Tag: mentor composers

Giving Voice: Teaching Artistry

Chris Cresswell sitting at a work station in front of a keyboard, a computer terminal, and a pair of speakers

Working inside Twin Woods Studios

Last year, on June 4, I had my own cubicle in Boosey & Hawkes’s midtown Manhattan office, a favorite sandwich shop on 7th Avenue, and plans to see the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 4 the next day. On June 6, after two flights and one long layover at the Chicago Cubs Bar at O’Hare (while wearing a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt), I found myself at a summer camp in the middle of rural Michigan, standing next to a pile of boxes of recording equipment that would eventually become a recording studio—that I was supposed to be in charge of.

Thus began my first day working as a teaching artist.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant. I’d worked as a teaching assistant in college and had taught composition for a couple of summers, but this was the first time I’d encountered the label “teaching artist,” let alone had it applied to me. Over the course of the next nine weeks, I would learn more about being a composer, a teacher, an artist, and a person than I ever thought possible.

The Association of Teaching Artists defines the position as a “two career professional: a working artist and a working educator.” These dual roles inform one another, with the typical artist bringing their experience as an artist into the classroom and their education experience into their studios. Teaching artists work in wide-ranging environments, including school residencies, after school programs, and summer camps. By integrating artists into these educational settings, young people encounter professional working artists and have a direct link to people who use their creativity to make a living. In the best of these situations, teachings artists are able to cultivate a sense of community and invigorate all students, teachers, and administrators, not just the one’s directly involved with their programming.

Three years ago, The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities launched the Turnaround Arts initiative, utilizing teaching artists and arts education as the basis for reforming failing schools throughout the United States. In the initial year, the program launched in eight schools. These schools were all considered to be high-poverty, low-performing schools and represented a range of communities, from the inner city to rural districts. In the three years since the launch of this pilot program, participating schools have seen improvements in math and reading scores, attendance, and a decrease in suspensions.

The organization I work for, Music Ascension, has seen similar outcomes as a result of our programming. We bring teaching artists and music technology into schools and summer camps throughout the United States. Our programming brings songwriting and beat production into classrooms, built on the concept of giving voice to young people. We’ve transformed traditional classrooms into recording studios, utilizing the same software that studios use around the world, creating a safe space for students to share their stories. Our teachings artists run the gamut from singer/songwriters and hip-hop artists to a classical composer. Each of these artists brings their own, unique sensibilities into their education setting.

This brings me back to my first day as a teaching artist. At 26-years old, I was about to attend summer camp for the first time. I arrived that day with a suitcase and a couple of guitars. One week later my first day with the campers began. Over the course of the next eight weeks, the campers recorded and produced a new CD, wrote over 50 new songs, and performed countless times across the campground. We covered Taylor Swift songs around campfires, explored musical structures, and talked about Brian Eno. I shared my day-to-day creative process as I built my first sound installation, I was walking home…or at least I thought I was walking home…, and shared my ambient work On the Verge while discussing the use of sampling in hip-hop. They witnessed both the pre-premiere anxiety and post-premiere anxiety when my work, the memory evokes, forget what time, premiered while I was at camp.

Over the course of this month, I will share my own experience as teaching artist, crossing musical genres, learning to become present in another’s work, and how working as a teaching artist has impacted my own creative work and professional goals. Although it was an unexpected career shift, working as a teaching artist has had a positive impact on me creatively, professionally, and is an alternative to more traditional tenure track career paths.

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Chris Cresswell fingering a chord on a guitar and strumming it.

Chris Cresswell

Chris Cresswell is an internationally performed, award winning composer, teaching artist, and arts advocate. As at ease in front of an orchestra as he is behind a mixing board, he can alternately be found composing new works for artists and ensembles around the country, helping students write their first songs, advocating for the arts with Congressional staffers, or covering the latest Taylor Swift single at a camp fire.

