War, with Interludes (1991–1995)
War, with Interludes (1991–1995)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines Kernis's music in the years 1991–1995, a period marked by a proliferation of dark, brooding works responding to world conflicts. These works include the Second Symphony (1991), a reaction to the first Gulf War; Still Movement with Hymn (1993), provoked by the war in Bosnia; Colored Field (1994), inspired by his 1989 visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau; and Lament and Prayer (1995), a memorial to the Holocaust. Was it the self-confidence brought on by increasing fame that in some sense empowered Kernis to take on these greater-than-life themes or to imagine that in some way he could, by his art, effect a change in the world around him? Such a viewpoint in no way indicates a misplaced self-importance. Rather, it is essential to the very art of composition, to the communicative goal that most composers pursue: the reaching out, through personal self-expression, to move and commune with listeners, and ultimately inspire a transformation in them.
BY THE END OF THE 1980S KERNIS had established a reputation as one of the most promising young composers on the contemporary scene. New York critics approached his concerts with their antennas up and pens poised. Allan Kozinn called him “an eloquent young composer [who] finds an excellent balance between abstraction and lyricism.” John Rockwell characterized him as “exuberant” and “fecund,” noting that he “happily mixes idioms.”1 Prizes and commissions continued to roll in as well: an NEA Composer Fellowship (1986), a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation Grant (1987), awards from the Koussevitzky and Fromm Foundations (1988–89, for Songs of Innocents), and an ASCAP Young Composers Grant (1989), to name a few.
Considering such positive acclaim, the next period may seem more than a little surprising. The years 1991–95 are marked by a proliferation of dark, brooding works responding to world conflicts, most notably, the Second Symphony (1991), a reaction to the first Gulf War; Still Movement with Hymn (1993), provoked by the war in Bosnia; Colored Field (1994), inspired by his 1989 visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau; and Lament and Prayer (1995), a memorial to the Holocaust.
Was it, perhaps, the self-confidence brought on by increasing fame that in some sense empowered Kernis to take on these greater-than-life themes or to (p.72) imagine that in some way he could, by his art, effect a change in the world around him? Such a viewpoint in no way indicates a misplaced self-importance. Rather, it is essential to the very art of composition, to the communicative goal that most composers pursue: the reaching out, through personal self-expression, to move and commune with listeners, and ultimately inspire a transformation in them; to raise consciousness about what links humans to one another; to overcome, at least momentarily, the divides of politics, culture, and language. Lou Harrison once noted that “big works, such as … symphonies, are efforts to embody a viewpoint of the world. One doesn’t assemble a large orchestra and a large audience without feeling that in some sense the composer is, if not representing, at least expressing, some part of himself as the ‘general citizen.’ The composer becomes, in short, a kind of singer for others.”2 Harrison’s response to the 1991 Gulf War was to shut down; as a spokesperson for the “general citizen,” he simply lost his voice for several years. Kernis, on the other hand, cried out stridently in protest.
Other composers, in contrast, resolutely stuck to abstract works, maintaining a distance between their artistic creations and the all-too-present violence around them. “Charles Wuorinen, your former teacher …, claims that you’re confusing art with politics,” suggested Jenny Raymond in an interview with Kernis in 1998. Kernis responded that contemporary composers have been made uncomfortable “in feeling inspired by the world at large. … Whether it was the Second World War [or] socialist-realist art,” it was deemed “too dangerous to take influences directly from the world, from events, from people’s experiences.” Historically, he reflected, “the rise of Darmstadt and post–World War II ultramodernism came as a specific response to Soviet-era repression. Writing music for the masses, writing music with a message, became connected in people’s minds with fascism.”3 But Kernis already had a substantial history of writing music with a message, dating back to his early Meditation (in Memory of John Lennon) and Death Fugue in 1981. Indeed, human tragedies have served as catalysts for some of his most profound works.
Despite the predominance of war-inspired, sorrowful works in this period, Kernis also provided himself emotional relief by creating more buoyant ones. “I always need a break,” he says, “to something lighter, something different.” The virtuosic orchestral New Era Dance (1992) embodies that dichotomy within itself. Although it was fueled by images of the riots in Los Angeles following the announcement of the verdict in the Rodney King case, outbreaks of violence in Atlanta, and threats of the same in Kernis’s own Washington Heights area, the piece is at many points exuberant and even, at its end, cautiously optimistic—although the exuberance is consistently tempered by the threat of chaos. This (p.73) work and the comical Superstar Etude no. 1 for piano followed immediately on the heels of the Second Symphony. A quintet for guitar and string quartet, 100 Greatest Dance Hits, dates from 1993, the same year as Still Movement with Hymn. Indeed, the devastation at the end of the Second Symphony—which leaves the listener shattered—is not matched in Kernis’s other war-inspired pieces. Both Still Movement and Lament and Prayer conclude instead with compassionate supplications, embodying in their dynamically restrained and unhurried musical expression the extreme effort needed to reach individual catharsis and collective peace amid the world’s seemingly intractable conflicts. Any perceived resolution in these works, however, is hard-won. “In Still Movement with Hymn,” Kernis notes, “it is reached at the last possible second and with great effort. Lament does reach full resolution, but neither in major nor minor—neither hopeful nor negating hope.” The ultimate impression in both works is that of an unfulfilled quest.
Although these works were incited by concrete events, the resulting musical expression embodies, in the best historical tradition, more generalized human emotions. The works, in short, transcend their stimuli. None of them is defined by its catalyst. Rather, like the visual or verbal images that inspired many of Kernis’s other works, the world events that prompted these compositions simply served as springboards for a more all-embracing human response.
Two Works with Narration: The Four Seasons of Futurist Cooking and Goblin Market
Among Kernis’s compositions in this period are two large works with narration: Le quattro stagioni dalla cucina futurismo (The Four Seasons of Futurist Cooking, 1991) and Goblin Market (1995). The first originated at the period’s outset, the second near its end, thus creating a frame for his output in these war-dominated years. Le quattro stagioni is a twenty-minute composition for piano trio and speaker, with texts (in English translation) from the Futurist Cookbook of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Goblin Market is a near-operatic setting of a lengthy poem by Christina Rossetti. Building on the diverse approaches to word-music interaction he had explored in earlier pieces, here Kernis took on the significant challenge of combining music with spoken narration, using two contrasting texts and finding two contrasting solutions.
In part, Kernis’s choice of Marinetti’s work stemmed from his own love of both cooking and parody. The Futurist Cookbook (1932), according to Lesley Chamberlain, was “one of the best artistic jokes of the century,” aiming to “wrench (p.74) food out of the nineteenth-century ‘bourgeois’ past and bring it into the dynamic, technological urban twentieth century.”4
In 1930 Marinetti coauthored (with painter Luigi Columbo Fillìa) the revolutionary Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, which was published in Turin’s Gazzetta del Popolo.5 This manifesto was in part tongue-in-cheek, in part political satire, in part a serious condemnation of the Italian lifestyle. Marinetti particularly lambasted pasta, accusing it of inducing lassitude and a lack of courage. Not surprisingly, his challenge met with loud public outcries. He also advocated linking the senses by making cuisine appeal to tactile, auditory, and visual stimuli. He devised sculpted foods, for instance, advocated the use of perfumes, and favored the abolition of knives and forks.
Marinetti’s highly controversial writing career had begun decades earlier with the Futurist Manifesto, which glorified speed, urbanization, and technology. “We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!” he proclaimed in 1909. Kernis, finding himself on the promontory of the next century, opened his own piece with these same words, introduced by a fanfare of fortissimo cluster chords in the piano interspersed with virtuosic figuration in the strings. But Marinetti’s 1909 text had continued with a paean to violence and an outburst of misogyny and anti-intellectualism that Kernis excised. “We will glorify war,” Marinetti wrote, “the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.” Bypassing these controversial sentiments, Kernis took up Marinetti’s 1909 text again when he celebrated the era’s technological revolution.
