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CD Review

Aaron Jay Kernis

  • Newly Drawn Sky *
  • Too Hot Toccata *
  • Symphony in Waves
Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar
* première recordings
Cedille Records CDR90000105 DDD 64:00
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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-à-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 piece.

Kernis has not disdained the short orchestral showpiece, like Rimsky's Capriccio espagñol 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 #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 Bartók'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 time.

Copyright © 2009, Steve Schwartz.