The American Academy of Arts and Letters taps Stephen Jaffe

dmenconi@newsobserver.com April 22, 2012 

Stephen Abram Jaffe.

COURTESY OF LES TODD

  • Details Stephen Abram Jaffe Born Dec. 30, 1954, in Washington, D.C. Mary and James H. Semans Professor of Music Composition, Duke University. Will be inducted into The American Academy of Arts and Letters on May 16 as one of 10 new members.

Stephen Jaffe gets a lot of mail from institutions like The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the national honor society that supports artistic excellence. As a renowned music composer at Duke University, he is in demand to serve on boards or committees. So when he received a letter from the academy last month, he figured it was more of the same and threw it into a pile of mail, where it languished for several days.

But once Jaffe got around to opening that letter, he was surprised to learn that the academy was giving something rather than asking for it – membership in the 250-person organization, one of the highest honors in American culture. He’ll be one of 10 new members inducted May 16, joining an organization whose current ranks include Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, author Toni Morrison and architect Maya Lin. The academy’s deceased members include Mark Twain, Georgia O’Keefe, Duke Ellington and Durham novelist Reynolds Price.

“The biggest reason it’s so meaningful to me is that it means somebody’s been listening,” Jaffe said. “Not just to my latest piece, but over all these years. That means a lot to me, to any composer. But probably not as much as to some schoolchild hearing an orchestra for the first time.”

Jaffe came to Duke in 1980 as successor to another academy member, composer Robert Ward. He has since become one of North Carolina’s pre-eminent composers, winning awards and fellowships from the Kennedy Center, Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. When the National Symphony toured North Carolina in 2005, it selected one of Jaffe’s compositions to play, “Cut Time.”

The N.C. Symphony has been one of Jaffe’s regular collaborative partners over the years, most notably with a piece for the symphony’s “Postcards From North Carolina” series in 2006. Jaffe delivered “Poetry in the Piedmont,” an impressively detailed composition that even included recorded sounds of birdsongs.

“He’s very thoughtful and deeply philosophical,” said Scott Freck, general manager of the N.C. Symphony. “I’d even say spiritual, in a nondenominational way. Everything he does is with intent – like trying to imbue his piece with real from-the-earth North Carolina flavor by incorporating birdsongs. That was brilliant, just fantastic.”

Jaffee’s other major works include 2000’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra” and 2001’s “Homage to the Breath,” which have been released on the classical imprint Bridge Records. The Academy of Arts and Letters helped launch Jaffe’s recording career with a 1993 grant, the Arts and Letters Award in Music, which helped underwrite “Music of Stephen Jaffe, Vol. 1.” The series will soon be up to a fourth volume, which is in the works.

Going to the academy’s plush headquarters in Manhattan to receive that award 19 years ago was an experience that Jaffe still remembers.

“I walked in, and there was Allen Ginsberg discussing homeopathic medicine with the cloakroom attendant,” Jaffe said. “Then I went into the bathroom, and there was T. Coraghessan Boyle. It was amazing, although getting in myself kind of reminds me of Groucho Marx’s quote about being suspicious of any club that would admit him. Everybody who gets in has the feeling of, ‘Why me? It should have been so-and-so.’ That year, Ginsberg felt William S. Burroughs should have gotten in before him and that’s what he said in his acceptance speech.”

Next month’s ceremony will mark the first time Jaffe has been back to the academy since 1993. Once he’s in as a full-fledged member himself, Jaffe will have a voice in deciding who gets grants like the one that helped him.

“As a member, the principle function is to assist in the development of creative arts in America,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with assisting younger artists with financial awards. It’s hard for young people to get their work out there – that first record made, their first piece developed, their first portfolio in a gallery. That’s what it’s all about.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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