We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multi-colored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; … bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; … deep-chested locomotives that paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing.6
(p.75) From that point, Kernis cut to the 1930 cooking manifesto, quoting at length the essay’s proposed revolution in language (injecting “agility into world literature with words-in-liberty”), in cinematography and photography, and, of course, in food. “While recognizing that badly or crudely nourished men have achieved great things in the past, we affirm this truth: men think dream and act according to what they eat and drink.” Futurist cooking, Marinetti asserted grandly, “proposes a complete revolution in the nourishment of our race, with the aim of making it more joyful, spiritual and dynamic.”7
The four movements that follow Kernis’s introduction describe meals appropriate for the four seasons. In the first, “Heroic Winter Dinner,” a group of soldiers about to go off to war consume, among other dishes, a “drum roll of colonial fish” and “raw meat torn by trumpet blasts.” In the second, “Springtime Meal of the Word in Liberty,” three young men sit outdoors at an arbor for a meal that begins with “a synoptic-syngustatory plate … of peppers, garlic, rose petals, bicarbonate of soda, peeled bananas and cod liver oil equidistant from each other.” The third movement, “Nocturnal Love Feast” takes place on a terrace in Capri in August. In the concluding movement, “Autumn Musical Dinner,” Marinetti describes a meal for two couples in a hunter’s cabin in a forest. Accompanied by whistling wind and the wail of a violin, they are served chick peas, seven capers, twenty-five liqueur cherries, twelve fried potato chips, a sip of wine, and a roast quail that they look at and smell but do not eat. Four long handshakes with the peasant cook conclude the meal.
Thus Kernis created his own plot, extending the process we saw at work in Love Scenes and Simple Songs. After a glimpse into Marinetti’s worldview he transitioned to food, cutting out, in the process, parts of the text that offended (or simply didn’t appeal to) him, and rearranging other elements to form a new, coherent work.
Why, one might ask, did Kernis select the work of this controversial right-wing author, whose political affiliations and violent language have spawned extensive commentary and interpretation? (Marinetti loudly touted his military experiences, was a member of the Fascist party, and supported Mussolini. On the other hand, he was a devoted husband and father and strongly condemned anti-Semitism in 1938.) Kernis’s choice of text had both pragmatic and symbolic stimuli. On a practical level, he set out to write something fun with immediate appeal to both performers and audiences and suited to the occasion of the premiere: a birthday event. More important, however, he was attracted by Marinetti’s combination of music, politics, technology, and cuisine, as well as parallelisms between the twentieth century’s beginning (symbolized by the 1909 manifesto) and its rapidly approaching end. In developing his own text from these sources, Kernis excised much that was distasteful in Marinetti’s work. In short, he presented Marinetti de-fanged.
Musically, the opening movement, “Manifesto,” shows connections to Kernis’s previous harmonic language in its oscillation between consonance and dissonance. After the fanfare and the narrator’s first exclamation, the piano begins a series of soft rising second-inversion triads, organized in groups of two and built on an ascending scale in the bass. As the chord-pairs continue, Kernis inserts melodic (p.76) disjunctions between them. Then, in m. 15, the harmony becomes polytonal—the two hands play different triads—but at the same time the left-hand chords retain a connection to the beginning by appearing in pairs that rise by step. Simultaneously the strings play flurries of sixteenths until they are interrupted by a loud F♯ major chord in the piano (the pitch in the bass where the entire pattern of triads had begun). Thereafter a series of long-note chords in the piano, often creating mediant progressions, accompany quarter notes, then quarter-note triplets, then eighth-note triplets in the strings. The movement ends with a widely spaced A major chord (a fifth from the opening D). The introduction thus summarizes Kernisian traits: oscillation between consonance and dissonance, motives based on scales, changes in density, and gradual rhythmic acceleration. It also contains harmonic, textural, and rhythmic crescendos: increases in dissonance, speed, and density—typical strategies Kernis uses to build excitement.
The remaining four movements, the seasonal meals, can be seen as a traditional symphony or chamber music form: fast-moderate-slow-fast. The second one, “Springtime Meal of the Word in Liberty,” parodies the nineteenth-century symphony and opera. It opens with a reference to the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth (inspired by the word liberty), although here the fifths rise instead of falling. Kernis subsequently makes stylistic reference to Bruckner in the guise of a Romantic melody accompanied by tremolos, and then quotes the Grail Leitmotif from Wagner’s Parsifal—an allusion to the text’s “cod liver oil.” (Mendelssohn had previously used this same motive, known as the “Dresden Amen,” in his Reformation Symphony.) Later in the movement Kernis inserts a reference to the opening of Mahler’s Third Symphony as the narrator tells us that the diners “dutifully eat a bowl of traditional tortellini in brodo.” Then, as their “palates take flight quickly to search … for an indispensable new harmony,” chordal structures outside those previously explored gradually appear.
The “Nocturnal Love Feast” is in ternary form. In the opening section, and again near the end, the piano imitates a harp with arpeggiated figures that gradually evolve and change. At the movement’s conclusion, the string players sing “O Sole Mio” and the piano concludes with an evocation of Claire de lune. The virtuosic finale features the pianist, who races around scalar patterns presto and in unison in the two hands.
The narrator in Quattro stagioni sometimes speaks unaccompanied, sometimes concurrently with the music. When music and speech occur simultaneously, Kernis aligns the beginnings of sentences with specific moments in the score, but generally leaves the precise rhythm up to the speaker. The narrator can thus exercise considerable freedom within the bounds of the musical structure.
(p.77) In contrast to Quattro stagioni, Goblin Market is monumental in scale. This forty-five-minute work for narrator and chamber orchestra (the longest piece Kernis had written up to that time) is basically a short opera, using as its libretto a complete setting of Christina Rossetti’s 1859 convention-busting narrative about two sisters tempted by goblins who offer to sell them luscious but poisonous fruit. “Dense with symbolism and sexual allusions, passionate and decadent—a … journey through the darkest areas of the psyche,”8 the lengthy tale challenged established Victorian mores, to say nothing of poetic conventions. (The lines are irregular in terms of meter and length.)
The sisters are yin and yang, Apollonian and Dionysian. “Lizzie most placid in her look,” writes Rossetti, “Laura most like a leaping flame.” Indeed, cautious, sensible Lizzie resists the tempting cries of the goblins (“come buy, come buy”), whereas Laura, in modern psychological terms, is a reward-sensitive, dopamine-driven risk-taker. She succumbs to the goblins, paying for their fruit with a lock of her golden hair. She then eats gluttonously, sucking “until her lips [are] sore,” and vows that night to return for more.
The following day, however, Laura can no longer hear the goblins, although Lizzie continues to be haunted by their cries. Longing to satisfy her craving, Laura returns day after day to no avail. “But when the noon waxed bright / Her hair grew thin and grey; / She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn / To swift decay and burn / Her fire away.” In short, she “seemed knocking at Death’s door.”9
Lizzie, who had lovingly tended to her sister, decides in desperation to brave a meeting with the goblins and buy their fruit as a “fiery antidote.” She approaches them with trepidation, offering money but steadfastly refusing to eat. The goblins, spying another conquest, at first swirl in images that suggest the furies in Gluck’s Orfeo: “Flying, running, leaping, / Puffing and blowing, / Chuckling, clapping, crowing, / Clucking and gobbling, / Mopping and mowing. … / Fluttering like pigeons, / Gliding like fishes.” But at Lizzie’s refusal to eat, they become violent, and Rossetti’s description has suggested to more than one commentator a rape: “They trod and hustled her, / Elbowed and jostled her, / Clawed with their nails, / Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking, / Tore her gown and soiled her stocking, / Twitched her hair out by the roots, / Stamped upon her tender feet, / Held her hands and squeezed their fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat.” Still Lizzie resists. “Though the goblins cuffed and caught her, / Coaxed and fought her, / Bullied and besought her, / Scratched her, pinched her black as ink, / Kicked and knocked her, / Mauled and mocked her,” Lizzie utters “not a word … / Lest they should cram a mouthful in.”
Staggering home smeared with fruit, Lizzie begs Laura to lick the juice from her face. In a rite of exorcism, Laura does so and falls into a swoon. In the morning (p.78) she is cured and returns to health. In the epilogue, years later, Laura tells her children and Lizzie’s about her sister’s bravery in the face of the “wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men, / Their fruits like honey to the throat / But poison in the blood.”
The text has prompted commentators to cite diverse images: the temptation of Eve, the lure of the devil, Christ’s sacrifice (“Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life”—John 6:54), Song of Songs, the AIDS epidemic, and lesbian love.10 (In addition to the highly erotic scene in which Laura licks the juice from Lizzie, Rossetti earlier paints a blissful picture of the two sisters sleeping together, “Golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest / Folded in each other’s wings.”) Kernis himself noted that the initial impulse for his music came from “the tangled roots of desire, seduction and the loss of innocence at the heart of the text, which connects to our own end-of-century lack of innocence.”11 In the end, however, Rossetti reverts to Victorian female roles: both women are “wives / With children of their own.” Critics have variously responded to this ending as symbolizing the mastery of evil, maturation through learning self-control, progress from a fall from innocence into “an ascent into experience,” female rites of passage, the redemptive role of human interdependence, and an overarching religious mandate.
