Aaron Jay Kernis
AARON JAY KERNIS press reviews
Composer Aaron Jay Kernis
…arresting...remarkable...Kernis [has] fearless originality and [a] powerful voice.
— New York Times
Mr. Kernis is, to my ears, the most consistently exhilarating of the younger American postmodernists.
— New York Observer
With each new work and new recording, Kernis solidifies his position as the most important traditional-minded composer of his generation. Others may be exploring musical frontiers more restlessly, but no one else is writing music quite this vivid or powerfully direct.
— San Francisco Chronicle
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Winning various prizes is a goal of many people. A few have succeeded, and after the flurry that accompany youth and promise, significant ones can be awarded toward the end of a creative life. Aaron Jay Kernis earned the biggest — the Pulitzer — rather early, before turning forty. He was a runner-up in 1994 and the winner in 1998, becoming the youngest to be so honored. Four years later he was given the Grawemeyer, another of the best-known and prestigious designations for a musician.
A thorough biography from his publisher appears at the end of this webpage.
Late in 2002, Kernis was in Chicago for performances with the Chicago Symphony and also for master classes and other activities. Despite his growing reputation and ever-increasing discography, he seemed genuinely pleased to speak with me and to know that I would be playing his music on the air.
Here is that conversation . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Being the winner of two very prestigious awards, everyone comes to you wanting music. How do you decide yes or no?
Aaron Jay Kernis: It’s tricky. It’s actually very tricky. Often the advice I give to young composers, which for most of the years that I received commissions I took, is never say no to anything. When it comes to a point — as it has, where I simply can’t write all the projects I’m asked to do, and as the forces get larger and the pieces in size get larger — then I really have to start to make some decisions. A lot of it’s based on what feels right to me, what’s something that I could imagine wanting to do in this period of years.
BD: What feels right to you now, or what feels right to you a year from now and two years from now, as you’re getting it done?
AJK: Well, this is the thing! I’m already having to think in five-year — or even more — periods of time, especially with my next project being an opera, which I’ve given myself about three years to write. It’s very difficult to think, “Well, I’ll be an entirely different person in three years.” So it’s a little tricky for me to say, “Oh, yes, I want to write this symphony, then the next symphony,” or whatever. But I’m beginning to have to think that far ahead. There are pieces — like say a piano concerto or something that I know will be really, really difficult for me — that I hope to know, at some point, when I’ll be ready. Maybe it will be fifteen years from now. Pieces like that, I intuit that I’m not ready now.
BD: Then, no matter what you’re doing, you will just start working on it?
AJK: Probably at a certain point, if I feel I can imagine being ready, I’ll start either mentioning it to people or talking to people that have suggested that kind of piece to me.
BD: Let me turn the question on its head. When you’re writing any specific piece, if you get an idea that you think would work well in a different piece, do you stop and work on it, or do you just note it down and put it in a drawer?
AJK: I don’t even note it down. I just make a mental note of it. Sometimes I’ll write a little comment. I don’t typically have musical material coming into my head. I have images about what ideas I like and what colors I’d like to be in a piece, and I’ll just put that in the back of my mind and go on with what I’m doing, and then come back to it. If it keeps coming back to me, I know it’s something that I should pursue.
BD: That it’s important?
AJK: Yeah — or that it could be.
BD: At what point does it change from a picture image to a sound image?
AJK: Well, it’s funny. It sometimes is a sound image, but it may not be a specific sound image. It may be a texture. It may be just a tiny bit of a phrase of something that is very hard for me to describe. It’s often not very specific.
BD: At some point, though, you’ve got to translate it into something that’s readable by the horn player and the violinist!
AJK: That’s the hardest part, yeah. But that later-on process, that’s something entirely different. The images are like an early stage, a very early stage. Once I actually get to writing the notes, I’m not really concerned with those any more. The images give me a sense of maybe a shape of a piece or maybe a color to the piece. It’s just some way of sort of tagging some starting place into the piece, some entryway.
BD: Then do you work on it in your head specifically, or do you let it work on you?
AJK: I let it work on me, yeah.
BD: Once it’s done, are you merely transcribing it?
AJK: No! No, no. No, as I said, even when it’s working on me, those elements are just the beginning of something. Then it’s actually the hard work of working on the notes and the phrases. That’s why it’s hard to talk about. It’s big!
