This page contains writings, interviews and lectures on composition, aesthetics, and computer music technology

Underground Economy - Interactive scenarios for an improvising Afro-Cuban trio

David A. Jaffe (2007, revised 2017)

ABSTRACT: This paper describes the techniques, mappings and algorithms used in the author’s composition “Underground Economy – frameworks for improvisation,” written for the Durán/Schloss/Mitri trio.


The goal of the work “Underground Economy” was to create a structured improvisation, in which all three instruments: the piano, the violin and the RadioDrum, are sending data to the computer. The computer then combines these inputs into an electronic audio response. The title of the piece stems from the notion of passing information “under the table” to the computer.

From a compositional standpoint, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the piece was the challenge of writing a fully-improvised piece that has a distinct composer-specified identity, yet leaves a great deal to the musical personalities of the performers. This goal was accomplished by a combination of custom software that describes a series of interactive “schemes” and a score that dictates general directions to the players, such as style, range, dynamics and key center. Thus, the music has an “economy of specification,” another meaning of the title.

This paper describes some of the more novel interactive scenarios that were unique to this work. In addition, the piece builds on Radio Drum solo idioms developed using the Max software environment by Andrew Schloss in his continuing work as a RadioDrum soloist (Schloss, 1990).

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Tribute to Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, who died last month, was more than a musician, more than an activist, more then a folklorist. He was a purveyor of hope in the darkest of times. In the McCarthy era, when he was blacklisted, he sang, defiantly, "Wasn't that a time?" and taught music to children. In the 1970s when the Left was imploding, he founded a new cause that transcended the left/right division: cleaning up his own backyard, the Hudson River. He was a fierce believer in political freedom and economic justice. But, while Woody Guthrie's guitar said "This machine kills fascists," the words Seeger wrote on his banjo head read "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." He was a shy man who could command the stage and perform as no one before or since. While others, like Bob Dylan, sang protest songs as long as it was in fashion, or, like Phil Ochs, struggled internally with a desire to be famous, for Pete, the decision was always clear: do the right thing. When he was finally permitted back on television in the 1960s, he immediately threw caution to the wind and sang "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," a protest song against the war in Viet Nam.

I grew up with Pete Seeger as a beacon of light. One of the first records I ever heard as a toddler was "Birds, Beasts and Bigger Fishes," with songs like "Leatherwing Bat" and story-songs like "Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase." Our family went everywhere that he performed. Many of these were not "concerts" at all, but political rallies of one form or another. I remember clearly a rally for Mikis Theodorakis, the greek song-writer and activist who was jailed by the military junta in the 1960s. The rally was entirely in Greek, with a translator. Eventually, the translator became so caught up in the emotions of the crowd that he stopped translating and just cheered.

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Orion Visitor Lecture, University of Victoria

On November 6, 2013, I delivered the Orion Visitor Lecture at the University of Victoria. I discussed my studies with Henry Brant, the early days of computer music at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the making of Silicon Valley Breakdown, the development of time maps and plucked string synthesis, and my collaborations with Julius O. Smith III, Bernard Mont-Reynaud and others. A complete recording of the lecture is here.

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Sonagrama Interview - A Conversation With David A. Jaffe

Interview with Professor Dr. Tom Moore, published in Sonograma magazine, 2011.

TM: What sort of musical background was there in your family?

DJ: My father was an amateur mandolin player, and his father was also a mandolin player. My grandfather played in a Jewish mandolin orchestra in New York City – there were a couple of them. Depending on how far left your politics were, that would dictate which one you would play in. He was in the one that was associated with the newspaper called the Morning Freiheit, which was a Yiddish newspaper. My father took mandolin lessons – he was quite a good player, had excellent technique, and enjoyed it a lot. My mother played piano, but not so much.

