From Epic to Electric, Musician Masters Styles, Sounds
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:25

Before Joe Taff got a haircut last summer, one could easily have confused him with a certain religious figure. To be fair, he has probably heard that joke a few too many times, but, if you’ve ever witnessed his guitar chops firsthand, you know the comparison is more than appropriate.

Still, don’t make the mistake of trying to define Railyard Conspiracy’s six-string hero based on that alone. Look up “musician” in the dictionary, and you will probably find Taff’s picture there. Name the musical style, and he has probably mastered it. At a school full of immensely talented individuals, Taff has been one of the most consistently — and deservedly — visible during his Amherst tenure.

Choosing Amherst
Taff, a graduate of the Commonwealth School in Boston, said that high school kept him busy both academically and musically, though he also played soccer, basketball and baseball there.

When it came time for the next step, Taff knew he wanted a liberal arts education, but, to him, location mattered.

“[Amherst] appealed to me because it was actually near other good schools and in a nice town,” Taff said. “It had the personal vibe of a small school, but it also had access to Northampton and the Five Colleges — and, importantly, all the music that the valley and the Five Colleges generates. I knew there would be great acts coming through here and plenty of people and groups to sing and play with.”

Making Himself Heard
Taff certainly found such groups at Amherst, starting with the College’s Choral Society. He was a member of Glee Club for his first three years (and made time to rejoin the group his senior spring), where he served for a time as business manager and, eventually, vice president. Taff was also a member of the Madrigal Singers, which he directed during his sophomore year, and, this fall, Taff broadened his horizons by singing with Concert Choir.

I myself had the privilege of singing with Taff in Glee Club during my first year and again this spring. As a new member of the group and a fellow bass/baritone, I quickly learned that Taff was gifted with perfect pitch and was rock-solid on every song in our repertoire. If you were in the bass section and ever got a little lost, he was the guy you wanted to be standing next to. His voice had, in the words of choral director Mallorie Chernin, a “wonderful, rich color” that was unmistakable yet never overpowering.

Ultimately, Taff’s expertise led Chernin and the rest of the music faculty to select him as the department’s teaching assistant for 2013-14. Taff is quick to give credit to the previous teaching assistants under whom he sang — particularly Jeremy Koo ’12, whom he calls “a tough act to follow” — but he and Chernin, who praised Taff’s “calm demeanor and thoughtfulness,” are excited for next year.

Interestingly, Taff hasn’t always been a singer. He only started sophomore year in high school when his advisor suggested it as a method for further improving his guitar playing.

“But then,” Taff admitted, “I realized singing was pretty fun on its own.”

Jack of All Trades
For three of his four years, Taff played guitar in a jazz combo as well as the “big band” ensemble. There, he further dazzled faculty and fellow students with his musical skill and fluency. But Taff’s generosity continued to be equally impressive. Music Professor Bruce Diehl, the leader of the College’s jazz program, recalls that, in Taff’s junior year, he volunteered to play bass — not his primary instrument — to allow Diehl to create another combo.

In Diehl’s mind, this is just another example of how Taff “really impacted the department in a positive way.”

Music Professor David Schneider, who taught Taff in a music theory class, sees Taff’s excellence in both choral music and jazz as a testament to his musical versatility.

“Joe is a student of unusual breadth and ability,” he said. “It’s unusual for one musician to be at home in so many different styles, but, for Joe, it’s natural.”

An Epic Performance
Perhaps Taff’s magnum opus as a music student was his senior thesis, “Gilgamesh and Enkidu,” performed in January of this year with the help of 16 student singers and musicians.

The idea for the piece, a Baroque opera based on the first half of the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, occurred to Taff in stages. Taff, who also has a strong interest in history, first read an adaptation of the epic before entering high school and was mesmerized, particularly by “the themes of mortality and companionship.”

Once in college, Taff began to realize that the Baroque style would be well-suited to a musical interpretation of the text, particularly given the Baroque tradition of using ancient mythology as the basis of librettos.

From there, Taff wasted no time.

“I actually started adapting the text the winter of my sophomore year,” he said. “And I started coming up with music shortly thereafter. But I did a lot of the writing last summer.”

Incidentally, that was also when Taff had lunch with David Ferry ’46, the poet behind the adaptation of the epic that Taff so admired.

As an audience member at the performance of “Gilgamesh and Enkidu,” I spent most of the performance sitting in awe at the fact that a mere undergraduate had managed to pull off such an ambitious work. His advisor, Professor Eric Sawyer, felt the same way.

“Joe is one of those occasional students whose thesis proposal draws a reflexive response of, ‘You’re going to do WHAT? A Baroque opera about the Epic of Gilgamesh?’” Sawyer said. “But Joe went ahead and did just that — and with a great deal of individuality within his Baroque-inflected language.”

Sawyer also noted, “Joe approached the work without grandiosity and with infectious interest of discovery. Crucially, he never doubted that the story was worthy of illumination for a modern audience, and eventually he and his piece left no doubt that it indeed was.”

Though Taff is rarely so effusive in praise of himself, he readily acknowledged the value of his thesis process in preparing him for next year and beyond.

“It was awesome,” Taff said. “It was definitely a really helpful crash course in leading rehearsals — it’s different when you’re in front of the group and, especially, when it’s your composition! It was also enough fun that it’s part of the reason that I’m now thinking at least as much about going into conducting as going into composition.”

When I told Taff that I saw his blues-funk-rock band, Railyard Conspiracy, as the “musical face of Amherst,” he just laughed. Truthfully, though, what event or gig around the College has “RYC” not played? In addition to playing on campus and in the Five College area, the band recently released its first EP, “City of Lights,” on which Taff plays lead guitar and holds songwriting credits. (If you haven’t heard it yet, check out my personal favorite tracks, “Boston” and “Dream People.” If you’re a guitar player, Taff’s solos on those cuts — and throughout the record — are definitely worth learning.)

Taff said about the experience of recording the EP, “That was crazy — we spent so much time in the studio. We had a weekend where we did like 16 hours. You think you know a song until you bring it in for recording, and you actually scrutinize what everyone is playing, and things that don’t occur to you in performance suddenly jump out at you. We found ourselves really questioning every compositional decision, which was cool.”

For Taff, playing with the band has been “a ton of fun.”

“We don’t know what we’ll be doing next year [when drummer E.J. Nisbeth ’13 graduates], but we will definitely be playing together somehow.”

Bandmate Ben Muller ’14, Railyard Conspiracy’s keyboard and saxophone player, reflects fondly on his time spent with Taff so far.

“Joe is wonderful to collaborate with,” he said. “He’s incredibly responsive, his sense of phrasing is excellent and he always knows exactly what to play to fit the groove. Getting to play with him has made me a better musician.”

The Next Gig
After serving as the music department’s teaching assistant next year, Taff is, not surprisingly, considering a wide range of possibilities within the field of music as career choices.

“I’m thinking about conducting,” Taff said “And I could see myself teaching music theory at some point. I could potentially go to grad school for any of those things right out of next year, but that could also be kind of sudden. I certainly want to do something in music; it’s just a question of getting a sense of what kinds of things are out there.”

What’s out there for Joe Taff? If you ask anyone who has taught or worked with him, almost anything.