by Jill Kimball
What happens when a composer is also a programmer? He creates pieces that are at once surprising, mathematical and superhuman.
In almost all of his work, San Francisco composer David A. Jaffe marries music and math. He’s been experimenting with computer music since the late 1970s, years before most of us owned computers or understood what they were. In what has to be one of the greatest life hacks of all time, Jaffe and fellow composer Andrew Schloss used the sensing mechanism inside a three-dimensional mouse developed at Bell Labs to create a computerized instrument. They called it the radiodrum.
On Saturday, March 5 at Seattle’s Good Shepherd Center, audiences will be able to hear strategically-placed instruments created by Seattle artist Trimpin and controlled by the radiodrum in “The Space Between Us,” a landmark work Jaffe premiered in 2011 that also features eight (human) string players. Also on the program is Jaffe’s “Impossible Animals,” where violin riffs come together with computerized birdsong, Jaffe’s bluegrass-inspired “Cluck Old Hen Variations,” English composer Rebecca Clark’s “Poem,” and Shostakovich’s magnificent String Quartet No. 9. Joining Jaffe and Schloss onstage are the members of the Victoria, B.C.-based Lafayette String Quartet.
In advance of the concert, we chatted with Jaffe to find out how he worked with Schloss and Trimpin to create “The Space Between Us,” how he sits down (or doesn’t) to compose, and how he’s beaten the odds to keep on making music.
Jill Kimball: How was “The Space Between Us” born?
David Jaffe: Several different threads came together to make this piece. The first thread was the radiodrum. For years i’ve been collaborating with Andrew Schloss, who saw the musical potential of that 3-D mouse. If you have a pair of snare sticks, say, you can add wires and make them radio transmitters, each with their own frequency, so the device can know the difference between the two sticks. The drum is a radio receiver, and when you hit the drum with the stick or even just move it above the surface, the sound that comes out is completely up to the composer…it reads anything you code and interprets your gestures however you want it to.
Another thread was my interest in the work of Trimpin. I love his aesthetic, his nuts-and-bolts funky and sophisticated art. I wanted to work with him on a radiodrum piece for the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco. It was all coming together.
And then, in 2008, my mentor [and Pulitzer Prize-winning spatial composer] Henry Brant passed away. He was one of the first American composers to use space as an essential aspect of his composition—it’s just as important as pitch and rhythm and timbre. He left me a bunch of vintage percussion instruments from all over the world in his will. I went down to his home in Santa Barbara to pick up and ship these instruments. Then as I was at UPS, I had an idea. I called Trimpin and said, “Can I just ship these directly to you?”
I started working with Trimpin on transforming these vintage percussion instruments into a set of robotic orchestral chimes, a robotic xylophone sawed in half and a robotic glockenspiel. I had previously worked with Andrew Schloss on transforming a Yamaha piano and I included that as well. And I also decided to bring in two string quartets.
JK: Why is the piece called “The Space Between Us”?
DJ: Partially because it’s written in homage to Henry Brant, who was so interested in spatial writing. “The Space Between Us” refers to my relationship with Henry and kind of conveys the idea that he’s gone but somehow still present.
There’s also the element of physical space between instruments. I’ve scattered the instruments all around the hall, which means I couldn’t write music where all the instruments play together—the speed of sound is too slow. The piece has a lot to do with making connections across space. The instruments begin together, wander off and converge again. Because of the location of the instruments, everybody in the audience hears their own piece.
I also thought a lot about the concept of six degrees of separation. Whether it’s true or not, I was interested in the ways people bridge distances between each other and connect.
JK: In this piece, you connect the ideas of two very different composers, Henry Brant and Trimpin. How did you find similarities between them?
DJ: Henry and Trimpin were interested in collaborating, but they never got to do so before Henry died. To me, the collaboration would have made a lot of sense. Brant was not at all a straight-laced academic. He broke a lot of rules, but he was also extremely practical. He worked in Hollywood, and back then he could get whatever instruments he wanted–Four contra-bassoons? No problem!–so he was able to experiment with different combinations of instruments. Trimpin is like that, too. He’s his own artist. And like Brant, he has an attraction to old junk. They both inhabit the same funky, artistic, creative, non-academic, imaginative world. I’d like to believe that i also inhabit that world. In reviews about me, people have said things like, “I don’t know what to make of him, but he’s definitely original.”
JK: It sounds like originality is really important to you.
DJ: It’s sort of the only way, as I see it. It’s hard enough to be a composer. The financial rewards are limited…the only reason to do it is because you absolutely believe in what you’re doing. I want to reach people in my music, but I want to make it accessible without compromising…without making it elevator music. I want to be really clear about what I’m expressing, whether it has to do with birdwatching, kung fu, or the craziness of having two kids under 3.
JK: Do you have a composition process? What does it look like?
I have a very definite process, and I can credit Henry Brant for that. When I started composing, I tended to start at the beginning of the piece, with the “once upon a time.” But Brant taught me to think of it like being on an airplane. You start at 39,000 feet, where you look down and see the general layout of the world, and as the plane starts to descend, you see a few more details. Then, finally, when you get to the ground you see each blade of grass.
I usually start by allocating some amount of time for free association, like a week or so. I write everything i have on index cards or a little notebook. It could be inspired by politics, history, looking at books at a bookstore or being in nature. There could also be musical ideas in there, some little riff or motive or orchestration idea or texture. Then—this is the hardest part—I lay all these ideas in front of me and find connections. I throw away things that don’t work. Eventually i start to get the view from 39,000 feet. I can lay out the piece on a single piece of paper. Then I’ll do another version that’s a little more detailed and takes three or four pieces of paper. I look at the part that seems most well defined in my mind and I write the other parts based on that. It’s sort of like Sudoku.
I don’t know how I’d compose without a structure and schedule like this. I’m usually working on a deadline, and at the same time I have a job doing music software at Universal Audio, so I only have a finite amount of free time.
JK: What’s your biggest musical accomplishment to date?
DJ: That’s like asking me to choose a favorite child, but I do tend to think about my bigger projects when I think about accomplishments. I did a 70-minute concerto for Schloss and his radiodrum, accompanied by an orchestra of plucked strings, where each of the seven movements was about a different wonder of the ancient world. “The Space Between Us,” frankly, is something I’m really proud of.
I think my biggest achievement is that I’m still composing after all these years and following my own musical path. Once I was sitting in a classroom of composers, and Karel Husa told us, “In 20 years, only a fraction of you will still be composing.” I’m happy I’m one of them. Sometimes I think of composing as a curse, because it’s so much work. But if I wasn’t composing, I’d have a huge emptiness in my life. It’s the most rewarding thing I do.
The Space Between Us, for 8 strings, and robotic percussion instruments was supported by New Music USA. To follow the project as it unfolds, visit the project page.