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Duke composer Stephen Jaffe joins the American Academy of Arts and Letters

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Stephen Jaffe barges into his classroom in Duke University's Biddle Music Building. Without breaking stride, he makes a beeline for the piano on the far wall and begins the day's lesson.

"Let's do a little ear training first, to see where your ears are," the composer and professor chirps. His students quickly settle into their seats to identify intervals and chords as he plays them, rapid-fire.

Days before, the American Academy of Arts and Letters chose Jaffe as one of its 250 members. It's a high career honor for the highest caliber of American artists, but Jaffe has little time to rest on laurels, today or any day, really: He's busy doing his best 12-tone impersonation of James Brown on this Thursday morning.

Call him the hardest-working man in the post-tonal music business.

His students learn the theoretical inner workings and compositional history of great works like Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite." They also workshop their own compositions with their classmates, all toting violas, saxophones, flutes and the like into the room.

Within a few minutes, Jaffe's had the occasion to mention Bela Bartok, Stephen Sondheim, Herbie Hancock and Pete Seeger—and he's just getting warmed up. Pacing the floor, he segues into introductory words about Berg's piece, scribbling chalk notes across the musical staff on the blackboard. The students start to talk about the mathematical model set theory. Jaffe lets it play out a bit before stopping abruptly in the middle of the room, as if "Pause" had been pressed.

"You know, the music comes first," he says. "And they theorize it later."

The newest member of the country's most prestigious artistic pantheon cracks a half-frank, half-mischievous smile.

For one of the country's greatest living composers, all these honors and ideas really do revolve around the music. This dynamo appears to run on the sheer excitement of getting to talk about a movement of the Berg suite and dissect a few student works in progress. During class, Jaffe constantly glances at the clock, accelerating as the minutes dwindle.

The next day, Jaffe unpacks that excitement. "Music is actually a living tradition. I've met maybe four or five of the greatest living musicians and it's just astonishing how, right at their fingertips, they have the whole living tradition," he marvels. "The great French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote a whole book about the Mozart piano concertos, and his music is about as far from Mozart as you can imagine. My favorite memory of George Crumb is hearing him play Beethoven sonatas and string quartets and Chopin etudes from memory right in front of me."

Crumb was one of Jaffe's teachers at the University of Pennsylvania; he became a member of the Academy a couple of years before Jaffe graduated in 1977. That's one tradition that makes Jaffe proud. At Duke, author Reynolds Price, who died last year, became an academician in 1988. Another composer, Robert Ward, retired from Duke in 1987 but still lives in Durham. Still actively composing, Ward has been a member of the Academy for 45 years. That's another tradition that makes him proud.

These linkages form a cultural legacy that speaks to the Academy's purpose: Members of the National Institute of Arts and Letters formed the Academy in 1904, patterning it after the Académie française. Author Mark Twain, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and painter John La Farge were among the seven Institute members to found the Academy. They chose additional academicians until they numbered 50. Membership was—and still is—for life. New members are only taken on when older ones die.

In 1923, the Institute and Academy moved their headquarters to West 155th Street in New York City, where their hallowed Member's Room held 50 hand-carved Italian walnut chairs, each bearing a current member's name as well as those of the deceased who preceded them. The Academy has since expanded to 250 members; the oak-paneled Member's Room has become something of a museum piece.

Today, the Academy functions as a major philanthropic organization, awarding prizes ranging from $5,000 to $75,000 to artists in many disciplines at all stages of their careers. Academicians nominate and select the winners. Jaffe is excited to pay forward the 1993 Arts and Letters Award of $15,000 that helped underwrite his first major recording. Though membership itself carries no cash prize, it offers Jaffe something more valuable.

"I get the chance to talk with some people whose books I've read and whose music I've heard, and whose buildings I've been in, whose artistic works I've seen. It's terrific," he gushes. "And it's a chance to help further the careers of younger people. The chance to help the field is something that's really important."

Jaffe helps the field every day at Duke. Today, it's sophomore Jeremiah Siochi's turn for Jaffe's input. Classmates rise and play his sketch for viola and flute, which a joyful Jaffe says suggests a "post-apocalyptic Balkan sheepherder."

After compliments come suggestions: The flute plays a series of grace notes in the opening eight measures. Jaffe asks the flautist to try raising every other measure an octave. After a run-through, Jaffe asks the violist to come up an octave, too. Now, two lines into the piece, where the music shifts, the piece sounds much more dramatic, as the viola plays a series of low chords that had been hidden.

"It definitely has a folk dance kind of feel to it," says Siochi, who's a double major in music and electrical engineering. "I think it was a helpful comment because, with the way that he brought that out, I saw how I could contrast the beginning section with the later section too."

These pan-musical sensibilities of Jaffe's are known well outside of the classroom. Scott Lindroth is a composer and the vice provost for the arts at Duke. The opportunity to work with Jaffe was one of the reasons he says he chose to come to Duke more than two decades ago. Lindroth admires Jaffe's passion for all music, as well as how that manifests itself in his compositions.

"Many composers strive to have an easily identifiable style or label that you can attach to their music. Steve's music is characterized by his desire to embrace as many varieties and nuances of musical expression in a single piece as possible," Lindroth explains. "There's that sense of being able to go from one kind of expressive nuance to another, and with such agility and effortlessness. It's difficult to do that with an orchestra. It's something you would see more in chamber music, but he's able to get that on the page somehow in his orchestral music."

Jaffe's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra springs to Lindroth's mind: "There are poetic, lyrical passages. There are volatile, mercurial passages that jump from one idea to another. There's kind of a mischievous sense of humor. And often all in the same movement."

Next Thursday, Jaffe will again gather his class. He won't wear robes or sit in a carved walnut chair. But somewhere inside, he says he will carry a new kind of pride.

"If you're a composer, you go and give your concert and people like it—that's focused on one piece," he says. "But what a composer is also doing is living a life of music and creation, and you wonder 'Is anybody listening?' There are a lot of composers. And what I like about this is that it really does imply that someone has been listening not just to one piece but to what I've been doing for 30, 40 years. That does mean a lot to me."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Kinetic classics."

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