David A. Jaffe: XXIst Century Mandolin: Acoustic and Computer Music 
for the Mandolin 

CD, available from Well-Tempered Productions, 1678 Shattuck Avenue, 
Suite 156, Berkeley, California 94709, USA; telephone (510)526-5608 

Reviewed by
	Brad Garton
	New York, New York, USA

The mandolin occupies a unique musical space-from Vivaldi to Stravinsky, 
its sparkling soprano timbre has colored many 'classical' compositions. 
To most contemporary listeners, however, the sound of a mandolin evokes 
images of a Dublin pub or a bluegrass festival in southern Indiana. 
For me, the mandolin seems to exist in all of these worlds simultaneously, 
evoking an interpenetrated! pan-stylistic musical universe. David 
Jaffe shares this multi-dimensional conception of the mandolin, stating 
that his early experience of his father's mandolin playing gave him 
"a taste for permeating the boundaries that separate musical styles." 
Mr. Jaffe discovered that "by combining diverse, seemingly irreconcilable 
stylistic elements, [he] was able to uncover a rich dynamic source 
of musical expression."

'XXlst Century Mandolin' is a tour de force demonstration of that "dynamic
source of musical expression." The CD contains four large works: two for
acoustic instruments (mandolins, of course) and two computer-generated 
pieces (with decidedly mandolin-like timbres, primarily using the 
Karplus-Strong algorithm and digitized mandolin fragments. Each of 
these works is a coherent melding of a range of compositional and 
performance styles, with results that are truly unique.

If I were asked to summarize David Jaffe's music in a single word, it would 
have to be, 'different.' I don't mean this as a dismissal of his music (in
the way that many use the adjective 'interesting', for his compositions
display a musical virtuosity that is highly original -- there's the
'difference' -- and often quite moving.

I must confess that my description of David Jaffe's music as 'different'
has a particular personal focus for me. As he and I have often discussed,
we share similar research interests and ostensibly similar musical
preferences. Beyond a commonality of intent and technical realization in
our composing, however, I think our musical output sounds fundamentally
distinct. But I don't feel alone in this distinction, because David Jaffe's
music sounds different from nearly every other composer I know. He has an
artistic sensibility that is entirely his own. His talent lies in his
ability to coerce us to his artistic vantage point, where we can share in
his stylistically variegated musical perspective.

Probably the most direct compositional influence I can hear in his music
is a Bartok-like predilection for close/open harmonies coupled with dramatic
shifts in texture. The insertion of an occasional folkish-sounding tune
reinforces this connection.  The construction of his music, however, sounds
much less concerned with formal structure, reminding me more of the unfolding
of a good story than adhering to a relatively abstract compositional scheme. 

A case in point is the first piece on the CD, "Grass Valley FIre, 1988." 
I suppose that I could make some analytical points about the repeated 
C-sharp that dominates the opening and closing of the piece, or that 
I could trace the use of a rhythmically converging strummed chords 
motif as a structural marker, but the music didn't sound that way 
to me. Instead, the robust chords from the beginning of the piece 
trace a narrative route through a jagged middle section to a quiet, 
peaceful conclusion (with some nice, swinging mandolin diversions 
along the way). At the end of the piece, I feel more that I've been 
taken on a journey instead of shown an artistically circumscribed 
object. I'm not mapping the internal logic of this music -- I'm 'going 
with the flow' and enjoying the trip. This was the only piece I hadn't 
heard before, and I listened to it prior to reading the CD liner notes. 
My impression of the work as having a strong narrative element was 
correct in this instance: "Grass Valley FIre, 1988" depicts a fire 
that burned a large area in California, destroying the home of the 
composer's sister. The piece was written for the Modern Mandolin Quartet
(the first written exclusively for their instrumentation), and the
performance recorded on the CD ranks among the best I have heard from
the Quartet.