In addition, most critics highlight autobiographical references. Rossetti’s brother William encouraged readers to identify Lizzie with their older sister Maria (to whom Christina dedicated Goblin Market), strong-willed and over-protective with an imposing physical presence. At middle age, Maria entered an Anglican convent. Laura, on the other hand, evokes images of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife Lizzie Siddal, a sickly, beautiful woman addicted to narcotics who died of an overdose in 1862. Christina, for her part, never wed; she broke off one engagement and rejected a second marriage proposal on religious grounds. She also tamed her rebellious, wild-tempered spirit, transforming herself into the polite, humble, modest, self-denying (and, most probably, repressed) model of High Anglican womanhood expected of her.
In contrast to most of his previous vocal works, here Kernis set the 567 lines of Rossetti’s text in toto, and the spoken narrative runs almost constantly through the lengthy piece. Furthermore, unlike Quattro stagioni, Goblin Market requires the narrator to execute precise rhythms, thus closely linking the text to its musical accompaniment. The narrator never recites unaccompanied, posing additional challenges in terms of the projection of the words. (In performance, the narrator must be amplified.)
Kernis’s score calls for a chamber orchestra of fourteen players. In order to diversify timbral color, the two percussionists play twenty-three types of instruments. (p.79) The harmonic and contrapuntal language is often dissonant and the texture dense. “I thought that such a dark story warranted a similarly gloomy musical language,” Kernis told Carlo Boccadoro in 1999, “and as a matter of fact this is one of my most chromatic works, using harmony in a strongly expressionist way reminiscent of the spirit of early Schoenberg. … [Nevertheless] the climax of the piece is reached through the explosion of an ultra-consonant chorale, almost provocatively based on very simple tonal harmonies” ending in E major. Indeed, the chorale appears in the epilogue, where the texture thins noticeably; but, a bit like the mischievous prankster in Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, the goblins, now playful, have the last word. A little woodwind flourish at the final moment recalls their earlier flying, running, leaping, puffing, blowing, chuckling, clasping, and crowing. Kernis reminds us (though Rossetti does not) that temptation and darkness always threaten.
Through his musical expression, Kernis thus added his own interpretation and rhythmic characterization to the poem. Conductor Rebecca Miller cites one of many examples: as the girls fall asleep together at the end of part I, she notes, the music settles into a sweet-sounding D major, but the oboe and glockenspiel add a tart dissonance to hint at darker things to come.12 Leifmotifs unify the lengthy score, and instruments represent characters. The woodwinds often portray the goblins. The viola is the free-spirited protagonist (Laura), who sings in Romantic melodies. The high-strung violin, in contrast, represents the overprotective Lizzie, who assumes through Kernis’s pen a sometimes frantic persona not evident in the written text. (“I saw Lizzie as constantly worried and shying away from confrontation until she finally finds her courage,” says Kernis.) The contrast between the sisters is aptly shown in their first duet (part I, scene 2): long sweeping melodies in the viola are interrupted by frenetic disjunct outbursts in the violin. After Laura eats the goblin fruit, however, she is transformed; her romanticism becomes agitated frenzy.
As usual, Kernis’s imagination finds voice in his colorful orchestration. One of the most striking sections is a passage of flutter tonguing in the winds (in part II, scene 1) that lasts for a full two minutes. Although Kernis had used a similar procedure in Invisible Mosaic II, in this case the individual pitches are sustained for a longer period and the flutter is more pervasive. Beginning with the flute and clarinet, he piles instrument upon instrument until the fluttering includes flute, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, and horn; it is further enhanced by rolls on the bass drum. At the height of this section, the instruments begin to articulate shorter notes, entering at different times like daggers piercing Laura as she keeps watch “day after day, night after night” for the return of the goblins.13
Later, as the goblins retreat following their unsuccessful battle with Lizzie, the music thins and descends literally into nothingness. The higher instruments (p.80) drop out, leaving only the bass clarinet and then the double bass, which descends in a slow glissando marked at its end by a pianissimo stroke on the bass drum. (A comparison might be drawn to the descent into a single gong stroke in Invisible Mosaic II.) A recording of the portions of Goblin Market discussed here is mounted on the book’s Web site, http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/miller/kernis/.
Quattro stagioni and Goblin Market reflect Kernis’s growing international reputation but also his connections to the past and his ability to adapt to different dramatic situations. Quattro stagioni is in some ways an intimate work. Written for a chamber ensemble, it was commissioned for a private occasion: the piece was a fiftieth birthday present for John Gidwitz, president of the Baltimore Symphony, from family members. The work’s premiere took place in a private concert at Martha’s Vineyard on August 30, 1991. (Performers included Jorja Fleezanis, who had premiered Brilliant Sky, Infinite Sky the previous year, cellist André Emelianoff, who had commissioned and premiered Love Scenes, and pianist Christopher O’Riley. Michael Steinberg narrated.) Kernis wrote the work in the spring of 1991 in the privacy of a quiet artistic setting: the MacDowell Colony. Since its premiere, however, Quattro stagioni has had a highly public history; it is one of Kernis’s most frequently performed works. In 2007 Copland House presented it as a fundraiser coordinated with a grandiose epicurean event: television chef Lidia Bastianich reconstructed a Futurist banquet based on the meals described in Kernis’s piece. The banquet took place at her Del Posto restaurant in Manhattan for a capacity crowd of 150 guests. The musicians, with Fred Child (host of NPR’s Performance Today series) as narrator, presented the individual movements between courses. “A dream evening for me!” Kernis recalls.
Goblin Market, in contrast, was highly public from the start. Commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the piece began its performance life with a nine-city tour of England (January 12–22, 1995), including a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and others in Shrewsbury, Barnstaple, Bath, Blackpool, Lancaster, York, Leicester, and Birmingham, all in halls appropriately suited for a chamber opera. (Audiences ranged from 180 to 471 for a total of 3,313 for the run.) The Birmingham ensemble presented a staged version of the piece, collaborating with the Trestle Theatre Group. They modernized the setting, portraying the sisters as drugged runaways taking shelter in a fruit and vegetable warehouse. Laura’s encounter with the goblins became a hallucination. Reviewers praised Kernis’s score, but some had trouble with the interaction of speech and music. The form itself “is problematic,” wrote Alastair Macaulay in the Times of London. “Listeners have to choose between paying attention to text or music.”14 Indeed, making the text entirely comprehensible without subordinating the musical score to the background is an extremely difficult task. (p.81) Kernis’s success is laudatory, but he himself may have realized the form’s inherent dangers and ultimately irreconcilable demands. Since Goblin Market he has not written any other works with spoken narration.
The Second Symphony
Marinetti’s cookbook had been a birthday gift to Kernis from his girlfriend Catherine Bush in January 1990. Kernis had met Bush at the MacDowell Colony in 1988, and a serious relationship developed that led him to live near her, first in Toronto and then in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1990 (a few months before he met Evelyne) the relationship foundered. At the same time, the threat of war in the Middle East loomed on the horizon: on August 2 Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. Kernis was about to embark on writing his Second Symphony, which ultimately became a response to the war that erupted the following January. The emotional stress from his romantic breakup only added to the cataclysmic complexion of the new work.
The commission for the symphony came from Carillon Importers through their CEO, Michel Roux (with advice from Jeffrey Kaufman, head of Phoenix Records, and producers Ettore Stratta and Pat Philips). Carillon Importers brought Absolut vodka to the U.S. market. Roux persuaded the Swedish liquor manufacturer to fund commissions for the arts, both visual and aural. The musical part of the project began in 1989 with commissions to Joan Tower, Michael Torke, John Adams, and Lukas Foss. Each year a Wednesday evening concert at Avery Fisher Hall called “Absolut Concerto” featured the commissioned works. The proceeds benefited worthy non-profits, for example, Pro Musicis, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and, for the concert with Kernis’s symphony, the National Minority Business Council. The Second Symphony was the largest work in the third concert, which took place on Kernis’s thirty-second birthday (January 15, 1992), two days shy of a year after the United States and its allied coalition partners began aerial bombing in Iraq.15
The political climate of the country during the half year or so Kernis spent composing his symphony was tense. The war itself did not erupt until January 1991, but it had been building steadily after Saddam Hussein sent troops into Kuwait, overrunning the country and declaring it a province of Iraq. Polls taken in the United States between November 1990 and January 1991 showed strongly divided opinion—both hesitation and substantial support for the war.16 The villainy of Saddam was widely reported: his blatant violations of human rights, his use of biological and chemical weapons in the war against Iran and against the Kurds within (p.82) his own nation, and his saber-rattling bravado. At the same time, many on the Left were enraged by the U.S. government’s actions. Why was the nation becoming involved in a regional conflict in a volatile area of the globe? Were we going to witness another extended war like that in Vietnam? How much of the decision to go to war was motivated by protecting U.S. oil interests? These protests were countered by loud supportive rhetoric, bolstered by horrific tales of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait (some of which turned out to be false). The sterile, antiseptic nature of modern warfare, with its up-to-the-minute, on-the-scene reporting by journalists, cast a surreal haze over the war and in effect muted, for many members of the public, the very real toll in human life. The world watched in detached wonder as live CNN reports showed smart bombs that found their targets using sophisticated technology. Some dubbed the conflict a “video game war,” glorying in the coalition’s ability to destroy critical structures and target “a modern Hitler” with virtually no danger to the attackers, and (they asserted) with minimal casualties on the ground.
