Obviously this series could go on every week for the next year, so I’ll have to determine how far to take this. Recall that I’m trying to expose people to important living and working composers they may never have heard of. I’m not so sure about today’s choice, because in my circles he is a name people know.
Aaron Jay Kernis is someone you must familiarize yourself with if you haven’t heard of him. He studied under John Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory and with several other people at Yale and the Manhattan School of Music. He has won more prizes, awards, and commissions than anyone I know of.
Let’s not focus on that stuff and instead get to the music. Stylistically he is often said to be neo-Romantic or post-Romantic with some minimalist influences. I’m not sure I agree, or could even explain what that is supposed to mean exactly.
The key thing I love so much about his music is how unfamiliar and original the chord progressions and melodies are without losing musicality. You could always create something new by using some random process to make the note choices for you, but that is the furthest thing from what is happening here.
Despite being engaging and interesting from the originality standpoint, the music still can be moving or heartrendingly beautiful. This is remarkable, because so much of music composition is setting up expectations and using familiar ideas to elicit certain responses in people. Kernis has the ability to do this after throwing away the conventions.
He is a magnificent orchestrator. He often produces wonderful and strange textures that are in constant flux and propel the music forward. The piece I’d recommend to hear all of these aspects is the second movement of the Second Symphony. It is moving, beautiful, and utilizes the orchestral textures while simultaneously being ominous and unfamiliar.
With how good his orchestral works are, I still think that his chamber works are where he excels the most. His second string quartet made him the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer. That piece is magnificent, but my favorite work of his of all time is still the first string quartet.
The first string quartet is usually listed under Musica Celestis if you want to find it. I think the Lark Quartet might have the only recording. I used to listen to this piece on repeat when I was in high school. It was without question one of the definitive pieces that made me want to be a composer. I’ve listened to it probably hundreds of times.
The first movement is aptly named “Flowing,” because the main first theme is a soaring, flowing melody. The piece is extremely dense and chaotic at parts. As I said before, it will feel very unfamiliar in terms of melodic lines, chord progressions, and even form, but it is more in an originality way rather than alienating. It still sounds natural.
The second movement “Adagio” is the movement I listen to the most. It starts slow and beautiful with long sustained, open chords. This is one of those deeply moving pieces. In the middle, the climax is shocking in its power.
He starts a low ascending pattern that climbs up higher and higher, getting faster and faster, to an intensity that is almost unbearable. Then the opening, chilling chord progression comes back while the intensity in the first violin lingers just a tad too long. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and I found the effect so amazing that when I was younger I often tried to imitate it myself when I wrote pieces.
It only works if the performer is ready to fully put themselves out there. If you don’t go for it one hundred percent, then it will sound awkward because of how exposed it all it. Luckily, the Lark Quartet pull it off perfectly, and they will leave you with chills at the end of it.
One of the remarkable things about the string quartets is how large they can sound. He writes in a way that maximizes the medium’s potential. At times it is hard to tell whether it is a full string orchestra or just a quartet (there is a string orchestra version of the Adagio I just wrote about, but I think it isn’t as good, because the exposedness of that section needs to be one on a part to feel that way).
Anyway, I could go on like this all day about his music. If you haven’t heard of him, you should definitely check out some of his works, especially the first string quartet.