An Interview With Aaron Jay Kernis, Coming to Cabrillo

Brett Campbell on August 10, 2009
In the decade since he became the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for his String Quartet No. 2 (“musica instrumentalis”) in 1998, Aaron Jay Kernis has become one of the leading composers of his generation. Not yet 50, he’s won most of classical music’s top honors and garnered commissions from America’s leading orchestras. The New York–based composer has served for a decade as new-music advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra and directs its Composer Institute.

The thoughtful, soft-spoken composer finds inspiration in music of the past (particularly early music), in history and current events, in ancient and modern poetry, in popular music, and more. With so many influences, it’s not surprising that his music is both colorful and eclectic. Kernis is the father of 6½-year-old twins, though parenthood hasn’t slowed his compositional output. He’s continued to produce CDs and commissioned works, to wide critical acclaim.

Kernis’ Bay Area connections run long and deep. In 1997-1998, he studied with John Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory, which has since commissioned new Kernis works, and Music Director Marin Alsop has featured his music at Santa Cruz’ Cabrillo festival — including next weekend’s performance of his Invisible Mosaic III. 


You’ve been to Cabrillo several times. How do you like it?

Whenever I go to Cabrillo, it’s such a joy! Marin has done a wonderful selection of my work over the years. The dedication of the players and Marin — it’s extraordinary to see them present program after program of new music, and do it so well, with such intensity and commitment. They’re incredible players, and they do it because they love it and believe in it. And the audiences are equally passionate and open-minded. The sense of a whole town banding together to listen to new music — I can’t think of anything like it.

Tell us about your work on the Cabrillo program this year, Invisible Mosaic III.

Mosaic III is a piece I wrote when I was very much in transition as a composer. It’s one of my first orchestral pieces from 1988.

I would call it an eclectic piece. It’s really a mixture, starting from a jangly chromatic, gestural orchestral world, very colorful, very busy. And then kind of a scherzo and trio in the middle, which gradually becomes a little more consonant, and toward the end of the piece a repetitive gesture and constant harmony coming out of minimalism, which I was just beginning to work with. So it’s a kind of journey from a language of chromaticism to an embrace of consonance. And you can see that in my work, as a constant shifting, trying to integrate consonance and a more angular language.

You’re an East Coast composer, but you have strong Bay Area connections. You attended the San Francisco Conservatory, you’ve worked with the San Francisco Symphony, you’ve had pieces performed at Cabrillo. With the Internet making so much music available to everyone no matter where they live, do you think there’s still a different East Coast versus West Coast aesthetic among young composers?

Actually, I just returned from San Francisco; we’re probably out there a month every year. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen much of what’s gone on in the Bay Area in new music, probably because I go out in the summer where concert activity is spread out. I still haven’t gotten to the Other Minds festival.

But, given the young composers whose work I know on the East Coast now, I can’t imagine there is so much of a difference anymore. Any sense of “coastalism” and boundaries is being broken down every day. I see this in my students. Between them, they’re all over the map in terms of style and influences. The music that has influenced them is quite different, from generation to generation. There’s such a wide palette, with so much being easily available if you know where to look.

You studied with about as diverse a group of composers as can be imagined — Morton Subotnick, Charles Wuorinen, John Adams, Jacob Druckman. How did that diverse training contribute to your compositional voice?

Certainly, I was aware as a student that I was interested in all sorts of musics, and I wasn’t interested in the hierarchies of “this is better than that.” I was embracing it all and pretty much interested in everything. I’d grown up in Philadelphia listening to a lot of alternative radio, featuring the new-music breakout pieces of Steve Reich and Phil Glass — early minimalism, ’20s jazz, bluegrass, 20th-century symphonists, really the whole spectrum of music — and hearing that radio from Philadelphia and jazz stations really affected my view of the whole panorama of music.

Yale was a special situation because, each semester, students had the opportunity to study with a different teacher and to be exposed to different points of view. I had the good fortune to be a student of John Adams when he was teaching in San Francisco, and then I studied in New York for a year with Wuorinen. That was an intense experience and also formative to how I thought about language and what I wanted to do with my life.