BD: But you work on it and you work on it, and eventually you do get it right?
AJK: I try.
BD: How do you know when it’s right?
AJK: I feel. There’s a certain point when you’re getting close to the end of something that I know I’ve gone as far as I can, and other than some details, it’s done. It’s a physical feeling.
BD: Is it up to you, as the composer, to get everything out of every piece?
AJK: No. No. I think in certain pieces, when I really want to cover a lot of emotional terrain in a particularly big piece, there are many elements, many dramatic concerns. But I can’t expect to do everything in one piece, or get everything into one piece. So I don’t have that expectation.
BD: Is it wrong for us to have that expectation of you?
AJK: I think for everything to be in one piece would be an experience that no one could take in because it would be too much. I think there has to be some reduction down to an audible, down to an experiential — something one can experience rather than everything all at once. We are a maelstrom of emotions and things going on in our mind. Can you imagine transcribing all of that at once into a work of art???
BD: Well then, are you focusing in on one section of you in each piece?
AJK: I wouldn’t say in each piece, but that’s a difficult question. I don’t know.
BD: Has winning those prizes put an undue expectation, either on your part or on our part, for each successive piece?
AJK: On your part, I can’t say. On my part, yes it does. It’s been an interesting experience. I had, as a teenager and in my early twenties as well, won a number of prizes — BMI prizes, ASCAP prizes, things like that. And prizes are, you know, very nice! It’s nice to get a pat on the back, and a check! It never hurts. Especially in those earlier years, that kind of recognition was tremendously important to furthering confidence. It’s great for young composers just to feel that their work is being recognized by an outside organization, or other composers. It builds a lot of confidence and a sense that you should go on. The problem with the Pulitzer Prize was that initially, it gave me this sense of worry, of, “Oh, had I just written my best piece, and could I not do anything more? Was that it?” And it gave a kind of too much of an expectation, as you said, for the next piece. I had to let go of that, of course, or otherwise I would just worry about that incessantly. When I won the Grawemeyer Award, I did not feel that way. The Pulitzer for the String Quartet was a surprise. I’m very happy with the piece, but it was just unexpected at that time. I’m quite young and I thought, “Wow, this is incredible, at my age!” But I also didn’t expect it for a chamber piece! So I think when I won the Grawemeyer Award for Colored Field, a piece I feel really, really close to — and I went through a lot with — I felt a kind of resolution from winning that prize. I felt very, very happy.
BD: Is there a sense of resolution each time you finish any piece?
AJK: Yes, in a way, but usually the resolution is tempered with, “Oh, I have to go on to the next piece.” There are very few pieces where I actually resolve any musical issue. There are always things to work on and to work towards in the next successive works. Lament and Prayer is one of the pieces that signified for me the end of a series of pieces. So when I reached that end, it was wrapping up a series of years of work, but also leaving me to a very uncertain future. So that moment of resolution passed very quickly!
BD: Now having the prizes and having the commissions all lined up year after year, I assume that means that you’re not going to struggle for money to put food on the table. Has that at all changed the way you look at your music?
AJK: On one hand, I struggle so much with writing music that to have any other struggles is overwhelming. But there are many other struggles. My wife is pregnant; we’re going to have twins in a couple of months, which is very exciting, and will bring me into an area of my life that I have no experience. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, or what it’s going to ask me for! And of course there’ll be new financial issues and new time issues and space issues and all of these things.
BD: Sleep issues?
AJK: Yeah! So, there’ll be other challenges.
* * * * *
BD: You’re a composer. Are you also a teacher?
AJK: I don’t have a position as a teacher, but I do master classes here and there. Last year I taught at Bowdoin for a week, and have done a number of different residency situations which I find very gratifying. I like to be more in the role of a mentor for a short period of time and get to know people in an intense way for a short period of time. It’s very satisfying. And I feel I’m not quite yet ready to have a full-time teaching position with the amount of work that I have to do.
BD: That was to be the next question if you were teaching regularly — do you get enough time to compose. So, do you get enough time to compose?
AJK: I think pretty much. I have a very labor-intensive area of my job in Minnesota, which is running a composer reading program. That takes many months to administrate and to choose the pieces. And it takes much more time than I originally expected. I find it incredibly rewarding and great to see a next new crop of talented young composers get these readings. I do sometimes really struggle; I do want to take more and more time with my pieces.
