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Musical World

Aaron Jay Kernis

  • Composer


AARON JAY KERNIS: In coming down on a particular side of the now-defunct schism between the avant-garde and the listening public, Kernis safely sides with neither—hewing, instead, to his own personal vision of what is beautiful, flowing easily from moments of dissonance to moments of lyrical resolution. Or, as one critic wrote: “Kernis is at or near the top of a list of young American composers who have made it safe for music lovers to return to the concert hall and enjoy new music that neither panders to nor alienates audiences.” With this as his raison d’etre, Kernis might well be among the true postmodernists.

 Born in Philadelphia in 1960, Kernis, largely self taught on violin, piano, and composition, attended the San Francisco Conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale University, working along the way with a diverse array of teachers: John Adams, Charles Wuorinen, Morton Subotnick, Bernard Rands and Jacob Druckman. His West to East coast trajectory is betrayed in the wild catholic range of his influences—everything from Gertrude Stein to hard-edged rap to the diaphanous musical canvas of Claude Debussy. Coming up when he did, in the 1980s and 90s, he took from what was around him—the disparate musics and the collapsing aesthetic streams—and, gathering influence from his broad swathe of teachers, forged a rich, distinctive, emotionally immediate music, neither “this” nor “that” but simply and clearly good. The brilliance of his work rests on the exuberant splay of his instrumental palette (even when writing solo or chamber music) crossed with a brooding, poetic depth cut in sharp relief: wild, visceral, violent passages against calm, prayer-like quietude. “Kernis,” Michael Fleming wrote in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote, “is a composer of fastidious technique and wide-ranging imagination.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, Kernis composed two deeply contrasting symphonies, works that were to him were pre- and post-tragic—the tragedy, in this instance, being the first Gulf War of 1991, an event that affected him deeply. Before it struck, his 1989 Symphony in Waves (commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra), a large-scale five-movement work, is of a particularly colorful bent, caffeinated and lively, but with passages of overwhelming lyricism; in contrast, his Symphony No. 2 (1991), commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony, is an enraged, topical work, delineated by aggressive, clangorous writing for percussion.

 Other orchestral pieces by this accomplished colorist include Newly Drawn Sky (2005); Color Wheel (2001); Musica Celestis (1990) for string orchestra; New Era Dance (1992), commissioned to mark the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary, which Edward Seckerson called “…Aaron Jay Kernis' street-smart power-mix circa 1992. Latin salsa and crackmobile rap meets 1950s jazz;” a violin concerto, Lament and Prayer, written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust; Goblin Market (1995), a setting of Christina Rosetti’s puckish poem for narrator and large ensemble; and Air for violin and orchestra, commissioned in 1995 by Joshua Bell (originally for violin and piano, but later reconfigured for orchestra and premiered in 1996).

His chamber, solo and vocal repertoire is equally colorful and varied: Two Movements (with Bells) (2007); the salsa-inspired 100 Greatest Dance Hits for guitar and string quartet from 1993; Quattro Stagioni dalla Cucina Futurisimo (“The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine”) for narrator, violin, cello and piano; and the piano quartet Still Movement with Hymn (1993), commissioned by American Public Radio for Chrisopher O’Riley, Pamela Frank, Paul Neubauer, and Carter Brey; a song cycle for soprano Renée Fleming, scored for voice and piano and later orchestrated and performed by the Minnesota Orchestra; and the piano suite Before Sleep and Dreams (1990) written for superstar pianist Antony De Mare.

Kernis served for over ten years as new music advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra and he is currently the Director of Minnesota Orchestra’s Composers Institute. Each season, in partnership with the American Music Center, eight or so composers are given the chance to hear their music performed by a professional orchestra after a week-long immersion under the trained and experienced eye of the composer.