One of Our Brothers as Well as a Bright Light—Remembering James Horner (1953-2015)

The news of composer James Horner’s death hit me surprisingly hard. I choked up trying to convey the news to a friend. Why the strong response, Roger? You barely knew him.

“Jamie”—the nickname everyone at UCLA knew him by and which later he came to loathe—finished his master’s degree in composition at UCLA. He started his Ph.D. work, but abandoned it when he started scoring his first Roger Corman film while simultaneously trying to be a teaching assistant.

Over the years, I continually heard stories about Jamie/James Horner from some mutual friends, from his fellow students, his former teachers, and from friends who played his film scores in Hollywood. But I only met him for the first time in 2010 while serving as chair for the UCLA music department. We had several one-on-one meetings, and he generously agreed to give a master class for our composers. Over that time I developed a great affection and respect for him.

James Horner lecturing a group of students in a classroom.

James Horner during his masterclass at UCLA. Photo © 2010 Roger Bourland

In our meetings we talked for hours about concert music, film music, role models, his UCLA teachers and classmates, about Hollywood, and our favorite composers. As we were putting together a curriculum to train young composers for a career in Hollywood, I picked his mind about how we might go about that. He acknowledged that young composers go to school fantasizing about a career such as his, but lamented that the market for composers of his kind (i.e. writing film scores that call for large orchestral forces) is evaporating. “I am a dying breed. Few composers will ever have the opportunity of doing what I have had the privilege of doing as my career.”

He talked about the challenges of working on James Cameron’s Avatar: “Cameron held onto tight control of every aspect of the entire sonic palette. He was clear that he did NOT want any themes or melodies. ‘A tuneless score.’” As challenging as it was, Horner realized his role in the process, and that it was Cameron’s vision, money, and film. It was his job to rewrite until he got it right—and this was the award-winning composer of Titanic, also a Cameron-Horner collaboration.

For the score of Avatar, Horner collaborated with ethnomusicologist Dr. Wanda Bryant to assemble a musico-sonic palette of unique world music instruments. After auditioning hundreds of timbres, he culled them down to a palette of twenty-five and presented it to James Cameron, who then rejected all but five, all of which are heard in the soundtrack today.

As his two-hour masterclass went on, this composer who had been described as quiet, shy, and private, became more forceful. He clearly enjoyed talking and teaching these young and eager students. Many of them stayed afterwards to have their picture taken with him. He graciously stayed late to pose and speak with them.

Jeff Kryka, Yuchun Hu, and James Horner standing together.

Jeff Kryka, Yuchun Hu, and James Horner

I asked him who his favorite film composer was: “I have tremendous respect for John Williams. He is in a class by himself.” We then gushed over Williams’s output and evolution as a composer, citing case after case of terrific compositional cleverness and invention.

Professor and soprano Juliana Gondek, a classmate of his at USC, asked him whether he would ever write an opera. “No, but I would love to write a ballet.”

I asked him: “Talk to us about crying and music. We don’t teach it at the university.” (The class laughed.)

“I could never make people cry in my concert music. In my music for film, I can,” he said. “I loved having the opportunity [in Titanic] to help the audience fall in love with two characters; and knowing that they will both die offered me a unique musical challenge.”

I found James to be a true gentleman, a smart businessman, an excellent teacher, a sensitive artist with a big heart, and a composer who loved the art of collaboration—despite not always getting his way.

In our final private meeting, I told him something I knew would be important for him to hear. When the composition area at UCLA interviews prospective undergraduate students in composition, one of the questions we often ask them is, “Who are your favorite composers?” Expecting to hear Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or John Adams, to our amazement year after year the majority of applicants put James Horner at the top of that list.

I saw a gracious, generous, sensitive but outgoing and humble man.

As a composer, he was “one of us” and we have lost one of our brothers as well as a bright light. James, we will miss you. You have touched the world and left it a better place.

