen Bader’s Tentative Embracefor twelve musicians, Sonoran soundscapes and spoken text, and John Justice and George Lam’s one-act documentary opera The Persistence of Smoke.  Both works are deeply connected with the place that inspired the music; Bader draws her influences from the vast Sonoran desert, and Durham’s cigarette legacy is the inspiration for Justice and Lam’s new opera.  The performances are presented by Encounters: With The Music Of Our Time, in association with the Center for Documentary Studies and the Graduate School.  Admission is free.

This program features performers from across North Carolina, including both the Ciompi Quartet and the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet.  Joining the quartets are mezzo-soprano Sandra Cotton, soprano Nakia Verner, bass-baritone David Weigel, and baritone Scott MacLeod.  Jay O’Berski, artistic director of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, will direct The Persistence of Smoke.  Both works will be conducted by George Lam.

Kathleen Bader’s Tentative Embrace, a five-movement work combining live instrumental music, spoken text and recorded soundscapes, explores the complicated sensation of being a human alone in nature, of wanting to belong but also not quite belonging.  The Sonoran desert, the site of inspiration for this work, acts as an especially revelatory space that heightens these simultaneous sensations of connection and disconnection.  This landscape draws attention to the biological points of contact between human beings and their natural surroundings, but it also emphasizes those cultural and material differences that we carry with us into such a space.  Through the combination of the music, the text and the soundscapes recorded both in and around the Sonoran desert, this piece works to convey the ever-shifting boundaries between the self and everything else.

John Justice and George Lam’s The Persistence of Smoke is a documentary opera.  The libretto is based on interviews with various individuals related to the former Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company headquarters in downtown Durham, a collection of buildings now known as “West Village”.  Lam interviewed current and former Durham residents who had a connection with these buildings, including local business representatives, community leaders, former Liggett employees, historians, former and current downtown residents, municipal urban planners, journalists, and an architect.  These interviews were given to local playwright John Justice, who created a libretto based on the themes that emerged.

The opera’s story focuses on Kevin, an architect about to unveil his visionary master plan for redeveloping several defunct cigarette factories in an unnamed city.  As Kevin leaves his newly renovated apartment for the press conference, he is confronted by his estranged father Curtis, a former cigarette worker who desperately wants to reconcile and reconnect, deliriously recalling the glory days of tobacco and the money that followed.

The performances will be presented at Golden Belt in downtown Durham, a newly restored mixed-use space that combines artist studios, apartments and retail in the former site of Julian Carr’s Golden Belt Manufacturing Company, a textile factory that processed cotton bags for Bull Durham tobacco.

For more information, and to listen to clips from The Persistence of Smoke, please visit: http://music.duke.edu/performances/tentative-embrace-the-persistence-of-smoke

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