Interview with Aaron Jay Kernis

June 9, 2015.

As the Jury prepares to deliberate on the applications for the Azrieli Commissioning Competition for Canadian composers, we sat down with jury member and composer Aaron Jay Kernis to discuss his personal connection to Jewish music, what he’s looking for in the submissions, and the importance of creating opportunities for orchestral composers.

American composer Aaron Jay Kernis is one of the youngest composers ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and was winner of the coveted 2002 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. One of today’s most frequently performed composers, Kernis is noted for his “fearless originality [and] powerful voice” (The New York Times). Kernis was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Classical Music Hall of Fame. He was co-founder and Director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute for 15 years, and teaches composition at Yale School of Music, a position he’s held since 2003. Kernis’ music has been recorded on Nonesuch, New Albion, Koch, Naxos, Virgin Classics, and Britain’s Argo label.

Aaron, when you were approached to be a part of the Azrieli Music Project jury, what was your reaction to a competition for Jewish music?

I was quite intrigued, actually, and as I got to know more about the project, and more about what lay behind it, I was definitely very interested to take part in the competition panel.

A fundamental aspect of the competition is that from the outset it has posed the question of “what is Jewish music” directly to the composers. Reading each artist’s proposal has been fascinating and illuminating, and clearly the question has brought out many deeply personal responses from composers coming from a variety of heritages.

Another reason that I’m so interested in being part of the competition is to get to know the wide variety of music by Canadian composers.

How has being Jewish influenced you in your composing?

Over the years, many of my major works have had something to do with cantillation, Hebrew texts or with issues related to the Holocaust.

In my early childhood I had a crucial musical experience in synagogue that stayed with me ever since. My family went to a Conservative synagogue for a while and my exposure to hearing unaccompanied cantorial singing was life-changing. Those sounds and modes have stayed with me all of my life – in fact, so much so that if I ever go to services, the only way I can listen to music in a synagogue with pleasure is without any accompaniment or harmony.

One of the central pieces [with this cantorial influence] is my Lament and Prayer for violin, strings, oboe and percussion [1996], which was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. Another major work is my third symphony [Symphony of Meditations; 2009] which uses English translations of the poetry of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, from the 11th century. These are texts that are very central to Mediterranean Judaism, and which later became part of the Rosh Hashanah prayer book. So, yes, I have many pieces filled with these sorts of influences.

You have written over 25 works for orchestra. What, for you, are the challenges in composing orchestral music?

Learning to deal with large forces with clarity is vital, as is learning to control large masses of sound. Of course there are so many instruments to work with and hear in one’s head, and it’s important to me to never repeat myself.

For younger composers one of the major challenges is not having quite enough opportunity to write for orchestra, and that is where this competition comes in, which I am really grateful to see. The competition will be giving composers a reason to think deeply about fashioning a large work that grapples with fundamental cultural questions while working on a large musical “canvas.”

As a member of the Azrieli Music Project jury, what are you looking for in the submissions?

The essential thing I look for is the quality of the music and a passionate and a well-reasoned proposal. It may not be so difficult to write an interesting proposal [for the Azrieli Commissioning Competition], but it is much harder to propose something that can be completely well realized in music. In some submissions I have seen thus far, some speak of taking strongly abstract concepts and attempting to translate them into abstract music – to my mind that approach may not work quite so well. There are a lot of submissions without voice or chorus or text. Coming down on the side of abstraction or narrative creates an interesting balancing act.

You have won several major prizes for your work, including a Pulitzer Prize. How have these awards helped your career?

Receiving the Pulitzer was certainly very special. It is such a widely known and widely followed award because of its connection to publishing and reporting. As the president of the award said, it’s something that just stays with you from that point until your obituary appears. Each award – and they are all quite wonderful – had very special circumstances. The Grawemeyer was the most substantial or richest award, so that certainly helped me live and compose more freely for a couple of years. Recently, the Nemmers Prize which I won in 2012 – which is for a body or lifetime of work – involved spending two weeks in residence at Northwestern University and getting to know the composers there. I think that is another very compelling way to have a prize – not only for the honor, but also to have the direct contact and communication with students and musicians.

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