The public, however, received a dose of brutal reality on February 13, 1991, when the United States bombed an air-raid shelter in the Amiriyah area of Baghdad. Two smart bombs were dropped on the facility in the 4:30 A.M. raid, killing more than four hundred sleeping civilians. The Pentagon insisted that the bunker was a command and communications center to which Saddam had deliberately sent civilians. Pictures of bloody, dismembered bodies caused outrage throughout the world, but the military’s prestige survived the disaster, which has now become only a footnote in the war’s history. Two weeks later, after a short ground assault, George Bush declared a ceasefire and proclaimed the war at an end.
Kernis wrote in the program notes for the Second Symphony: “The absurdity and cruelty of this war, in particular the ‘surgical’ nature of its reliance on gleaming new technological warfare used at a safe distance, made an enormous and lasting impression on me. It awoke me to the brutality and hollow moralizing of which nations are all too easily capable and led me to examine the culture of war and genocide in our time.”
The twenty-six-minute, three-movement work opens “aggressively” with a movement titled “Alarm.” A quick roll on the timpani accompanies a stark ascending line in the horns. It is a typical Kernis motive: a rising scalar figure followed by a leap of a fifth, beginning in f minor, historically a key of Sturm und Drang (example 2a). Kernis envisioned this line as a metaphor for the individual human voice struggling futilely against the war machine, represented by “unrelentingly brutal music” in the orchestra. As the symphony continues, the “mechanistic, crushing background” gradually overpowers the “breathing melody” until at the end the individual is annihilated. (p.83)
(p.84) The machine makes its appearance right from the start in the guise of an ominous series of agitated eighths and sixteenths in the strings and low winds underlying the rising line in the horns. That accompaniment also emphasizes the fifth, an interval that figures prominently throughout the symphony.
An explosion of percussion follows the opening statement.17 As usual, Kernis calls for a huge array of instruments: four performers play a variety of drums (snares, tom toms, bass drums, log drum, brake drum, bongos, congas), bells (hand bells, cow bells), seven cymbals of various types, mallet instruments (vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, chimes), wood blocks, thunder sheet, crotales, cabasa, reco reco (a Brazilian güiro), triangles, lead pipe, and four tam-tams. The piano, too, often functions as a percussion instrument, especially in the central part of the movement where, with the log drum, congas, and tom toms, it plays a continuous sixteenth-note pattern of clusters that underscores frantic call-and-response melodic motives in the winds and strings.
Although the first movement as a whole has a loose A–B–A’–Coda structure, the opening motive permeates it (and, in fact, the entire symphony). As shown in example 2b, the B theme is loosely related to A by its rising scalar trajectory. It appears first in a fugal texture, boldly stated in the horns followed by imitation in the trumpets and then the trombones. A winding-down before the movement’s conclusion reintroduces the opening bass drum roll before being cut off by a violent ending.
At twelve minutes, the intermediary slow movement (the first one Kernis composed) is twice as long as the opening one—and it is this movement that reviewers most often cited. The title, “Air/Ground,” simultaneously evokes the war and early music. The essential quality is that of a Baroque lament aria (the English term for aria at the time being air). Baroque laments traditionally featured ostinato bass lines (often, but not always, four notes descending), supporting an overlying freer melody. Among familiar examples are Monteverdi’s Lament of the Nymph, which uses the simple four-note descent, and the “Crucifixus” portion of Bach’s B Minor Mass, in which the descending fourth is filled in chromatically to portray more poignant weeping. Kernis’s second movement begins with a motive in open fifths in contrary motion in the flutes and clarinets (example 2c) accompanied by handbells, suggesting both medieval music and Byzantine culture. The theme is a rising scalar motive in the clarinets, recalling the beginning of the first movement but now accompanied by its inversion. In addition, Kernis uses an additive process here reminiscent of his early works: the opening three-note figure is expanded to five, which then blossoms into an expanded line. After this introduction the viola presents the ground bass: a rising four-note (p.85) motive that begins with a half step, referencing the phrygian mode (example 2d). The clarinet’s solo lamenting air above it brings to mind the B theme of movement 1. Simultaneously, a subdued rhythmic accompaniment features throbbing chords in the contrabass supported by rolls on the bass drum. The ostinato in this movement evolves in the way Kernis had explored in earlier works, such as his Passacaglia-Variations (although in this case the motive is far more concise and controlled.) The rising scale becomes a descending one and expands in length. Eventually it takes on a form very similar to that of the opening melody of movement 1 (example 2e).
The February 13, 1991, bombing provided the catalyst for the symphony’s finale, “Barricade.” It opens by referencing, once again, movement 1, with rolls (this time on snare drum and cymbal) and a melody in the violin very similar to that at the beginning of the symphony (example 2f). This motive pervades the entire eight-minute finale. The complex layers of counterpoint that marked the earlier movements are now stripped away, leaving the line vulnerably exposed, only to be ultimately buried under the machine’s final assault. In the middle it is punctuated by fortissimo gunshots. Somewhat later it is inverted, becoming a downward ostinato recalling the second movement. (Creating thematic connections among the various movements of a work became increasingly common for Kernis.) In the end, the music builds in intensity to an extended roll simultaneously on all four tam-tams, beginning pianissimo and increasing, over the course of eight measures, to ffffff. The players hold that volume for five seconds and then let the sound die out over the course of a half-minute. The effect is devastating, as well as ear-splitting. (In performance, virtually all the musicians need earplugs.)18 Allan Ulrich, reviewing the San Francisco Symphony performance of 2002, wrote that the conclusion was greeted by thirty seconds of stunned silence before anyone dared to break the spell with applause.19 The last minute, wrote Pierre Ruhe after a performance in Atlanta two years later, “is an end to everything, a percussion blast that obliterates all that came before it, and then silence. Nothingness. Finito. No catharsis, no resolution. Madmen, munitions, death.”20
1992–1993: New Era Dance, Superstar Etude no. 1, and 100 Greatest Dance Hits
Critics called Kernis’s Second Symphony Mahlerian in scope (if not in length).21 At the same time as it was unveiled in January 1992, the New York Philharmonic was entering a new era in its history. In celebration of its 150th anniversary (the (p.86) oldest orchestra in the United States, it was founded in 1842) and in honor of its new music director Kurt Masur, the Philharmonic commissioned Kernis to write a symphonic work, New Era Dance. It shared the commission with the Baltimore Symphony, which presented the work’s premiere on April 8, 1994, in a concert of twelve pieces by U.S. composers called “Dance Mix,” conducted by David Zinman. Kernis took his (very appropriate) title from a World War I–era ragtime tune.
The violent features of New Era Dance highlighted by many reviewers appear immediately in the opening section. Taped electronic sounds (which Kernis derived from movie scenes and sound-effect recordings) accompany the orchestra, projecting explosions and strafing by fighter planes, while two police sirens and pistol shots accompany loud salsa music. (One of the percussionists shoots off blanks.) Following up on a comment by the composer, critics drew program-matic references to the six days of riots in Los Angeles in 1992—a response to the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King—as well as to the urban noise in the Washington Heights area. (The neighborhood has since become rather gentrified.) At the same time, New Era Dance also projects a vibrant present and an urgent call for an inclusive future. The salsa reference has reminded more than one listener of Bernstein’s West Side Story (thus evoking musical theater), and the work as a whole ends in an energetic chant by the full ensemble in anticipation of the new millennium, “in hope for a time of imperative political and social change in this country.”22 As David Wright succinctly put it in the program notes for the New York Philharmonic performance: “In New Era Dance, a piece seemingly ripped from the streets of today’s New York …, Kernis powerfully evokes the rage of people left out of [the twentieth century’s] vision of progress, and also the hope that springs from their energy and indomitable spirit.”