Samuel Adler: Knowing What You’re Doing

A conversation at the German Consulate to the United Nations
March 12, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is more steeped in the tradition of Western classical music composition than Samuel Adler. The author of six symphonies, five operas, a dozen concertos, and ten string quartets (eight of which he still acknowledges), plus a ton of sonatas and choral pieces, Adler—now 87—remains steadfast in his determination to preserve and build upon this tradition.

“I would much rather have my piece played as a sandwich in between Haydn and Beethoven or Brahms and Stravinsky than between Mary Jane and John Doe … we’re writing music in a tradition, not the tradition, but a tradition,” exclaimed Adler when we spoke to him at the German Consulate to the United States before he began sifting through scores submitted by composers hoping to study with him in Berlin this summer.

Adler proudly asserted that he has now taught for 63 years, “first at North Texas, then at Eastman for 30 years, and 18 years at Juilliard.” Teacher-student relationships have been among the most important interactions of his life. His own teachers are practically a who’s who of 20th-century American music—Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, Paul Hindemith, and Serge Koussevitsky. Throughout our conversation, he brought up people he has taught as well, including Barbara Harbach—for whom he composed a formidable solo harpsichord sonata—and Kevin Puts, the premiere of whose new opera, The Manchurian Candidate, Adler travelled especially to Minneapolis to attend the day before we spoke.

I’m very inspired by my students … I feel the teacher’s task is first and foremost to inspire the student to write as much as possible without any consideration for style and things like that. … I see the problems that students have that I also have. Sometimes I solve them for myself by solving them for the students. That’s a great influence on me, as has being with young people, and always being fed new ideas.

Beyond his own students, Adler has had a significant impact on countless others as a result of his writing definitive tomes on orchestration, choral conducting, and sight singing. Imparting these basic musicianship skills has been as central to his life’s work as his composing. He firmly believes that composers who eschew craft do so at their peril. But don’t assume that Adler believes the path to writing a successful piece of music is about merely following his rules or anyone else’s. Adler insists a composer also has to take risks, which is why in the 1960s and ’70s he dabbled in serialism, indeterminacy, and even electronics, though never in an austere or overly rigid way.

“I think a composer needs to go through what’s going on and still make it his own,” he explains. “I find that a piece has to be satisfying to play and have some kind of a message to give.”

Sometimes in order to do that, you actually have to break the rules.

“That’s how you compose—you cheat!”

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Frank J. Oteri: We’ve never actually filmed a talk in a consulate before.

Samuel Adler: This makes it international. We’re not on American soil.

FJO: Technically we’re not. And this is very interesting because even though you’ve spent the majority of your life in the United States and created your music here, you actually were not born on American soil.

Sam Adler as a young child walking in a park with his father holding his right hand and his mother holding his left hand.

Samuel Adler in Mannheim in 1929 with father Hugo, and mother, Selma. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

SA: That’s true. I was born in Germany in Mannheim, in a house where Mozart lived. There was a plaque on the hospital where I was born, and it said, “Here was the Weber House.” He married Constanze Weber, who was a Mannheim girl, related to Carl Maria von Weber. My mother took a picture of the plaque and said to my father that there is no chance that our boy won’t be a composer. It was predestined by birth. So that’s my claim to fame.

FJO: But it was a little more complicated than that. As far as I know, you didn’t start writing music until you came to this country.

SA: Well, I was writing music so my sister could sing the songs, and if she didn’t sing them well I’d beat her up. That’s a very bad thing. But no, seriously, my father discouraged me from writing music before I had a background in theory and counterpoint. So after we came to this country, at eleven, he sent me to Boston every week to Herbert Fromm who was a student of Hindemith’s, and we did very strict harmony and counterpoint and sight singing and ear training, until I went to college.

An historic black and white photo of a crowd of people gathered together on the deck of a boat.

Samuel Adler on board the SS Manhattan, as the ship entered New York Harbor, the passengers collected to view the Statue of Liberty, January 22, 1939. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: It’s interesting that your father discouraged you from writing music, since he was a composer himself.

