January 15, 1960 -
born in Philadelphia, PA, composed during the Contemporary period
Aaron Jay Kernis' musical character emerged early and has remained essentially constant throughout his career: he is a composer with eclectic interests (both musical and non-musical), a theatrical, dramatic bent, and an uncompromising attitude toward his art. Kernis' style is accessible and popular, and his music is widely played.
Kernis began his musical training on the violin, and at the age of 12 began to teach himself piano. He studied for one year (1977-1978) at the San Francisco Conservatory with John Adams, and then completed a degree in 1981 at the Manhattan School of Music, studying composition with Charles Wuorinen and Elias Tanenbaum. In 1983 Kernis received a master's degree from Yale, where he had studied with Jacob Druckman among others. That year, Kernis came to national attention with Dream of the Morning Sky, premiered at the Horizons Festival by the New York Philharmonic: when Zubin Mehta, the conductor, had some difficulty with a passage, the 23-year-old Kernis advised him to "just read what's there." The piece already showed important elements of Kernis' style: brilliant, effective orchestration, a basically diatonic background, and an offbeat non-musical inspiration (in this case, a pantheistic poem by N. Scott Momaday).
Like other American composers such as David Del Tredici or Christopher Rouse), Kernis has made frequent reference to music of the past. Kernis has generally used earlier eras for inspiration: the Medieval era (as in the first string quartet, 1990's Musica Celestis, which is partly a reaction to the music of Hildegard von Bingen), and the Renaissance and Baroque (the second string quartet, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner Musica Instrumentalis, uses the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and Bach's keyboard suites as springboards). Kernis does not use pastiche in reclaiming this music; rather, he uses forms (such as the sarabande or gigue) or a generally modal language to recall it indirectly. As Kernis has written: "I feel a greater kinship with music of past centuries that with that of our century, but at the same time feel vehemently that we cannot return to the past musically (as some neo-romantics and neo-modernists have tried to do) but must carry the present, past and future with us at all times." In addition to early music, Kernis has used modern popular forms, most notably salsa (Salsa Pasada (1996) for guitar and strings, and Concierto de "Dance Hits" (1999) for orchestra) and early American pop (America(n) (Day)Dreams (1984) for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble).
The extra-musical inspirations of Kernis' works have been even more wide-ranging than the musical ones. The texts he has set include those by William Blake (Songs of Innocence for high voice and piano, 1989) and Gertrude Stein (Six Fragments of Gertrude Stein, 1979) for soprano and flute), as well as various religious texts. The Persian Gulf War provided the impetus for the Second Symphony (1991), a protest against American actions which received some harsh criticism; mosaics at Ravenna in Italy inspired in a series of three major instrumental pieces.
Though Kernis is best known for his extravagantly colorful instrumental and vocal writing, especially involving large orchestra, his most popular work is probably Air, for violin and piano (later arranged several times for different forces), written for the violinist Joshua Bell. Kernis comments that "[i]t contains many hymn- or chant-like elements, and though rooted in E major, it retains a kind of plaintive quality more reminiscent of minor or modal tonalities. Formally, it combines a developing variation form with a simple song form." Air can perhaps be seen as a pure distillation of Kernis's compositional concerns through the 1980s and 1990s. ~ David McCarthy, Rovi