Aaron Jay Kernis
* Newly Drawn Sky*
* Too Hot Toccata*
* Symphony in Waves
Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar
Cedille CDR 90000 105 TT: 64:00
Summary for the Busy Executive: How to be Me.
The composer with a personal voice -- whose music you can recognize
almost immediately -- has always run rare on the ground. To be sure,
fine composers have achieved much without this attribute. For every
Beethoven, there are several Rieses. For every Shostakovich, there's a
slew of Soviet and now Russian composers ready to riff on older discoveries.
Even the Minimalists -- whom you might think all sound alike -- have
their superstars and their decent guys, and the superstars (Adams, Glass,
Reich) tend to be those composers whose work stands distinct from each
other and from everybody else.
Those not so blessed with immediately-identifiable traits still separate
themselves in mainly two ways: a personal view of their model, as in the
case of, say, Rubbra and Holst; a personal eclecticism in which a bunch
of influences receive unique emphases, as with Barber vis-a-vis Brahms,
Stravinsky, and Edwardian song-writers.
Aaron Jay Kernis strikes me as the second kind of composer. One finds
many influences in his music -- Copland, classic Minimalism, jazz, the
academics of the Sixties and Seventies, among others -- but it serves a
personal rhetoric. Add to this an imaginative ear for orchestral color
and you don't really wonder why he's received a Pulitzer. Kernis began
as a "constructivist" composer. That is, he formulated a procedure for
specifying notes before the notes themselves. For example, Morningsongs
(1983) works with only a limited number of pitches at a time and delineates
sections by changing the pitch set. However, as the years have passed,
Kernis has become more interested in the emotional power of music. He
has even embraced classical structures. He wants his music to reach a
listener as directly as possible, and it turns out he has a talent for
it. I can't say I've liked everything I've heard. Sometimes I feel
as if Kernis goes on longer than his ideas warrant -- too much air.
However, I've certainly liked most of the pieces that have come my way.
Newly Drawn Sky (2005) is a kind of nocturne, but without extra-musical
narrative or description, although the sounds certainly evoke night
noises. We begin with an ascending line in the cello, quickly overcome
in a nervous frazzle. It turns out that the distress doesn't last long,
and the piece -- musically, at any rate -- deals with ascension, in long,
climbing lyrical lines. A trumpet calls yearningly over the landscape.
Little points from the woodwinds, like fireflies, flicker and fade. We
build to a "radiant" conclusion and, again, a short fade -- a beautiful
Kernis has not disdained the short orchestral showpiece, like Rimsky's
Capriccio espagnol or Russian Easter Overture. He has written at
least the heart-racing New Era Dance. Too Hot Toccata joins that work.
Toccatas, of course, get the heart pumping. We can expect that a "too-hot"
toccata should deliver something beyond what we expect. Kernis comes
through in spades. The opening is stuffed with ideas, speedy counterpoint,
and virtuoso solos from just about every principal, all within the context
of swing and bop bands. Ever since Milhaud at least, classical composers
have tried to get the controlled wildness of the jam session into concert
music. The closest before now, in my opinion, was Bernstein's Prelude,
Fugue, and Riffs. Kernis has done Bernstein at least one better. Though
highly organized, it sounds made up on the spot. This first section
gives way to a more relaxed, lyrical passage, and then you hold on to
your skirt. As complex as the opening seemed, it's almost genteel
compared to its return -- a toccata on speed. This is such rhythmically
complex music, I doubt strongly that most of the musicians here actually
keep the beat. There are so many notes, it reminds me of Zappa's Black
Page -- more ink on the page than white space; "statistical density,"
as it were. The jam session constantly threatens to fly apart, like a
watch wound too tightly. Fortunately, a strong rhythm section holds
stuff together. It's jazz, baby. When it's all over, you find yourself
catching your breath.
In five movements, the Symphony in Waves stands as the richest, most
ambitious work here. After two weeks of serious listening, I can't
say I have anything near its measure yet. I do sense that I'm hearing
something extraordinary. One of my initial problems with the piece --
what do waves have to do with anything but the first and third movements?
-- I quickly dismissed as irrelevant. Kernis and the writer of the liner
notes try to offer a rationale, but I couldn't follow that, either. I
decided simply to listen without the aid of a gloss.
The first movement consists largely of quasi-Minimalist pulsing and
ascending scalar lines -- "quasi-Minimalist" because it's not periodic.
Kernis seems to decide at the moment whether he wants to pulse or not.
Although there are plenty of rhetorical relaxation points in the movement,
it impresses overall as a continual buildup: All those ascending scales
have their own inherent tension. If the first movement emphasized
continuity, the second, designated "Scherzo," stresses the integration
of disjointedness. It begins with short, nervous bursts of notes that
seem to make no sense at all, but Kernis creates an elaborate joke.
He begins to put chords and various accompaniments under these note-y
flashes, and suddenly they begin to make sense. He takes us through a
range of styles, including something that sounds to me like classic bop,
and reserves his best laugh for last -- a boogie-woogie vamp, cut off
after one measure, as if Big Maceo had just walked into the room.
The third movement is "about" tension and release. A sound like metal
grinding against metal opens the work -- tension without letup or even
build for a couple of minutes -- before it relaxes into a long, quiet
section. Yet this isn't really release. One senses doom in the quiet.
However, the music briefly turns lyrical in one of Kernis's beautiful,
long-breathed melodies before the grinding music returns. The tension
is dissipated only in the last chord -- a major triad, both unexpected
and "the real, right thing."
Movement no. 4, "Intermezzo," is a two-minute smile, a point of
relaxation between two heavier sections. Before you know it, you're
into the finale, in many ways a revisit of the world of the scherzo.
We get a kind of abstract big-band jazz, with calls and responses, brass
playing off against reeds (and strings). We find the scalar themes again
reminiscent of the first movement, but applied with even less "method."
They serve mainly to provide cross-accents and a syncopated backbeat.
The end interests me the most. The rhythms become Latin, and the orchestra
takes a three-note motif between its teeth, tosses it around, but doesn't
drop it. The obsession of it reminds me of the finale to Bartok's
Concerto for Orchestra, particularly the fanfare-ish theme on the trumpet.
The ending is a rouser.
Carlos Kalmar and his band do well by all three scores. If they play a
bit rough in something like Too Hot Toccata, I give them a pass because
of the work's complexity and because they play with gusto. Two recordings
-- Gerard Schwarz and Kalmar -- still in print have appeared. I've once
heard the Schwarz and said essentially, "So what?" The music seemed flat.
Kalmar has the advantage of Schwarz's recording, of course, but he really
has come up with a reading of a different, higher order (at least compared
to my memory of the Schwarz) -- richly allusive and coherent at the same
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