KERNIS: Newly Drawn Sky*. Too Hot Toccata*. Symphony in Waves.
Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar.
Cedille CDR 90000 105 (DDD) TT: 64:00.
How to be Me. The composer with a personal voice -- whose music you can
recognize almost immediately -- has always run rare on the ground. To be
sure, fine composers have achieved much without this attribute. For every
Beethoven, there are several Rieses. For every Shostakovich, there's a
slew of Soviet and now Russian composers ready to riff on older discoveries.
Even the Minimalists -- whom you might think all sound alike -- have their
superstars and their decent guys, and the superstars (Adams, Glass, Reich)
tend to be those composers whose work stands distinct from each other and
from everybody else.
Those not so blessed with immediately-identifiable traits still separate
themselves in mainly two ways: a personal view of their model, as in the
case of, say, Rubbra and Holst; a personal eclecticism in which a bunch
of influences receive unique emphases, as with Barber vis-à-vis
Brahms, Stravinsky, and Edwardian song-writers.
Aaron Jay Kernis strikes me as the second kind of composer. One finds many
influences in his music -- Copland, classic Minimalism, jazz, the academics
of the Sixties and Seventies, among others -- but it serves a personal
rhetoric. Add to this an imaginative ear for orchestral color and you don't
really wonder why he's received a Pulitzer. Kernis began as a "constructivist" composer.
That is, he formulated a procedure for specifying notes before the notes
themselves. For example, Morningsongs (1983) works with only a limited
number of pitches at a time and delineates sections by changing the pitch
set. However, as the years have passed, Kernis has become more interested
in the emotional power of music. He has even embraced classical structures.
He wants his music to reach a listener as directly as possible, and it
turns out he has a talent for it. I can't say I've liked everything I've
heard. Sometimes I feel as if Kernis goes on longer than his ideas warrant
-- too much air. However, I've certainly liked most of the pieces that
have come my way.
Newly Drawn Sky (2005) is a kind of nocturne, but without extra-musical
narrative or description, although the sounds certainly evoke night noises.
We begin with an ascending line in the cello, quickly overcome in a nervous
frazzle. It turns out that the distress doesn't last long, and the piece
-- musically, at any rate -- deals with ascension, in long, climbing lyrical
lines. A trumpet calls yearningly over the landscape. Little points from
the woodwinds, like fireflies, flicker and fade. We build to a "radiant" conclusion
and, again, a short fade -- a beautiful piece.
Kernis has not disdained the short orchestral showpiece, like Rimsky's
Capriccio espagnol or Russian Easter Overture. He has written at least
the heart-racing New Era Dance. Too Hot Toccata joins that work. Toccatas,
of course, get the heart pumping. We can expect that a "too-hot" toccata
should deliver something beyond what we expect. Kernis comes through in
spades. The opening is stuffed with ideas, speedy counterpoint, and virtuoso
solos from just about every principal, all within the context of swing
and bop bands. Ever since Milhaud at least, classical composers have tried
to get the controlled wildness of the jam session into concert music. The
closest before now, in my opinion, was Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue,
and Riffs. Kernis has done Bernstein at least one better. Though highly organized,
it sounds made up on the spot. This first section gives way to a more relaxed,
lyrical passage, and then you hold on to your skirt. As complex as the
opening seemed, it's almost genteel compared to its return -- a toccata
on speed. This is such rhythmically complex music, I doubt strongly that
most of the musicians here actually keep the beat. There are so many notes,
it reminds me of Zappa's Black Page -- more ink on the page than white
space; "statistical density," as it were. The jam session constantly
threatens to fly apart, like a watch wound too tightly. Fortunately, a
strong rhythm section holds stuff together. It's jazz, baby. When it's
all over, you find yourself catching your breath.
In five movements, the Symphony in Waves stands as the richest, most ambitious
work here. After two weeks of serious listening, I can't say I have anything
near its measure yet. I do sense that I'm hearing something extraordinary.
One of my initial problems with the piece -- what do waves have to do with
anything but the first and third movements? -- I quickly dismissed as irrelevant.
Kernis and the writer of the liner notes try to offer a rationale, but
I couldn't follow that, either. I decided simply to listen without the
aid of a gloss.
The first movement consists largely of quasi-Minimalist pulsing and ascending
scalar lines -- "quasi-Minimalist" because it's not periodic.
Kernis seems to decide at the moment whether he wants to pulse or not.
Although there are plenty of rhetorical relaxation points in the movement,
it impresses overall as a continual buildup: All those ascending scales
have their own inherent tension. If the first movement emphasized continuity,
the second, designated "Scherzo," stresses the integration of
disjointedness. It begins with short, nervous bursts of notes that seem
to make no sense at all, but Kernis creates an elaborate joke. He begins
to put chords and various accompaniments under these note-y flashes, and
suddenly they begin to make sense. He takes us through a range of styles,
including something that sounds to me like classic bop, and reserves his
best laugh for last -- a boogie-woogie vamp, cut off after one measure,
as if Big Maceo had just walked into the room.
The third movement is "about" tension and release. A sound like
metal grinding against metal opens the work -- tension without letup or
even build for a couple of minutes -- before it relaxes into a long, quiet
section. Yet this isn't really release. One senses doom in the quiet. However,
the music briefly turns lyrical in one of Kernis's beautiful, long-breathed
melodies before the grinding music returns. The tension is dissipated only
in the last chord -- a major triad, both unexpected and "the real,
Movement no. 4, "Intermezzo," is a two-minute smile, a point
of relaxation between two heavier sections. Before you know it, you're
into the finale, in many ways a revisit of the world of the scherzo. We
get a kind of abstract big-band jazz, with calls and responses, brass playing
off against reeds (and strings). We find the scalar themes again reminiscent
of the first movement, but applied with even less "method." They
serve mainly to provide cross-accents and a syncopated backbeat. The end
interests me the most. The rhythms become Latin, and the orchestra takes
a three-note motif between its teeth, tosses it around, but doesn't drop
it. The obsession of it reminds me of the finale to Bartók's Concerto
for Orchestra, particularly the fanfare-ish theme on the trumpet. The ending
is a rouser.
Carlos Kalmar and his band do well by all three scores. If they play a
bit rough in something like Too Hot Toccata, I give them a pass because
of the work's complexity and because they play with gusto. Two recordings
-- Gerard Schwarz and Kalmar -- still in print have appeared. I've once
heard the Schwarz and said essentially, "So what?" The music
seemed flat. Kalmar has the advantage of Schwarz's recording, of course,
but he really has come up with a reading of a different, higher order (at
least compared to my memory of the Schwarz) -- richly allusive and coherent
at the same time.
S.G.S. (October 2009)