In addition to his usual extensive battery of percussion (enhanced with sirens, a police whistle, and the pistol), Kernis included the collage of recorded sound effects mentioned above as well as a sampler attached to a MIDI keyboard. (His composer friend Eve Beglarian graciously helped with this electronic component.) Programmed into the sampler are additional sounds (for example, marimba, electric bass, and turntable scratching) and the noise of shouting crowds. The basic material of the eight-minute dance resembles that of the first movement of the symphony. In fact, its main theme is in essence a presto version of the rising scale with leap that opened the earlier work (example 2g). In tribute to the two renowned orchestras, New Era Dance is truly virtuosic. Among the highlights of the opening section is a canon at the quarter note for two trumpets, whose theme is characterized by notes interspersed with rests, inspired by fourteenth-century hocket, the (p.87) virtuosic interlocking rhythmic patterns in gamelan music, and, most important for Kernis, the canons of Steve Reich. After twenty-four bars of hair-raising presto trumpet writing, Kernis ups the ante even further by introducing a third trumpet; the three play another canon for about fifteen bars, now an eighth-note apart. (One is reminded here of the close canonic imitation in the violins at the beginning of the fourth movement of the Symphony in Waves, cited in Chapter 4.)
The central section contains two parts, one slower and fugal, the other fast with flutter tonguing and salsa references. Then a recollection of A ushers in a section with the themes combined (much like the recapitulation in the opening movement of the symphony), leading to the reintroduction of the violence of the beginning. On the prerecorded tape are the “sounds of political protest, bombing, marching crowds, machine guns, and explosions.” The sirens end in a dramatic moment of silence except for the blaring of a police whistle. Then the orchestra members begin to chant “New era, new new new new era,” first in a whisper, then rising to a shout, accompanied only by the percussion section and the sampler. Growing in volume, the chant becomes rhythmically more complex, until it is transformed into an exuberant call for social change. The short coda recaps the beginning theme, followed by the sounds of fireworks instead of bombs.
In the same year as he composed New Era Dance, Kernis wrote Superstar Etude no. 1 for piano solo, dedicated, “in admiration,” to Alan Feinberg. The piece pays tribute to (but also parodies through exaggeration and the extraordinary use of the left foot on the keyboard) the pounding piano style of Jerry Lee Lewis, whom Kernis had already referenced in his Symphony In Waves. The three-minute etude features heavy repeated chords at the extreme ends of the keyboard, full-keyboard glissandos, clusters, and shouting (“Whoa, baby!”). At m. 77 begins a section marked “cluster city” requiring forearm tone clusters spanning two octaves alternating with smaller ones requiring only the flat palm. Four bars later Kernis instructs the performer to “swing foot up to bottom of keyboard.” The left foot then plays repeated clusters at the bottom of the piano for the next nine bars, ending with a decisive “stomp on the floor.” Thus the piece is as much a visual as an aural show. Indeed, numerous YouTube versions highlight its theatrical aspects.
Kernis continued to explore extended instrumental techniques, salsa, and vocal percussion in the four-movement 100 Greatest Dance Hits for guitar and string quartet (1993). The opening movement is completely percussive, although the note D periodically emerges as a kind of tonic through the use of snap pizzicatos. To indicate his extended techniques, Kernis had to devise a new notation for both the guitar and the strings; he worked out the former with San Francisco guitarist David Tanenbaum. The second movement is a “Salsa Pasada” recalling elements of (p.88) New Era Dance. The third, titled “MOR [Middle of the Road] Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad,” recalls Mildred Kernis’s favorite musical style. A moment of arpeggiated triads in contrary motion brings to mind the finale of Berg’s Lyric Suite, but if the influence was there at all, it was subconscious; Kernis himself cites the harmonies in Ravel’s string quartet and the instrumental interplay in Joaquín Rodrigo’s guitar concerto as stimuli. The finale, “Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat,” begins with a tonal four-measure ostinato that gradually becomes serialist. (Kernis calls it “a deconstruction of late-night TV music mixed with a parody of the New Complexity.”) At the height of this complexity, with snap pizzicatos in the cello and guitar highlighting the important ur-line, the music suddenly stops and a section of “fake samba” (Kernis’s term) intervenes before the contrapuntal texture resumes, this time culminating in various extended techniques and finishing off with vocal chanting. (“Do-it-yourself rap percussion,” he says.) Unlike the chanting in New Era Dance, here the four string players articulate nonsense syllables that imitate a drum set: tsz tsz… … tih (violin 1), kih kuh, kih kuh (violin 2), chicka chika buh (viola), puh ss puh ss (cello). In a sudden interruption, they together yell “Dance party.” Overall, then, this piece is simply fun, providing Kernis “refreshment after working in darker, more dramatic language.”
Minneapolis–St. Paul Residency; New Works about War
In May 1993 Kernis received an appointment as composer-in-residence with three organizations in Minneapolis–St. Paul: the Minnesota Composers Forum, Minnesota Public Radio, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO). The SPCO had just hired a new music director beginning in the 1992–93 season: Hugh Wolff had been part of the triumvirate of conductors working with the orchestra since 1988.23 Wolff had met Kernis at the time of the SPCO’s commission for the Symphony in Waves in 1989. Now, in his first year as sole director, he made a point of performing the entire work, which John Adams had presented only in part. In the same season Wolff conducted the New Jersey Symphony in the premiere of Kernis’s Second Symphony, which he would subsequently record on an award-winning disc.24 In future years, Wolff presented Kernis’s orchestral works throughout the country and in Europe (for example, in San Francisco and Atlanta, at Tanglewood, and in Frankfurt, Stockholm, and Birmingham, England).
Kernis’s three-year residency (September 1, 1993 to August 1, 1996)—the start of what would become a long-term relationship with the musical organizations (p.89) of the Twin Cities—was one of five awarded in 1993 by Meet the Composer, which in this case provided a salary of $30,000.25 The terms of the residency specified that he would “be responsible, in consultation with the Music Director, for the overall contemporary music programming.” He would develop a process for reviewing scores for the SPCO and the Minnesota Composers Forum, participate in educational and outreach programs for all three organizations, and compose works specifically for them.26
Kernis’s connection to these three prominent organizations significantly increased his national visibility. The thirty-four-member SPCO could boast of an impressive record of dedication to new music. A list of world premieres and commissions at the time of his appointment includes fifty-one works directly commissioned by the orchestra between 1961 and 1994, plus many others performed by the group for the first time.
The Minnesota Composers Forum, which dates back to 1973, was founded by a group of graduate students that included Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus. By 1990 the organization was suffering from severe financial problems and the board asked Linda Hoeschler (a seasoned corporate executive who had been a vice president of Dayton Hudson, now Target) to take over the reins as executive director. Although she was hesitant, Hoeschler agreed to a six-month appointment beginning in May 1991. She soon found that she enjoyed the work immensely and ended up remaining at the helm for twelve years, during which time she not only restored the institution’s financial health but also expanded it by establishing chapters all over the country. By the time Kernis began his residency in 1993, the forum was helping more than six hundred composers promote and disseminate their works. The organization eventually became the American Composers Forum, now one of the largest composer service organizations in the country.27
Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), for its part, was (and still is) a major producer of public radio programming. In 1983 MPR joined forces with several other program-producing public radio stations (for example, WGBH Boston, WNYC New York, WGUC Cincinnati, and KUSC Los Angeles) to form a cooperative arrangement called American Public Radio (APR). The aim, according to Senior Executive Producer Michael Barone, was to control more directly the distribution of their programs, without the restrictions of decision makers at National Public Radio. American Public Radio was based in the Twin Cities.28
This new network counted among its most prominent offerings Saint Paul Sunday Morning, a program designed to bring to listeners “an intimate and personal (p.90) link to the classical music performance process.”29 (The word Morning was eventually dropped from the show’s name to facilitate broadcasts in later hours of the day.) Host Bill McGlaughlin (a trombonist and composer) interviewed prominent musicians who were featured in a performance taped especially for the program. (Interviews and performances were recorded at the studio in advance and were subject to editing before broadcast.) In 1993 the series aired on 195 public radio stations throughout the country.