So I think, because of that, I have a lot of respect for different ways of thinking. Of course, I don’t love every style or piece equally, but if the music speaks to me or even speaks to other people, I have a lot of respect for the composer’s intention and try to remain somewhat aware of what’s being written.

How has becoming a dad affected your work?

[My children’s] new presence in my life exerted a strong influence in a couple of pieces that I wrote recently. I found inspiration in texts that talked about the discovery of the world. In those particular pieces [Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby 2006, written for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music], I looked for texts that express the wonder of creation, texts about a kind of transcendence that comes from seeing the spirit in these little bodies and their process of learning, their process of taking on everything in the world. I’m trying to stay more in the moment, the way kids are completely in the moment.

What music do you listen to for fun and pleasure?

I’ve been on a hiatus from listening for the last nine months or so. For the last 18 months or so I was working on my third symphony for the Seattle Symphony, and my new trumpet concerto, which will be done by the New York Phil[harmonic]. So, in writing such a large work over that period, I wanted my studio to be pristine, isolated from other music for a while, except for Bach and old choral music. When I’m working hard, the only music I let in around here is music directly influencing the piece I’m working on.

I listen to new music to get information about what’s out there, what’s new. There are certain composers I follow: [Louis] Andriessen, Magnus Lindberg, certainly when Lou Harrison was alive, [Steve] Reich and [John] Adams and Arvo Pärt ... I always want to know what they’re doing.

You’ve lived in Manhattan for many years. How does being in that rich urban mix affect your music?

I spent a lot of years living downtown or on the upper East Side, upper West Side. Since the early ’90s I’ve lived at the tip of Manhattan in Washington Heights, in a place surrounded by gardens. I have great light; I mostly hear kids playing in the playground and maybe some bus noise. I don’t feel the urban-ness here so much, except when I go on the subway and head downtown. In the last two years, I’ve spent so much time in the studio and haven’t gone anywhere else, so my home is like my own private retreat. I live in the best of both worlds.

You’re known as one of the leading contemporary composers for traditional orchestra, and yet traditional orchestras are under a lot of pressure. Many of them play little or no new music, and younger composers are increasingly turning to starting their own ensembles and performing their own music. So what’s the future of new music for orchestra?

I think about that every day: “What am I doing? Am I out of my mind? Should I be writing for small ensemble?” I have no doubt orchestras will continue to exist, but how many there will be or what state they will be in is a big question. To keep the medium alive, one has to create new music for it. One has to be constantly writing for established mediums to keep them grounded in the present and vibrant for the future.

If I were 24 or 25, would I be starting my own ensemble, or trying to balance the two? Composers have to have laboratories to develop their own sound, as the Bang on a Can composers have done over the years, as have so many good people who have really found a sound and developed that sound world with unique combinations of instruments, going all the way back to [Philip] Glass and Reich and their small ensembles. And much further back.

You’ve worked with young composers closely at Minnesota’s Composer Institute. What advice do you give them?

I talk to them, when they’re working with a conductor, about how to use rehearsal time; when you need to make changes or when not to make changes; how to use tight time to your advantage and be more precise in what you ask from an orchestra.

Most compelling is finding young composers with really interesting voices, people pushing the boundaries, and developing their facility for writing for orchestra. How to push boundaries with limited rehearsal times — that’s something I’ve tried to foster. I’m really looking to encourage composers to develop that further, to give them encouragement through the program. Of course, it won’t all be encouraging. But it seems that composers get a lot out of the process. It’s a good learning experience that’s helped a lot of composers get to the next stage of their composing and careers.

What’s the next stage for you?

I’m writing a new piece for Orpheus [Chamber Orchestra] that’s loosely to do with the [J.S. Bach] “Brandenburg” [Concerto No.] 6. It starts off with the instrumentation of “Brandenburg” 6 and then expands beyond. It’s been interesting to see what I experience with Bach now, compared to what I would have done 15 years ago. It’s less about counterpoint and more about voice leading and rhythm.

I’m also working on a piece for a group of young musicians in Philadelphia, for flute, harp, viola, and soprano. I’m looking forward to doing works for smaller ensembles, after writing so much for orchestra lately. But also in the back of my mind there’s a huge opera/oratorio that’s on its way in about five years.