BD: You want to spend more time with each one, or just spend more time composing various pieces?
AJK: Lately I seem to need more time to spend with each one. I actually hope that changes. It’s not that I want to spend less time, it’s that I’d like my process to move a little more quickly.
BD: Streamline the process a little bit?
BD: Are you working at all with a computer?
AJK: I engrave all my music on the computer.
BD: So it’s not just the last segment of the process?
AJK: No. Actually as I write it’s sort of segmented. I go from my first sketches, and when I’m very happy with something in a sketch form, I’ll then type it into the computer and then go back and forth between the piano and the computer. Then there’ll usually be a later stage of orchestration. It’s almost like making a short score on the computer.
BD: Is it nice to know that instead of guys hammering on engraving plates, you can actually just make a little change here and there?
AJK: That’s one of the very best elements, the ability to go in and revise very easily.
BD: Then once your scores are published, they are not set stone but at least set on paper?
AJK: Yeah, but I still go back and tinker.
BD: Would you like there to be a time when the scores all come from you, and anyone who requests a score will get the latest touch-up and the latest edition, and make sure that this mistake is taken out, etcetera?
AJK: I’m more concerned with the larger ideas — if I really feel like a section needs to be re-orchestrated. If there are errata along the way, there may not have to be a new generation of score every time I find a natural missing on a note or something. But for the big revisions I’ll just send the new file to my publisher and basically update the file.
BD: Who is your publisher?
AJK: Until 1999 I was published by Schirmer, and I’ve moved to Boosey and Hawkes in the last year and a half.
BD: Any reason that you want to talk about?
AJK: I wanted to actually own my own copyrights.
BD: It’s important to you to retain those rights?
AJK: It’s become important. Whether it’ll actually be financially meaningful, I have no idea, but I began to feel uncomfortable always giving the copyright over and losing a sense of ownership. That’s really what it’s about, that comfort level.
* * * * *
BD: When you get the piece done and you’ve turned it over — not necessarily the rights, but the performance — to an ensemble or an orchestra or conductor...
AJK: [Interjecting] Well, that comes early on, really.
BD: ...are you expecting them to put anything of themselves into it, or do you want them to perform it exactly as you have notated?
AJK: Well! Of course I hope that they’ll put as much of themselves as they can with their energy and their enthusiasm, but I do believe that first performances should, to the best of intentions, reflect pretty carefully what’s in the score so that the composer can then compare what works and what doesn’t. I’ve had some experiences, in the last few years especially, where the first performances were very, very different than what my intentions were. With one piece that was just revised and re-premiered a few months ago, I had to wait about two or three years to really hear it as I wanted to.
BD: Is there ever a chance that some of these things which are even quite a bit away from what you intended might turn out to be better?
AJK: Oh absolutely, and sometimes they do. But if I don’t have a chance to hear what mistakes I’ve really made or what things really work exactly as I’d intended them to, hearing some kind of other version of a brand new piece helps with neither.
BD: Have you basically, though, been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works over the years?
AJK: It’s getting better and better, the more time there is and the better the materials that the performers perform from. That’s made a huge difference. But yeah, in the last two years I’ve written some big pieces where there were a few situations where the intention of the conductor and my intention were in conflict.
BD: If a conductor really miss-shapes your piece, would you then turn down an offer that he or she would have, to do another of your pieces, or to do that piece again?
AJK: Well, if they ask, hope springs eternal. [Both laugh] The next piece that they do they would have maybe a better feeling for. I want them to enjoy my piece, and in a way, if they were performing another piece — an older piece — I’d feel less uncomfortable because there would be probably an existing model. So if the new performance deviated from that, I’m usually more comfortable by the time I get to a few other performances. I like to see how a piece evolves from conductor to conductor, provided that the first performance reflects my intentions.
BD: Get the first one right and then move from there?
BD: But then it can move quite a distance from there?
AJK: Well, hopefully by that point, by the third or fourth performance at the latest — hopefully by the second — I’ll have fixed what I’ve needed to. I’ll have adjusted the tempi, ‘til they’re really workable and do-able.