"American Miniatures" is more fragmented as a narrative. This work
consists of five short movements, and was originally commissioned by
the filmmaker Lynn Kirby as a soundtrack for a film about the American
identity. Although I can certainly imagine the intended story, especially
with movement titles such as "Roads West" and "The Dust Bowl", the real
tale for me is that of the disintegration of the term 'computer music'
as a meaningful conceptual category.  In contrast with the first piece on
the CD (an instrumental piece) this music is purely computer music-samples
of mandolin notes, banjo notes, drums, fiddle-playing, and voices were
processed and organized on a NeXT computer (using David Jaffe's MusicKit,
of course!). The plot of this story grows from the seamless dialogue
established between the 'computer music' of the "Miniatures" and the
acoustic first piece.  Many of us working in computer music have internalized
the notion that computer-generated and electronic sounds have some ill-defined 
quality that marks them as synthetic. "American Miniatures" sounds almost 
too good to be a real piece of computer music. The opening mandolin 
gesture in the first movement, although clearly not possible by human 
performers, certainly exists in the same sonic realm as the ending 
of "Grass Valley Fire. 1988." The voice manipulations performed by David 
Jaffe in several of the other "Miniatures" are often so subtle that 
they sound as if some highly trained choir were performing hyper-Ligeti 
music with an incredible degree of precision -- but a precision that 
doesn't sound artificial. Mr. Jaffe almost explicitly plays with the
computer/human music borderline in parts of this piece. Clusters of
obviously synthetic computer tones in "After the Battle of Bull Run" mutate
almost imperceptibly into a rousing canon of fiddle music at the end of the
piece. The mega-mandolin chords at the conclusion of the final movement
seem to echo and parody the stacked mandolin quartet chords sprinkled
throughout "Grass Valley."

These huge, synthetic mandolin chords create a wonderful context for 
the poignant entrance of the solo mandolin in "Ellis Island Sonata."
This four-movement work is the longest on the CD, and is probably 
my favorite music written by the composer. It is this piece that is 
the most obviously 'Bartokian' in character, although my perception 
of it as such is probably colored by the title and my own concept 
of cultural movement in the USA. But those beautiful open fifth/fourth 
chords are in abundance, and the major- and minor-second tuning of 
several of the mandolin-string pairs in the second and third movements 
leads to some wonderfully dense harmonies.

"Ellis Island Sonata" is a virtuosic piece, both in the amazing performance
ability demonstrated by David Jaffe, and also in his compositional ability
to weave a panoply of musical influences together into a compelling work.
Throughout this review I have mentioned the diverse stylistic elements
present in David Jaffe's music, but I should make it clear that these
pieces are not the typical 'postmodern pastiche' that might be expected. 
Mr. Jaffe's music sounds more like he has internalized a wide variety 
of musics, and the combination that results is something totally new -- a 
compound, rather than a mixture.

This stylistic synthesis is at its best in the final movement of the
sonata "Who Are My People?"  Fragments of folk melodies, infrequent jagged 
chords, and a wandering solo mandolin line give this music a haunted, 
disembodied quality that captures a real slice of the American identity. 
I found this piece to be thought provoking and emotionally stirring. 
The question posed by the title (and well represented by the music) 
certainly resonates with mc, a Hoosier farm kid now living and working 
in the East Coast megalopolis.

Speaking of virtuosic performance, the last land oldest I piece on the CD
is the work of a true computer music virtuoso. "Silicon Valley Breakdown"
stands as one of the landmarks of our field, and 1 still use it as the
best demonstration of the range of the Karplus-Strong algorithm. Any musician
working seriously in computer music should have this piece in their collection.
Although 1 don't hear much substantive difference between this version and 
the previous release I have on the Wergo "Dinosaur Music" CD (WER 2016-50), 
it is nice to hear this piece in the context of David Jaffe's other 
music. Many of the techniques explored in "Silicon Valley Breakdown,"
for example, the converging timing maps, the sharp shifts of musical 
density, etc., have been refined in Mr. Jaffe's later work.

It is possibly this exploration of techniques that underlies the
'differentness' I hear in Mr. Jaffe's music. I think that at heart David
Jaffe is a bit of a tinkerer, and the strength of his art lies in the fact 
that he can turn his technical musings into serious and engaging music. 
Perhaps 'performer' is a better word than tinkerer, but by performer 
I mean someone who explores the outer limits of his instrument (with 
composition itself being construed as an instrument). Whatever it is, I
find it absolutely congenial to my own view of music and composition. 
I'm really happy this CD was released. It is a wonderful collection of
music by an innovative and thoughtful composer.