As Kernis began his residency, APR commissioned him to compose a new piano quartet in honor of the network’s tenth anniversary, thereby reviving “a long-neglected role for radio [at least in the United States] as a medium that inspires and nourishes new classical music.”30
Kernis’s quartet, Still Movement with Hymn, received recital performances in several venues on the East Coast in the fall of 1993 and then a widely advertised radio premiere on Saint Paul Sunday Morning on March 20, 1994. Featured in the performance were four renowned musicians brought to Minnesota Public Radio especially for this project: Pamela Frank (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), Carter Brey (cello), and Christopher O’Riley (piano). They had chosen Kernis to receive the APR commission through a mostly blind process. Along with the show’s producer, the quartet members identified a group of young composers, each of whom submitted a recording of fifteen minutes of chamber music. These excerpts were assembled into an audition tape, with the composers identified only by number. Each member of the quartet reviewed the recording independently. Kernis was their unanimous choice. Still Movement with Hymn became a runner-up for the 1994 Pulitzer Prize.
In this piano quartet Kernis reverted to the dark aura of his previous war works, but without the anger of the Second Symphony. Instead, he created an extended thirty-minute lament expressing the “disbelief and loss of innocence that come from learning that the world that most of us believe we live in, one that’s rational, compassionate and forgiving, seems so banal and fragile in light of the force of ethnic hatred and brutality.”31 His own grief arose not only from the genocide concurrently taking place in Bosnia but also from a personal loss: his friend, the composer Stephen Albert, was killed in a car accident in 1992.
Kernis’s distress took the form of a slow lamentation broken only a few times by outbursts of protest. The piece opens with bell sounds in the piano, extremely slow and widely spaced. Time, here, is suspended. There is no sense of beat. The main thematic material then enters in the cello, and consists of a rising scalar motive with a leap of a third at its end, reminiscent in shape of the themes of the (p.91) Second Symphony and New Era Dance, but now showing none of the rage of the former or the exuberance of the latter. Instead, the scale is barren and forlorn, accompanied only by the bells in the piano that toll for the wanton loss of life—on both the grand scale of the Bosnian war and the small scale of a random accident.
The “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia reminded Kernis of another genocide, that of his own people during World War II, a topic that had served as a catalyst for his works as early as the 1981 Death Fugue. That remembrance found voice in the second theme of the quartet (first introduced in m. 53), a descending scalar motive ornamented with grace notes that evoke the sobbing vocal style of a Chassidic cantor. This influence from his boyhood is directly referenced later in the piece when the cello plays a solo recitative. In one of the climactic moments, the three string instruments take up the cantorial second theme in unison, increasing in speed, intensity, and urgency (figure 9; this theme, with its poignant grace notes, begins in m. 233).
Still Movement with Hymn builds on expressive techniques Kernis had previously explored—cluster writing in the outburst sections, a passage featuring high string harmonics, a brief recollection of the traditional four-note descending passacaglia bass, the combining of the two main themes in a broad A B A’ form—but now they are writ large in an expansive personal expression of heartache. The quartet’s slow sections require impeccable ensemble coordination. In the few fast passages, Kernis notes, he drove his material to the breaking point. In these sections, he said, “I can’t go any higher, get any louder, or get more intensity with the … number of notes per square inch.”
The ending forms the work’s most dramatic apotheosis: a seven-minute hymn that begins with two notes and expands to four and then to twelve (using the type of additive process he had found successful since Stein Times Seven). The hymn spins out slowly in the strings, accompanied, as in the opening, by bells in the piano. It uses as its source material a solo accordion piece Kernis had written the previous year for Guy Klusevsek. An extended work of nearly twenty minutes, the accordion hymn contains the same theme but includes, particularly in its central section, far more dissonant explosions than does the quartet. Like Still Movement, it ends with a melodic ascent and a dynamic descent into nothingness. Whereas the accordion hymn simply fades out at the end during a repetition of a two-note motive, Still Movement reaches a point of catharsis in a shimmering C major chord spread over six octaves, with the viola then climbing slowly to the hopeful major third of the chord. McGlaughlin, not usually at a loss for words, had nothing to say following the work’s radio premiere. Silence was the only possible response. (p.92)
(p.93) The events in Bosnia brought to the fore a memory that had lain dormant for five years. During his visit to Birkenau in 1989, Kernis had met an American family from Brooklyn: a couple with two children. In the lush fields covering the former death camp, the children began to chew on blades of grass. Kernis suddenly realized with horror that the ground feeding that grass was soaked in the blood of innocents. “I … saw the fields rise up above me like a tidal wave, awash in a sea of blood and bones and bodies,” he said.32 That hallucination inspired the opening movement of the next work he wrote: a concerto for English horn and orchestra commissioned by attorney Hugh Taylor for Julie Giacobassi and the San Francisco Symphony.
Taylor was fond of the English horn and regretted not hearing it more often in concerts. Thus, when Giacobassi, who joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1981, suggested commissioning a concerto for the instrument, he greeted the idea with enthusiasm.33 The symphony’s management agreed, provided they approved of the composer. Over a period of eight months, Giacobassi listened to music by more than a hundred active composers, looking for one who could write something both interesting and challenging. She and the Symphony chose Kernis. After extensive negotiations, the completion date was fixed for September 1993, with a premiere scheduled for April 1994. The work was projected to last eighteen to twenty-one minutes.
Colored Field, however, turned out to be more than forty minutes long. Because Kernis sensed that the extended length was needed, the completion of the work was delayed; he did not finish the score until mid-March 1994. “My compositional process is always longer than expected,” he reflects in retrospect. “My hopes for a more compact gestation and work period seem always to be foiled by the reality of truly getting to know my materials over time and working very meticulously.” The premiere nevertheless took place as planned the following month, and the orchestra and Giacobassi recorded it for Argo a month later.
The concerto is in three movements, slow-fast-slow, the last of which, at twenty-two and a half minutes, overshadows in length and grandeur the other two combined. Colored Field is neither political nor programmatic despite movement titles that convey concrete images: “Colored Field,” “Pandora Dance,” and “Hymns and Tablets.” The first recalls Kernis’s vision of horror in the fields of Birkenau. The second evokes the world’s evil forces, “little black things slithering out of a box.” The finale has suggested tombstones to some reviewers, but the more important reference for Kernis is the stern voice of the God of the ancient Israelites, transmitted through Moses at Sinai as he delivered the tablets containing (p.94) the laws of human behavior that have so often failed to curb the violent impulses of humankind.
Although the concerto thus contains “imagistic journeys,” says Kernis, “there are no specific stories or dramatic scenarios” in it. Similarly, politics plays no role in its conception; rather, it is about “my identification with my ancestors, relatives, brothers and sisters …, a sense of personal grief, and the translation of wide-ranging emotion into musical form.” A similar statement can be made about the Second Symphony. Although Kernis was in one sense protesting the actions of the U.S. government and the technological war effort, his symphony primarily conveys a sense of “sharing in the feeling of loss brought on by the destruction.”
One preeminent visual impression that inspired Colored Field was the wind playing over the now-beautiful physical environment of Birkenau. “I had an image,” Kernis says, of the way “the world keeps going, nature keeps growing. … Time keeps passing and the wind blows and things go on as they do, things are covered over.” He captured this image quite directly in the set-up of the orchestra. The strings are divided into two sections, separated on the stage. The soloist stands between them as the music passes back and forth in evocation of the wind (perhaps most graphically illustrated in the middle movement). Just as the horrors of the death camp were eventually covered over, so here the solo-ist is gradually absorbed, not by volume as in the Second Symphony, but by the increasingly thick densities of the surrounding sounds. One way in which Kernis achieves this effect, most strikingly shown in the finale, is by layering triads a step apart. “The blanket of sound gets more and more clogged and clustery,” he says.
In many ways Colored Field extends compositional processes and modes of expression that Kernis had explored during the previous decade. On a very direct level, the finale draws from the same accordion hymn that had appeared at the conclusion of Still Movement, but here he uses its loud, dissonant opening chords, rather than the ending prayer he tapped in the earlier work. Marked “stern and intense,” this final movement opens with an image of the majestic stone tablets rising in a stark, grandiose fortissimo in the full orchestra. The chords appear in pairs, the second one rising by step while the first remains unchanged, thus creating a wrenching dissonance. The effect is in many ways similar to—but far more intense than—the opening of the slow movement of Symphony in Waves.