BD: Is any of this becasue we’re learning you from piece to piece and are getting closer to you because we understand your history?
AJK: That’s a lovely thought; it really is. There are a few conductors that I’ve worked with who have done a number of pieces, who have a good sense of the different things I’ve done and how they interrelate, and know where to take very seriously what I’ve put down and know where to kind of fudge it a little bit and play with it a little bit. But those are very few. Many conductors or organizations are doing something for the first time, and they don’t know my history; they just have decided to do a piece.
BD: But you’re represented more and more on recordings...
AJK: That’s true.
BD: ...and several of their friends have done your pieces, so that you have a little bit of reputation.
AJK: That helps.
BD: I’ve asked about performances. Are you pleased with the recordings that are out? They have a little more universality.
AJK: Very pleased! I’m very pleased with the recordings that have come out, and I’m only sorry that there aren’t more. There are quite a few, but with the kind of near-collapse of the recording industry, the first thing to go were any of the major recording labels recording new music, and particularly American new music. At least in Europe they could afford to pay those ensembles, but here it’s been harder. I was very fortunate; I had a very wonderful situation with Argo label, which, you know, did wonderful things for five or seven years, and then has stopped.
BD: Are there some more recordings coming along?
AJK: At this point there are a few chamber things that are in the pipeline, but I don’t know when they’re going to come to fruition. In the orchestra world I just don’t know where the next recordings are going to come from, and that’s very frustrating to me because I write a lot of orchestra music.
BD: Do you want to be known as an orchestra composer?
AJK: I think just as a composer. I really enjoy all the different mediums. I feel very at home with vocal music and with chamber music and orchestra music.
* * * * *
BD: Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.
AJK: Oh, I just love it! It’s really my first love because I was a choral singer even before I was a lousy violinist, so I don’t really consider that much of anything. But my first pieces were choral songs, so I really brought that kind of love of vocal music into my work, in general. There I’ve had pretty consistently very, very good experiences.
BD: Is that why you’re eager to get into the opera?
AJK: I’ve been wanting to write an opera for a long time, and it feels like a good time. It definitely feels good. I have a good subject and a good situation.
BD: Is it good that you also have a performance date lined up?
AJK: Yeah, yeah. It hems me in a little bit, but I think in three years I ought to be able to pull it off.
BD: You’ll know in a year and a half whether you’re going to be able to make it?
AJK: I’ll have to make it!
BD: Let me ask the easy question — what is the purpose of music?
AJK: That is the easy question??? The purpose of music? [Thinks for a long moment] The first thing, I think, is just to provide joy, but it’s much more than that. Is music to do anything? There are so many things... [Pauses again] To bring about ideas that can’t be expressed in any other way; to bring us into greater awareness of emotions and feelings and thoughts that we wouldn’t be conscious of in any other way because of the non-verbal nature of it. If one is sensitive to the physical properties of sound — and we all are whether we know it or not — music changes the boy; it changes the psyche. So there’s no single purpose; it’s multi-purpose.
BD: Do you try to hit some of those purposes all the time?
AJK: Oh, yeah! The emotional aspect really has been central to be able to transform things I feel into the language of music. That’s really a lot of the way I feel I communicate what’s most important to me.
BD: When we, the audience, experience a piece of music, are we looking directly into your soul?
AJK: That’s a hard question. You may be right. It’s hard to say, because certainly when I hear the pieces, I feel like I’m looking back at myself.
BD: Do you like what you see?
AJK: Sometimes I do, and sometimes it’s a little scary! And sometimes, when I haven’t got it right, it’s a disaster. It depends, because during the composition process I’m very, very self-critical. But that doesn’t stop when it goes to performance! It just continues. The most pleasurable part for me is when a piece is done and I really feel at home with it, and know that it’s really finished and that I’ve done my best and I can go on. There are only a handful of pieces that I just feel pleasure hearing, and have a sense that I accomplished what I had set out to do.
BD: When you’re writing these pieces, you’re obviously looking inward. Do you also have any impression of the audience that’s going to be hearing it?
AJK: [Sighs] Well, yes and no. Typically when I’m writing music, I’m sitting in the audience. I’m acting as the audience member and I have to be happy with it. I have to be happy myself as an audience member, not just myself as a composer.
BD: Are there times when those two fight a little bit?