SA: That’s right. But he said you shouldn’t just write anything that comes to mind. You should know what you’re doing. The more I’ve taught, the more I think he was right because there are too many people, especially today, who sit in their basements with their computers and think they’re composing. I just feel that that’s leading people astray. Some people are lucky and are very talented with the computer and can do it. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But there is too much of that.

FJO: So what are the things that a composer should be doing?

SA: In the first place, a composer should play an instrument. I think that’s very important, no matter what it is, to have some tactical input into music. It doesn’t have to be a piano. It doesn’t have to be the violin. It can be the marimba. It can be the accordion. Then I think if a person is really interested in creating something, he or she should first steep themselves in music of previous times. I’m not just talking about yesterday’s music. Not only tradition. For instance, if you’re interested in folk music, you can start with that. But you must not come to the study of composition without any preparation.

If you’re really interested, you should have a year of preliminary exercises—in harmony, counterpoint, perhaps melody writing, which most people can’t do anymore. I feel that way every time I speak to high school students. Let’s say I want to get going in physics. I’m going to go to the best school, either MIT or Harvard. No other schools. I go to the head of the physics department, I say, “Sir, I want to major in physics.” “Have you had trigonometry?” “No. But I love physics.” “Well, can you add and subtract? “No, but I love when Einstein goes to the board and puts all those figures on it. That turns me on.” That’s how too many people go to music school—not knowing the fundamentals! For instance, everybody hates sight-singing classes, especially singers, and that’s one of the most important things. I have taught now for 63 years, first at North Texas, then at Eastman for 30 years, and 18 years at Juilliard. I know that singers get jobs if they can read. But nobody seems to be able to convince people going through their first year in music school that that is the most important thing, or that you really also need to know what a cadence is.

I get around this country, and I know what’s going on. We have thousands upon thousands of music students. In many places you are admitted if you love music. That’s a problem. Sometimes I resented my father, of course, but he was right. I feel much better that I had a background in something, that I could hear something. I feel that’s an important thing.

FJO: Your father was a composer, primarily of liturgical music, and he was a cantor. I’m curious about the music you were exposed to during your childhood.

SA: I was a violinist, and my father was an excellent pianist. We played every sonata from Bach to Bartók that we could get our hands on. That’s the music I heard. I played it. I had wonderful friends in high school. We had a double string quartet. Not an octet, but a double string quartet. I never played the Mendelssohn Octet, I’m sorry to say, until in college. But we played twice a week, three hours of quartet music. So I really got the message. I can’t thank my parents enough for the encouragement to do these things and the help that they gave me to do them.

FJO: And when you say Bach to Bartók, that’s when Bartok was new music.

SA: Listen, I went to the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra. I want to tell you a very funny story about it. Koussevitsky did it in Boston in 1944. My father took me to the Friday afternoon concert. Being a young, aspiring composer, I went back stage to get his autograph. Well, he was very sick at that time; he was sitting bent over and was hardly able to say or do anything. Koussevitsky came in all energized, sweating all over. It was difficult for him because of all the changes of meter. That wasn’t his thing. But he did it, and he did it with great confidence. He came in and said to all the reporters gathered, “Boys, there sits the greatest composer in the world.” Bartók looked up to him and said, “Serge, didn’t you say last week it was Prokofiev?” Well, last week it was Prokofiev because he did the first performance of the fifth Prokofiev [symphony]. So, that was the greatest composer in the world. That was a great period in Boston. When I went to school in Boston, every week there was a premiere, and mostly by American composers: [Walter] Piston, [Roger] Sessions, [Randall] Thompson, [Aaron] Copland. Those people.

FJO: And you studied with almost all of them.

SA: Absolutely.

Side view of Samuel Adler and Aaron Copland standing next to each other, both wearing glasses.