Colored Field, as one might expect, is a dark work. The Second Symphony’s image of the individual, represented by a solo melodic line overpowered by the forces of evil, finds a similar expression here, but at the same time the despair is not quite as inexorable. At the end of the first movement, for example, the soloist (p.95) emerges from the overwhelming density of the orchestral forces to speak alone, in an expression of grief that shows more affinity to the ending of Still Movement with Hymn than to the complete obliteration of the Second Symphony. The solo-ist descends slowly to a low A, reinforced by strokes on the timpani and in the lowest range of the piano. This ending prepares the listener for the conclusion of the entire concerto, where Kernis covers the tonicized theme with clusters.
Like other works preceding it, Colored Field contains ostinato figures, canonic sections, subtle pulsating accompaniment patterns, hocket-like interlocking figuration, and, most critical, references to vocal styles, both plainchant and cantorial. In the first and last movements Kernis experimented with unbarred sections in which players repeat short motives numerous times until cued by the conductor to move on—a device he had tried only rarely (“something I use when it’s the only right solution,” he says), for example, at the start of Symphony in Waves, briefly in Goblin Market, and in America(n) (Day) Dreams. The effect of this unmetered writing in the opening movement is a wash of background sound that accompanies the soloist’s free cantorial line, which is filled with augmented seconds.
In this work Kernis once again proves imaginative in the combination of instruments and contrasts of sounds. Timbral modulation figures prominently at crucial moments: at the opening of the work, for example, where the oboe emerges almost imperceptibly from the viola’s melody, and at the end of the first movement, where Kernis dramatically brings the soloist out from the texture by stripping away the surrounding sonic layers. Brass instruments are used coloristically and the piano often reinforces the percussion. To cite one of many notable moments: fortissimo interruptions of the soloist’s cadenza in the middle of the finale combine chimes, crotales, glockenspiel, harp, and piano in quick flourishes, each instrument playing a different number of notes simultaneously. Nor does Kernis hesitate to call for extremes of range or dynamics. He makes full use of the English horn’s technical and timbral capabilities.
Perhaps the most striking moment in the piece—and one that prompted frequent critical acclaim—occurs about seven minutes from the end of the finale. Huge rolls on tam-tams and gongs build to deafening volume as at the end of the Second Symphony; but here, some element of deliverance emerges from the devastation. As the huge resonance of the percussion subsides, a tranquillo section in the strings reveals a pianississimo F major chord that sounds like a quiet organ. Over this ethereal soundscape, the soloist enters with a supplication (later quoted in Lament and Prayer): a simple melody of three downward scales followed by a leap upwards. (The melody, in fact, is a simplified version of the one sung (p.96) by the oboe at the beginning of the concerto, lending a cyclical nature to the piece.) As the slow prayer unfolds, the strings play a series of major and minor triads in long notes articulating mediant progressions and step-wise root movement (F–a–g–B♭–C–A b). Six bars from the end, however, the “apocalyptic wind music” that opened the first movement returns, and the soloist is silenced by a brass cluster that rises from pianissimo to fortissimo followed by a final dissonant chord in the piano.
The End of the War Period
By March 1994 Kernis’s life was becoming so busy that he had to type out a detailed schedule for himself, seeking time to compose while racing around the country to attend concerts, festivals, and recording sessions. In late March he was in St. Paul for the broadcast of Still Movement with Hymn. By early April he was in New York for a performance of Delicate Songs by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and then immediately thereafter in Baltimore for the world premiere and recording of New Era Dance. A week later he was in San Francisco for the premiere of Colored Field, and he returned there in May for its recording following trips to St. Paul and New York. After a short respite, he served as composer-in-residence at the Yellow Barn Festival in Putney, Vermont, and then returned to Manhattan to switch apartments. (Aaron and Evelyne had bought an apartment in Hudson View Gardens and moved into it in December 1993, but the following day an electrical fire in the floor between their place and the apartment above forced them to move out again and sublet for several months while repairs were made.) In September the Pittsburgh Symphony performed Invisible Mosaic III, and the following month the Minnesota Orchestra played Musica Celestis. A week later, the New York Philharmonic gave its first performance of New Era Dance.
Goblin Market was scheduled for a January 1995 tour, and Kernis had not begun to write it when he compiled this schedule nine months earlier. He was, indeed, earning his living completely through composing, but as he had projected in his high school essay, the road—even with lucrative commissions and national recognition—was not easy. Where would he find the time and quiet to create new works?
At the bottom of his schedule page, Kernis laid out a projected composing calendar: March–May, a “work for the SPCO and Pamela Frank”; May–September, Goblin Market; September–January, a “work for Joshua Bell”; January–June, a double concerto for violin and guitar “if funded.” (It was.)
(p.97) The “work for Joshua Bell” became the twelve-minute Air for Violin and Piano, supported by a joint commission from the Society for the Performing Arts in Houston, UCLA’s Center for the Performing Arts, and the University of Texas, Austin, Performing Arts Center. Bell first played it in Houston on March 11, 1995, and it has since been adapted for cello and for flute. The piano part has also been transcribed for orchestra.
The commission for Pamela Frank turned out to be Lament and Prayer, written not for the SPCO but for the Minnesota Orchestra. Both this work and the Air ultimately postdated Goblin Market, which Kernis now put on the front burner. Indeed, he managed to meet the premiere deadline for that work, but not by much. As he frantically completed various sections of Goblin Market, he fed them to Schirmer, which had them typeset and sent on to the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, but the performers did not receive the final typeset score until January 6, 1995, six days before the first performance.34
Kernis turned his attention first to the Air for Bell and then to the piece for Frank. He composed Lament and Prayer during the first half of 1995, delivering the completed score to Schirmer in mid-June. The delay allowed him to cast the piece as a fifty-year commemoration of the end of the Holocaust. The orchestra first performed it the following year, on July 31, 1996.
The Double Concerto, on the other hand, took longer to materialize. Instead of the six months Kernis projected for it, the composition process consumed eight to nine. Funded by a joint commission from the Aspen Music Festival, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the work was first performed in February 1997 instead of the original projected date of April 1996. It was the first piece for which he fell seriously behind schedule and the last work from his St. Paul residency.
All of these pieces are challenging, as even the most renowned performers admit. Lament and Prayer is “not easy to play,” says Pamela Frank in a dramatic understatement. Guitarist Sharon Isbin relates that learning the Double Concerto was a challenge, and Diane Pascal, first violinist with the Lark Quartet after Eva Gruesser left in 1996, notes that Kernis is “not afraid to ask players to ‘work hard.’”35 All of these virtuosic players note, however, that the music was well worth the time expended in learning it. Kernis, for his part, finds it ironic that “the structural flow” of his music “makes it very comprehensible to the listener …, but the challenges to the performers are often very significant.” Indeed, Hugh Wolff says that Kernis’s music is often “more difficult than it sounds” but “to his credit the complexity is something that’s part of the structure of the piece, (p.98) not an end in itself.” Marin Alsop, who has conducted numerous compositions by Kernis at the Cabrillo Music Festival, agrees. The music is highly complex due to its contrapuntal layering, she notes, and conductors need to be willing to commit extra time to studying the scores if they are to do justice to it. However, the difficulty of Kernis’s music is no greater than that of many other contemporary composers, says Wolff. James Rushton agrees: The music is “virtuosic,” he notes, “but not awkward.” In part, the virtuosity of Kernis’s scores results from his association with exceptional players. “I was seeing performers who were deeply versed in the performance of Babbitt, Wuorinen, Schoenberg,” he says. “I took in an assumption that that’s what performers in the late twentieth century did. … My music was infused by that sense of what was possible.”36
A case in point is Lament and Prayer, which (in the admittedly biased opinion of this author) takes its place among the most beautiful half-hours of music in the contemporary literature. Like Still Movement with Hymn, it had a predecessor in a solo piece: Aria-Lament for unaccompanied violin, which Kernis had written in 1992. The demands of Lament and Prayer on both soloist and orchestra (in this case, strings, harp, percussion, and oboe) are substantial, not only in the fast passages but also in the extremes of tempo, dynamics, and range. (The solo-ist reaches repeatedly into the territory three octaves above middle C.) Kernis calls for dangerously slow tempi (quarter note equals 40–42 at the beginning, 36 at the end) and very soft playing, requiring incredible control (exemplified in the extraordinary performance by Frank on her recording with the Minnesota Orchestra.) But in fact, it is Kernis’s demands for extremes of dynamics and tempi that make his works so compelling. Conductors cannot get away with playing it safe in the middle (not too loud, not too soft, not too fast, not too slow) without sacrificing the essential drama of the music.
