Vol. 36 Issue 3 Reviews

David A. Jaffe: Wildlife

Compact disc, WTP 5199, 2011; available from Well Tempered Productions,
1700 Shattuck Avenue, Suite 156, Berkeley, California 94709, USA; www.freshdigitalproduce.com; info@welltempered.com.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

Jaffe CD CoverDavid A. Jaffe's Wildlife is a compact disc you will want to listen to repeatedly. It offers four works that successfully combine live instruments and the computer to create a fascinating, kaleidoscopic mixture of virtual, and real, materials and sounds. Jaffe is a prolific composer who has written for orchestra, chorus, and chamber pieces, as well many electroacoustic pieces, including the well-known Silicon Valley Breakdown, composed in 1982. His approach to composition owes debts to innovative American composers such as Henry Brant, Carl Ruggles, and Charles Ives. Jaffe is also a skilled mandolinist and violinist, and often performs in his own compositions. He is a triple threat as composer, performer, and computer programmer. Today, more and more composers are exercising their triple threat credentials, a trend that has accelerated since the heady days of the 1980s MIDI revolution.

In his liner notes, Jaffe states that his goal in writing music is to celebrate diversity and embrace "heterogeneity with all its contradictions" in order to "create a hybrid musical organism, expressing something of the diverse multi-dimensional and sometimes fractured nature of contemporary identity." To do this he employs a kind of "musical genetic engineering," whereby a wide and disparate range of sources is drawn upon. The blending of incompatible elements shapes the development and structure of his music. Jaffe's praxis resembles the consummate, postmodern approach whereby “sampling” is employed to reflect and refract contemporary pluralism and paradoxical combinations. But unlike, say, John Oswald's plunderphonic techniques, Jaffe is not merely operating on extant recordings, he is composing and re-composing his source materials according to iconic and indexical resemblance, using "old school" notation to accomplish this task. This allows him to personalize his source materials, because ultimately they are coming from his memory, requiring re-presentation in the form of musical notation, a kind of objectification and distance, unavailable to the plunderphonic artist.
The first piece, Racing Against Time (2001) is also the most recently composed. It is a 15-minute tour de force of techniques and references, scored for the unusual combination of two violins, two saxophones, piano, and live computer-generated sound controlled by a Boie/Mathews Radio Drum, a capacitive sensing, three-dimensional controller. Jaffe employs the Radiodrum to manipulate the instrumental sounds, creating physical modeling simulations using software that he himself wrote.

The piece begins with a low-register octave on the piano. This builds to an artificial-sounding, even-note quantization that gives way to a fast, high-register barrage of notes played by the saxophones. Immediately following this all the instruments play a marcato, rhythmic unison line in octaves. This area of stability comes back again at several points during the piece, but always immediately before, or after, a menacing sound or texture that threatens to unhinge the sense of stability. One such moment occurs about three and a half minutes into the piece. Suddenly, a thick, low-register, filtered sawtooth patch takes over. The effect is very similar to what is found during the introductory or final sections of progressive rock tunes. In Jaffe's piece this texture quickly morphs into a humorous, cartoonlike amplitude modulation whose exaggerated features draw attention to the artificial nature of the sounds being presented. This serves as an efficient contrast to the "natural," instrumental sounds.

This piece presents a diverse and creative employment of timbres and modified timbres, including: extreme registral moaning and groaning, screeching, multiple simultaneous glissandi, plucked and muted piano strings, a jet airstream sound that passes from one ear to the other, a sound that might be described as a giant, Futurist motorcycle blender, sul ponticello tremolos against low-register saxophone honking, and rapidly repeated scalar passages strongly reminiscent of the work of Franco Donatoni.

The rapid glissandi, irreverent trills and tremolos, and fluctuating tempos that Jaffe has composed sound like indices of similar devices found in Ives and Brant, two of the composer's most significant influences. Additionally, the piano's rapid chordal planing suggests a hectic, Conon Nancarrow texture. But, unlike simple works of pastiche these references are integrated into a dense, personal fabric, part of a larger whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Impossible Animals, composed in 1986, presents some intriguing effects, at times conjuring up “ethnic” or “world music” contexts, but using virtual and exaggeratedly artificial means to do so. This piece was originally scored for live ensemble and a four-channel tape of computer-synthesized voices, which the composer created with software created by Julius Smith and himself, at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University, and additional software by Xavier Rodet at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). The version of the piece on this compact disc was arranged for violin and synthesized voices. For the most part, the violin plays expressive glissandi and arc gestures that are mimicked by the voices on tape. Occasionally, isolated, high-register, vocal formants jump into the foreground, only to be magically transformed into what the composer calls "a half human/half-bird vocalise, a true hybrid between human and avian singing, as if the brain of a winter wren had been transplanted inside a wildly gifted human singer." This effect is remarkable but also a little unnerving, like a friend whose distinctive laugh can be heard in a room full of chatting people.

The third work, Terra Non Firma (1992), is a dynamic piece scored for four cellos and a sampler performing orchestral duties, and is conducted by a Mathews Radio Baton. In many respects this work programmatically depicts the 1989 San Francisco Earthquake. Jaffe has employed a variety of unstable materials in the "orchestra," such as erratic growls, buzzing, and trills against continual string glissandi (a favorite Brant device). The result, as the composer writes, "is a sense of insecurity, like walking on unstable ground, forever shifting under your feet… fragments of various musics… a polka, a waltz, a tango are tossed around like bits of debris."

Wildlife, the last piece on this CD, is a five-movement, quasi-improvisational work for two computers and two performers, a violinist and a percussionist, performing respectively on the Zeta violin and Mathews/Boie Radiodrum. It was co-composed with Andrew Schloss and seeks to challenge the "inviolability of the control a performer normally exerts over his instrument." The performers interact with "autonomous processes running on the computers in a flexible, symbiotic manner."

The five movements explore different ensemble relationships within an economy of means not found in the first three pieces. Each movement contains its own unique and continuous development, which is not broken up by interjections or fragmentation. There is a sense that the frenetic materials that characterize the other pieces on this CD are distilled and strained in this last work. Hence, Wildlife comes across as the most traditional, perhaps least wild composition on the disc.

It is curious that the newest piece on this CD was ten years old when the disc was released in 2011. One wonders if the composer grouped together four of his works that he believed shared similar techniques or aesthetic concerns, and that nothing he composed from the past decade fit within this context. These pieces grow out of an American maverick tradition that employs a kitchen sink of devices and techniques, some of which sound amusing because of the extreme contrasts and artificial exaggerations.

Like his deceased mentor Henry Brant, Jaffe's textural complexity is achieved through the concatenation of individually simple components, but Jaffe does not shy away from complex, virtuosic parts of which he himself participates. Every few years Brant would learn a new instrument well enough to perform virtuosic passages for what he called "instant compositions." But Brant specialized in writing spatial music for large forces, and more often than not, he could be found conducting large ensembles in which he did not perform. Ultimately, the dialectical materials that Jaffe composes and performs strike a balance that, when taken as a whole, suggest a music that is wholly his own, which is not a simple task.