Samuel Adler with Aaron Copland At Eastman in April 23, 1976. Photo by Louis Ouzer (1912-2002), courtesy of the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music

FJO: And you also studied conducting with Koussevitsky.

SA: And composition with Hindemith.

FJO: But you’re more comfortable with changing meters.

SA: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, I’m always accused of doing that too much. In September, we’re going to record my Sixth Symphony, and in the last movement I don’t think there are two measures alike. I’m not so worried about it because I think it gives a focus to the accent that’s better than just putting an accent. But a lot of people disagree, especially conductors.

 

Samuel Adler’s manuscript for his Symphony No. 6 © 1985 by Theodore Presser Company (ASCAP). All rights reserved.

 

FJO: Will you be conducting?

SA: No.

FJO: So someone’s going to have to deal with it.

SA: José Serebrier’s conducting. And he is a composer himself. He knows what it’s about.

FJO: Good. Now, I had some thoughts about your studies with Hindemith. You were just mentioning that your first instrument was the violin.

SA: And viola.

FJO: Yes. I remember reading in the program notes you wrote for Randolph Kelly’s recording of your Viola Concerto on Albany that the viola was your first instrument.

SA: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. Today we’ve got a glut of violists. But in those days, there were none. The first violist in our high school orchestra, which was the size of the Boston Symphony, left. He graduated. So on Friday, the conductor said, “Sam, here’s a viola. Monday you play viola.” I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that clef. In desperation, I called a friend of mine, and he said, “Listen, just don’t even worry about the clef. Play third position as first position and you got it.” And it’s true. I never learned the clef.

FJO: You certainly know it now.

SA: Of course. I’m joking. But in those days, I didn’t need to. I just did that.

A young Samuel Adler playing the violin.

A young Samuel Adler playing the violin. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: Well, what’s interesting about playing viola—and I think that’s what gives Hindemith’s some of its gravitas and particularly its really strong internal logic, and I would dare the same is true about your music as well—is that since you both played the viola, you were both more attuned to the middle register and had a better vantage point into the orchestra overall.

SA: Mendelssohn said it’s the soul of the string quartet. Because it is. You can hear all the other voices. A friend of mine who is a great colleague and an excellent composer, Gunther Schuller, really learned how to orchestrate because he sat in the orchestra and, when he wasn’t playing [French horn], he looked at the score. And he heard all those things. The greatest experience for a composer is to play in an orchestra or sing in a choir. As a matter of fact, you should do both. Because one will teach you that it’s not so easy to find the pitches that you think they should have. I wonder if Webern could have sung his cantatas in a choir. They’re terrific pieces, but they’re difficult because it’s not what you can see or hear.

FJO: An area we didn’t talk about yet, which seems appropriate for a conversation we’re having in the German consulate, is the difference between European and American musical culture, which is definitely something you could speak to because you travel back and forth so much and even teach a summer composition course in Germany.

SA: In Berlin. And I just had a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, which was very nice. It was in a program called “Violins of Hope.” It was a commemoration of the freeing of Auschwitz. They did a fantastic program and included my Elegy.

 

The score for Samuel Adler’s 1962 Elegy for string orchestra. © 1964 by Theodore Presser Company (ASCAP). All rights reserved.

 

Of course, the first difference is that in most countries like Germany, the state helps. You don’t need philanthropy all over the place to get enough money for the orchestra or the opera to function. Now, that’s good and bad. I think we have a culture of giving in this country which is rather wonderful. And many people are committed to classical music, to opera, to pop, to jazz, whatever.

Another thing to consider is the patronage of the composer in Europe versus America. In America I must say, speaking from personal experience and from the experience of let’s say 90 percent of my colleagues, the universities are our patron. And it’s a very good patron considering that, once you have tenure, they can’t throw you out because they don’t like your music. While Mr. Esterhazy could throw away Haydn’s music because he thought that Haydn shouldn’t play this. So, I mean, we don’t have that flip kind of thing.

