Aaron Jay Kernis
© Richard Bowditch
Pulitzer Prize winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis studied composition in San Francisco, Manhattan and at Yale with John Adams, Jacob Druckman, Morton Subotnik, and Charles Wuorinen. He employed rigorous compositional processes until the early 1980s when a growing sense of intuitive freedom became increasingly evident in his work. From 1990 his style took on a new transparency and emotional eloquence, as in the exquisite musica celestis. His is a truly eclectic musical language, as willing to incorporate the influences of Latin rhythms, jazz and rap as to use harmonic worlds of the Romantic masters, the Renaissance and Hildegard von Bingen.
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- musica celestis
- Simple Songs
(1991, rev. 1995; high voice, orchestra)
- New Era Dance
- Lament and Prayer
(1996; violin, orchestra)
- Newly Drawn Sky
- Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby
(2006; soprano, violin, guitar obbligato, piano)
- 1983 First breakthrough when Dream of the Morning Sky was premiered by the New York Philharmonic
- 1998 Appointed New Music Advisor for the Minnesota Orchestra
- 1998 Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for String Quartet No. 2, 'musica instrumentalis'
- 2002 Received Grawemeyer Award for Colored Field (cello and orchestra version)
- 2009 World premieres of new works for the New York Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony
…arresting...remarkable...Kernis [has] fearless originality and [a] powerful voice.
— The New York Times
Mr. Kernis is, to my ears, the most consistently exhilarating of the younger American postmodernists.
— The 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.
— The San Francisco Chronicle
When, in 1983, the New York Philharmonic premiered Dream of the Morning Sky from the pen of then 23-year-old composer Aaron Jay Kernis, it resulted in national acclaim: his star was in the ascendant. One of the youngest composers ever to receive a Pulitzer Prize (1998) for his String Quartet No. 2 (“musica instrumentalis”), and the youngest awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition (2002) for his work Colored Field and the Nemmers Prize (2012), he has also won honors from ASCAP, BMI, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Stoeger Prize, and the American Academy in Rome; the list of those who have commissioned and performed Kernis’s work runs a veritable who’s who of the classical music world. Among the most feted of living composers, he is one of America’s leading lights, having passed from youthful phenomenon to a genuine potent and original artist, possessed of a lyrical yet sophisticated voice. “With each new work and new recording,” says the San Francisco Chronicle, “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.” In coming down on a particular side of the now-defunct schism between the avant-garde and the listening public, Kernis safely sides with neither, hewing instead, to his own personal vision of what is beautiful, flowing easily from moments of dissonance to moments of lyrical resolution. As Forbes Magazine wrote: "In the 20th Century there were giants in the land: Ives, Ellington, Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein. But who is filling those shoes now? Heading many lists is Aaron Jay Kernis...who has written distinctive, vivid music in virtually every genre."
Born in Philadelphia in 1960, Kernis, largely self taught on violin, piano, and composition, attended the San Francisco Conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale University, working along the way with a diverse array of teachers including John Adams, Charles Wuorinen, Morton Subotnick, Bernard Rands, and Jacob Druckman. His west to east coast trajectory is betrayed in the wild catholic range of his influences, from Gertrude Stein to hard-edged rap to the diaphanous musical canvas of Claude Debussy. Coming up in the 1980s and 1990s, he drew from what was around him — disparate musics and the collapsing aesthetic streams — and, gathering influence from his broad swathe of teachers, forged a rich, distinctive, emotionally immediate music, neither “this” nor “that” but simply and clearly good. The brilliance of his work rests on the exuberant splay of his instrumental palette (even when writing solo or chamber music) crossed with the sharp relief of a brooding, poetic depth: wild, visceral, violent passages against calm, prayer-like quietude. “Kernis,” Michael Fleming wrote in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “is a composer of fastidious technique and wide-ranging imagination.”
During the 1980s and 90s, Kernis composed two deeply contrasting symphonies, works in response to the tragedy of the first Gulf War of 1991. His 1989 Symphony in Waves, a large-scale five-movement work, is of a particularly colorful bent, caffeinated and lively, but with passages of overwhelming lyricism; in contrast, his Symphony No. 2 (1991), commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony, is an enraged, topical work, delineated by aggressive, clangorous writing for percussion.
Other orchestral pieces by this accomplished colorist include Musica Celestis for string orchestra (1990); New Era Dance (1992), commissioned to mark the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary and described by The Independent as “… Aaron Jay Kernis's street-smart power-mix... Latin salsa and crackmobile rap meets 1950s jazz;” a violin concerto, Lament and Prayer (1995), written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust; Goblin Market (1995), a setting of Christina Rosetti’s masterful poem for narrator and large ensemble; Air for Violin and Orchestra, commissioned in 1995 by Joshua Bell (originally composed for violin and piano, then reconfigured for orchestra and premiered in 1996); Symphony of Meditations (Symphony No. 3) with solo voices and chorus (2009); Newly Drawn Sky (2005); and Color Wheel (2001).
His chamber, solo, and vocal repertoire is equally colorful and varied. Quattro Stagioni dalla Cucina Futurisimo (“The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine”) (1991); the salsa-inspired 100 Greatest Dance Hits for guitar and string quartet (1993); the piano quartet Still Movement with Hymn (1993), commissioned by American Public Radio for Christopher O’Riley, Pamela Frank, Paul Neubauer, and Carter Brey; Valentines (1999), a song cycle for soprano Renée Fleming and piano, and later scored for orchestra for Minnesota Orchestra; Two Movements (with Bells) (2007); the Renaissence-inspired L’Arte Della Danssar (“The Art of Dance”) for soprano, flute, viola, harp and percussion (2010).
Recent and upcoming commissions include A Voice, a Messenger, a concerto for trumpet soloist Philip Smith in consortium with New York Philharmonic and Big Ten Band Association; a work for eighth blackbird; Perpetual Chaconne, a quintet for David Shifrin and the Orion Quartet for the Santa Fe and La Jolla Chamber Music Festival and Chamber Music Northwest; and a choral psalm setting commissioned by Soli Dei Gloria.
Recent recordings include his orchestral works by the Grant Park Festival Orchestra (Cedille); his Pulitzer-Prize winning String Quartet No. 2 ("musica instrumentalis") by the Jasper Quartet (Dorian); and Goblin Market with Invisible Mosaic II by the New Professionals, Rebecca Miller conductor and Mary King narrator(2011). Previously issued recordings include a widely acclaimed CD with Hugh Wolff conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in his Symphony No. 2, Invisible Mosaic III, and "musica celestis", nominated for a Grammy and winner of France's Diapason d'or Palmares for Best Contemporary Music Disc of the Year. His music is available on Naxos, Koch, Phoenix, Virgin Classics, New Albion, Cedille, Signum, Nonesuch, and Arabesque.
Kernis currently serves as Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. Each season, in partnership with the American Music Center, up to eight composers are given the chance to hear their music performed by a professional orchestra after a week-long immersion under the trained and experienced eye of the composer. He has taught composition at the Yale School of Music since 2003 and has served as Composer-in-Residence for Astral Artists, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Albany Symphony, Minnesota Public Radio, and the American Composers Forum.
— September 2012
For specific inquiries about this composer, please contact Katy Tucker at katy.tucker(at)schirmer.com or (212) 254-2100 ext. 134.