The piece opens (after two bell-like unison As in the strings) with a solo line for the violin: a melody with cantorial inflections built of two- or three-note cells arranged in various patterns in the manner of the Jewish cantillations used for chanting the Torah. As in Still Movement with Hymn, these short cells are ornamented with grace notes imitating Chassidic chant. During its thirty-minute span, Lament and Prayer oscillates widely between consonance and dissonance (as we have seen in previous works) and among three diverse textures: solo or sparsely accompanied passages for the violin or unison strings, lush tonal sections, and highly dissonant dense counterpoint. Various members of the orchestra play as soloists, and the string section is frequently subdivided, in one place into twenty-five parts. In some sense, Kernis may have been obliquely drawing a parallel to Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, but the image that was at the forefront of his consciousness (p.99) was the responsorial nature of synagogue music: the dialogue between cantor (represented by the soloist) and congregation. The multiple string voices in Lament and Prayer thus reference the individuated roles of congregational heterophony. As in Colored Field, the central section contains several passages in which three- to five-beat patterns repeat numerous times until orchestra members are cued to proceed.
The harp only sounds two little flourishes during the first half of the piece and then enters in its own right at m. 115, at first reinforcing the violins, then playing fuller chords, and finally doubling the bass line. The oboe, which is off-stage, does not play until twenty-two minutes into the work, entering after the soloist’s two-minute-long cadenza. Its melody is a direct quote from the prayerful solo at the end of the finale of Colored Field cited above (but now transposed down a semitone), complete with the accompanying long chords in the orchestra that articulate mediant and stepwise progressions. From that point almost to the end of the piece the oboe engages the solo violin in a duet. Here each of the consonant chords in the strings is anticipated by arpeggios in the two harps, the whole underscored by a “soft blanket of percussion sounds.” Kernis instructs the percussionists to select from a set of soft metal instruments such as triangles, jingles, metal shakers, sizzle cymbals, and small Asian bells and play them tremolando for one to four seconds each, very softly, varying the instruments and making occasional small swells. The work then ends with a motive by a solo cello marked by a rising major third (a hopeful sign in Kernis’s music as early as the Meditation [in memory of John Lennon]) and a slowly ascending line that takes us to an open fifth (A/E).
Lament and Prayer, as the last of Kernis’s war-period works, shows the journey the composer traveled during this time. “I could only move on after it was done,” he now reflects. Gone now is the fury of the Second Symphony and even the sorrow of Still Movement with Hymn. Prayers for the future of humanity transcend the terrors of Colored Field, and we are left only with the solo voice arising from the horrors of a violent world.
(1.) Allan Kozinn, “Cellist Plays Solo and Chamber Pieces,” New York Times, March 12, 1989, 68; John Rockwell, “Andiamo in Works Old and New,” New York Times, February 9, 1989, C18.
(2.) Lou Harrison, interviews with the author and Fredric Lieberman, February 10 and October 21, 1994.
(3.) The quotations in this paragraph are from Kernis’s interviews with the author and with Jenny Raymond, Yale Oral History of American Music Project, August 1, 1998. Quotations in this chapter and elsewhere that are not directly referenced come from the author’s interviews with the composer.
(4.) Lesley Chamberlain, preface to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook, trans. Suzanne Brill (San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1989), 7.
(5.) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” Gazzetta del Popolo (Turin), December 28, 1930.
(6.) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “Futurist Manifesto,” first published in the Gazzetta dell’Emilia (Bologna), February 5, 1909. Kernis took his English texts from The Futurist Cookbook, trans. Suzanne Brill, preface (unpaginated) and pp. 36, 101, 102, and 105–7.
(7.) These quotations come from the first movement of Kernis’s Le quattro stagioni dalla cucina futurismo. For the context in Marinetti’s manifesto, see the edition by Suzanne Brill cited in note 6, pp. 36, 101.
(8.) This assessment by Kernis is found in Carlo Boccadoro, “‘Non esiste una ricetta per scrivere’: Aaron Jay Kernis,” Musica Coelestis (Torino: Einaudi, 1999), 110, translated by Giacomo Fiore. (p.178)
(9.) The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. R. W. Crump (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), passim. Further quotations from the poem are from this edition.
(10.) The sources on Rossetti consulted for this discussion include Janet Galligani Casey, “The Potential of Sisterhood: Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market,” Victorian Poetry 29, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 63–78; Ellen Golub, “Untying Goblin Apron Strings: A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Goblin Market,’” Literature and Psychology 25 (1975): 158–65; Kathleen Jones, Learning Not to Be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti (Gloucestershire: Windrush, 1991); Katherine Mayberry, Christina Rossetti and the Poetry of Discovery (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989); Dorothy Mermin, “Heroic Sisterhood in ‘Goblin Market,’” Victorian Poetry 21, no. 2 (Summer 1983): 107–18; Miriam Sagan, “Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ and Feminist Literary Criticism,” Pre-Raphaelite Review 3 (1980): 66–76; and Sharon Smulders, Christina Rossetti Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1996).
(11.) Aaron Jay Kernis, undated note about Goblin Market in his personal archive.
(12.) Rebecca Miller, pers. comm.
(14.) Alastair Macaulay, “Attitudes in Slow-Motion: Colourful and Decadent,” The Times (London), January 16, 1995. The form is melodrama in the strict sense of spoken text over music.
(15.) The Absolut concerto series continued through 1994, when Absolut Vodka switched to Seagram’s as its distributor.
(16.) See, e.g., John Mueller, “The Polls—A Review,” Public Opinion Quarterly 57 (1993): 80–91. Mueller makes the point that the polls showed different results depending on the way in which the questions were stated. Nevertheless, the results indicate substantial support for military action.
(17.) For a detailed discussion of this work, see Xi Wang, “An Analysis of the Second Symphony of Aaron Jay Kernis,” DMA diss., Cornell University, 2009.
(18.) Hugh Wolff, interview with the author, July 25, 2012. Wolff notes that for many modern works with loud percussion, players wear special earplugs that reduce decibels without reducing detail.
(19.) Allan Ulrich, “An Onslaught of Anguish: Symphony Performs Kernis’ Potent ’91 Work,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 2002, D17.
(20.) Pierre Ruhe, “ASO, on War Footing, Captures Fury of Battle,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 7, 2004.
(21.) See, e.g., Anthony Tommasini, “Again, a Quest for the Great American Symphony,” New York Times, August 10, 1997, H27; Joshua Kosman, “Music That Cries Out to Be Heard: Kernis’ War Protest Captures a Moment in Time Without Getting Bogged Down in It,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 2002, Sunday Datebook, 50.
(22.) This quotation comes from the notes on the title page of the score.
(25.) The award from Meet the Composer was matched by local funding. After the first year, Meet the Composer canceled its support, feeling that Kernis was not engaging in (p.179) enough direct outreach (a decision that “created a minor scandal,” according to Linda Hoeschler). For the next two years the partner organizations maintained his residency, but Kernis’s salary was somewhat reduced. He gave up his apartment in St. Paul and commuted from New York.
(26.) This information comes from Kernis’s letter of agreement for this position and from Andrea Matthews, “Bully Podium: SPCO Composer-in-Residence Aaron Jay Kernis Has Advice for Aspiring Composers and a Warning for Those Who Would Cut Arts Funding,” Minnesota Monthly, September 1995, 24–25.
(27.) Information in this paragraph comes from the author’s interview with Linda Hoeschler, July 27, 2012.
(28.) Michael Barone, interview with the author, July 27, 2012.
(30.) American Public Radio, press release, “Saint Paul Sunday Morning to Premiere Aaron Jay Kernis’s ‘Still Movement with Hymn,’ a New Work Commissioned by American Public Radio,” December 1, 1993.
(31.) This quotation is from the notes to the score.
(32.) Ann McCutchan, The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 237.
(33.) For more details about the commission, see Julie Giacobassi, “Colored Field: Concerto for English Horn,” Double Reed 19, no. 2 (1996), 69–74.
(34.) Thanks to David Flachs, director of production at Schirmer, for this information.
(35.) Quotations in this paragraph from Frank and Pascal come from Joshua Kosman, “String Players’ Choice: Why Star Performers Want New Compositions from Aaron Jay Kernis,” Strings 79 (July 1999): 32–37. For an interview with Isbin about the Double Concerto, see Jim Tosone, “Breaking New Ground: A Conversation with Sharon Isbin,” Guitar Review 109 (Spring 1997): 12–19.
(36.) Quotations from Wolff, Alsop, Rushton, and Kernis come from interviews with the author.