I started playing violin at school when I was in fourth grade. I later studied with Samuel Applebaum, father of Michael Tree. and a well-known pedagogue who wrote a lot of books on violin technique and literature. I started playing oboe a couple of years later, then started playing guitar, and moved through a lot of different instruments, picked up the five-string banjo, and played fiddle music on the violin, then started playing mandolin, and at some point dropped classical violin, played a lot of bluegrass music, and different kinds of music – rock, jazz… I played bass in a jazz band with a couple of saxophones and piano; I played in rock bands – lots of different kinds of things. Around eleventh grade I started composing, and also picked up the cello. I was taking a music appreciation class, and they were playing recordings of Mozart. I thought that the cello parts sounded pretty easy, so I asked if I could borrow a cello. They lent me one, and I went home and learned the cello parts. Then I started studying cello more seriously and was composing string quartets in high school. I was thinking of going to college as a cellist, applied and was accepted at various places, but instead decided to join a bluegrass band called “Bottle Hill” fulltime, and toured with them for a couple of years...

Click to read full interview on Sonograma site...

In Memoriam, Henry Brant

I first met Henry Brant in the late 1970s when I studied composition, orchestration, and 16th century counterpoint with him at Bennington College in Vermont. This eventually led to a thirty-year friendship with discussions of music that have been among the most important in my life.

Henry Brant was unlike any other composition teacher I've ever had in that he offered a meta-perspective on the process of composing. Instead of suggesting that a particular theme should be developed or that a particular note might sound better as a Bb, he taught how to write quickly, how to think hierarchically, how to make deadlines, how to ask for commissions, and how to avoid writers' block. He also was the first to suggest to me that there might be a place in my musical language for the various non-"classical" styles I played, such as bluegrass, klezmer and jazz. This directly led to my writing such works as Silicon Valley Breakdown and Cluck Old Hen Variations.

Throughout the years, I have discussed many incipient projects with Henry and invariably he would offer key insights and suggestions that would lead me in fertile directions. As an example, in 1992, I was planning a concerto for RadioDrum-controlled Disklavier piano and large ensemble. I discussed the project with him, including my plan to use a string orchestra. He suggested I instead employ an ensemble of plucked strings. When I pressed him to elaborate, he suggested mandolin, guitar, harp, harpsichord, harmonium, bass and two percussionists. This became the seventy-minute work, "The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,” premiered by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players in 1998. Such interactions were always at the very start of a project. Then, at the conclusion, I would play him the result, he would offer his thoughts and then ask "what next?"

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Orchestrating the Chimera: Musical Hybrids, Technology and the Development of a "Maximalist" Musical Style

This article describes the "maximalist" approach I take in my musical composition. This approach embraces heterogeneity and allows for complex systems of juxtapositions and collisions, in which all outside influences are viewed as potential raw material. I focus here on the notion of hybridization, in which two or more sharply-defined and highly-contrasting aspects of experience are combined to produce something that is both alien and strangely familiar. Recent technological advances have allowed hybridization to extend into the realms of the synthesis of sound itself, the ensemble relationship between musical lines and the connection between performer and instrument.

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Notes on Birds and Musical Style

The visual arts would be greatly impoverished without birds and all that birds represent. Music, except for a few notable exceptions, has left bird song a largely untapped resource. I have been watching and studying birds for twenty years, nearly as long as I have been composing. During that time, I have been repeatedly drawn to the avian world as a source of musical inspiration.

This brief essay chronicles some of my shuttlings between the domains of music and nature, and looks closely at examples from three different genres: instrumental music, vocal music, and computer music. More generally, it illustrates the compositional strategy of starting from the known, in this case bird song and behavior, and abstracting to the unknown. The familiar, whether it be a musical style, a bird song or a computer-simulation of the human singing voice, is already something of great richness and character. The process of abstraction then involves combining several familiar elements in an unconventional manner, or stretching the familiar in strange directions or to unnatural proportions. The result can be something quite alien, but with a strong hauntingly-familiar identity, as if viewing a face from a long-forgotten childhood dream.

Use of bird song can be viewed as one example of "external" artistic inspiration that, far from the popular view of a passive experience that overcomes an artist, involves active molding and sculpting of raw material into something new. In taking such an inclusive approach, the artist has, quite literally, the world to gain. Paradoxically, when he or she allows private personal experience to find its way into music, the result can be more broadly relevant, compelling work.