AJK: Yeah, a little bit, yeah. But typically I try to write music that I’m interested in and compels me and expresses me.
BD: But I trust you want more than just an audience of bearded, slightly balding forty-year-olds out there.
AJK: Yeah. I’m not sure how much control I have over that. Sometimes I feel frustrated and wish I were doing a film score. I’ve made a few attempts to put electronic instruments in pieces — electric guitar in an orchestra, electric bass, or synthesizer. I’ve done this repeatedly and I like very much the sound that that adds to the orchestra world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the complexion of the audience that’s coming to that concert’s going to change. There are much larger issues that I can only hope to chip away at by occasionally involving myself in educational efforts; trying to help next generations of composers, so that they will go out and they’ll be inspired to try to reach younger audiences. But we’re in real dilemma. We’re in a real problem about our audiences, though I continue to go back to something [conductor] Gerry Schwarz said to me, which is that first of all, young audiences can’t afford to go to the concert hall very often. The next generation, in their thirties to forties, often are raising families and they don’t have time to come. It’s only when many people have enough leisure time, which is after the families are raised, or if the kids are interested in the music and they bring the parents to it.
BD: But by then, they’re not in the habit of doing it.
AJK: That’s right, unless they had done something a long time before that. That’s what’s been missing — that stuff much earlier when they were going to school or were in college or whatever. If you get people excited at that point, it’s something that they’ll find a way to continue — whether it’s buying recordings or the occasional concert — and then come back to later on in life.
* * * * *
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of music, either composition or performance?
AJK: I’m optimistic about composition and quality performance, definitely. I’m very confused about what the landscape is going to look like. I don’t want to see orchestras going bankrupt. Do we have too many of them? Are the administrative ends of the orchestras out of balance — in size and in budget — with the musicians? The musicians are definitely being paid what they’re worth, but is that too much? Is it enough? Is it the right amount?
BD: Is that something that you as the composer should be involved with, or should you just be involved with the music?
AJK: Because I work at Minnesota Orchestra in this position as New Music Advisor, I’ve found myself fascinated to learn to be involved in planning discussions and future programming.
BD: So that’s your other hat?
AJK: Yeah, a bit, and it’s very interesting to me. I would certainly like to see more groups. [The ensemble] “Bang on a Can” and composers that are working in alternative mediums, I find a lot of their work very interesting, very compelling. Some days I wish I was writing for an ensemble of electric guitars and drums. Is that really me? Is that really what I hear? I don’t think so, but sometimes I wish it was because I’d like to find my way in that medium, too! But I think it’s more than just what are the instruments and what are the sounds? I think it’s the experience of going to concerts. Can that change? Couldn’t it become more easygoing, a little more friendly, a little less formalized?
BD: Back to rock concerts?
AJK: I thought rock concerts were great! I actually didn’t really experience them, except a couple at the very end of my teen years. But why not? I prefer that young audiences don’t feel a forbidding sense when coming to the concert hall. I think music should be inclusive and all-embracing, while of course keeping the patrons and keeping the donor base. The formality is a very attractive thing, and that sense of religious rite or religious experience is something that we can definitely have in the concert hall if we’re in tune with it. It’s a wonderful thing and somehow I don’t care whether I’m in a tee shirt. I’m very uncomfortable whenever I wear a tux in a concert. [Both laugh]
BD: Me, too! I hate to do that! Well, is the music you write for everyone?
AJK: No. No, I can’t imagine it’s for everyone. I don’t think any kind of music is for everyone. I think there are just too many different kinds of tastes and kinds of music out there, and so many kinds of audiences that it would be very hard to touch all of them. My audience seems to be a classical audience mixed with a new music audience mixed with a younger audience that is curious to hear new things.
BD: You’re in your early forties right now. Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?
AJK: For the most part, yes.
BD: In the end, is it all worth it?
AJK: Yeah. Yeah, it’s worth it. The stress and the pain of creating, of just finding the stuff that’s deep inside and then finding a way to translate that out onto the page is a very difficult process. It’s staring yourself in the face and dealing with all those things you don’t like to. That’s really the part that’s hard. Some days it goes well and other days it doesn’t, so it’s like anything.
BD: Thank you so much for the time today. I appreciate it.
AJK: Sure. You’re welcome.