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Performance Expression in Commuted Waveguide Synthesis of Bowed Strings

In [Smith 1993], an approach was described for implementing efficient real-time bowed string synthesis. Recent work has focused on differentiating the members of the violin family, as well as on the flexibility necessary to create expressive performance. This paper presents a technique for creating smooth transitions between notes, enabling a variety of bowing styles to be synthesized, such as legato, marcato and martele. A method for supporting such left-hand techniques as vibrato and glissando is also given, as is the efficient simulation of pitch-correlated bow noise. Examples from various periods of music history have been convincingly synthesized in real time using the Music Kit and DSP56001 under NEXTSTEP.

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A Virtual Piano Concerto

We describe here the process of collaboration that went into the creation of a The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World a seventy-minute, seven-movement concerto, scored for remote-control piano and an acoustic ensemble of eight instruments. The solo piano part, written specially for Andrew Schloss and developed in collaboration, is for the Yamaha Disklavier C7 Grand Piano Mark II (a piano that can "play itself" under computer control) and the Mathews/Boie Radio Drum [Boie et al, 1989] (a device that conveys three-dimensional gestures to a computer.) The Radio Drum and Disklavier are connected via a computer running software created for the piece. Thus, the final result of this work is entirely acoustic.
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Music and the Computer: Up-Ending the Family Tree

Keynote Address to the 1995 Conference of the Australian Computer Music Association

Computer music is nearly forty years old. Electronic music is twice that old, dating back to the invention of the Theremin Vox. In that time, computer music has brought together many diverse disciplines, creating hybrids such as psycho-acoustics and algorithmic composition, as well as spawning its own diverse branches. These range from performance instruments to music printing, from MIDI sequencing to automatic transcription. Such diversification is an indication of the success of the field. Yet some categorical divisions arose as a result of philosophical schism, often in response to limitations in the technology of the day.

As this is my first trip to Australia, it seems fitting to flip things upside down and take a fresh look at some of these traditional divisions. Focusing on areas such as sound synthesis, performance, and the role of the composer, we will see which of the familiar constructs still apply and which may no longer serve our best interests. The intention here is not to survey all existing work--this would require more time than we have--but rather to discuss a few examples drawn from my own work and that of several of my colleagues in order to show that hybridization is still an active force throughout the computer music family tree.

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Intelligent Musical Instruments: future of musical performance or the demise of the performer?

This paper [by W. Andrew Schloss and David A. Jaffe] examines the potential problems that "too much" technology in musical performance can create. In developing very powerful computer-assisted instruments, and in decoupling the sound production from the gesture, issues of what performance is really about start to surface. This is a relatively recent problem, because it is only in the last few years that realtime performance has been widely possible in computer music. As a case in point, we will discuss a co-composed piece entitled "Wildlife," that involves many of the critical issues.
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KPFA Radio Interview, 1990

Not a "writing" per se but a radio interview on the KPFA Morning Concert, 1990, conducted by Charles Amirkhanian.

The following is excerpted from the KPFA Folio:

Composer-performer David A. Jaffe has bridged the gap between acoustic folk music and the world of cerebral computer music with a multi-stylistic approach. A Professor at Stanford University, where much of his work is produced at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Jaffe also worked with NeXT Computers on creating new types of music software. His composition "Impossible Animals" contains human voice timbres in the shape of carefully analyzed bird songs. He is interviewed by Charles Amirkhanian about his career. Also heard in this program is a recording by a 19th century Jaffe, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, featuring both the traditional fiddle version and the Grieg composition for piano in an a-b-a-b arrangement.

Works included as part of the interview:

Telegram to the President
for string quartet and computer-generated plucked strings - Jefferson String Quartet

Impossible Animals
for chorus and computer-synthesized voices - Hamiltion College Chorus

Bird Seasons
for four voices - ALEA II ensemble

Ellis Island Sonata
for solo mandolin, 2nd movement: "Ghosts from the Old Country" - David A. Jaffe, mandolin

Grass Valley Fire, 1988
for mandolin quartet - Modern Mandolin Quartet