There is also one other thing in particular. I think we in America have a terrible inferiority complex when it comes to our own music. Sure, our pop music pervades the world. There’s nothing like it. But we also have classical music—which is a terrible term. We also have concert music. We have hundreds of orchestras in this country. And what do they do? Most of them completely neglect our tremendous heritage. For instance, I think if you can count them up, more symphonies were written by American composers in the 19th and 20th centuries than in Europe or any other place. I’ve been to China four times. They really love our music. I’ve conducted Piston, Harris, Copland—they love that music. We don’t. At least we don’t show that we love it. And I think this is a very big shame. Can you imagine in Germany them not playing Beethoven? Or not playing Brahms? Even the 20th century composers—Hindemith is a rock star even today. Less so than he was in the 1950s, because he went back himself to conduct, but they still do the music. [Karl Amadeus] Hartmann, who’s a wonderful composer, is done by the major orchestras. I feel that’s one big difference.

We also have another inferiority complex when it comes to audiences. Look, I’m now 87. I’m old, yes, but I still can get around. I even got here this morning. And the thing about graying audiences, well, I have two daughters. They have families. They can’t afford it. Every once in a while they go, but the prices are high, babysitters, and so on. The graying audience is there to stay. It’s wonderful. I’m glad they’re coming. What’s really bad and that is what Europe also doesn’t have is a wonderful educational system in music, which we had. When I went to school, America had the very best music education in the world. We had orchestras and we played all the Brahms symphonies in high school. We played all the Beethoven symphonies except the Ninth. Now that’s really something. Plus, our conductor encouraged me to write a piece for the orchestra every semester. They don’t exist anymore, but I got that experience.

I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at 15 I was playing in the Worcester Philharmonic, which was a town-gown kind of orchestra. I wrote a piece during the war called Epitaph for the Unknown American Soldier. We actually performed the piece. The New York Times even ran a review. A very excellent publisher in those days, Mills Music, called me the next day. I should come to New York. So I came to New York. A cigar-chewing man, Max Stark, was the head of the company here, and he had Morton Gould, Leroy Anderson, Roy Harris, and Zez Confrey—you know, the guy who wrote “Kitten on the Keys.” They were all there to convince me to go with the company. They took me out to lunch. When we came back, he said, “Sam, we’re going to publish everything that you write from now on, including the Epitaph for the Unknown American Soldier.” I don’t know how I got home! But, of course, I couldn’t sign the contract. My father had to sign. And when I got home, my father said, “I’m not going to sign this contract.” “It’s making my future; this is my future.” He said, “Look, the pieces you write now in five years, you’re going to be sorry to see again.” As my grandsons say, I was bummed. Of course, I’m always reminded of that because they did publish one piano piece called Arabesque, which is the worst piano piece ever. I’m not kidding. And I can see it, and I know how right my father was.

A young Samuel Adler sitting at a piano looking at sheet music while his father Hugo sitting next to him is speaking and has his hands raised as if conducting.

Hugo Adler and Samuel Adler. Date unknown. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: So there’s no score of Epitaph.

SA: No, and no score of my first two string quartets, nor the first violin sonata, nor the first cello sonata. Look, one has to be judicious. Now Brahms I think was too judicious because I think he was a much better composer at that time. I’m glad Mendelssohn didn’t throw away all those pieces he wrote when he was 12, 13, 14, because those are masterpieces. I was not a masterpiece writer in those days. It was, you know, music. But bad.

FJO: But you said you got a good review in The New York Times.

SA: Oh, and how. And the Third String Quartet, which is now my first, really convinced me not to have the other two because The New York Times said this is a new voice in our musical horizon. Well, that’s nice.

FJO: If that convinced you to eliminate the other two, why did you keep calling it String Quartet No. 3?

SA: Because it was published already.

FJO: But the other two weren’t.

SA: The other two were manuscripts, so I could easily throw them away.

FJO: But if you call something number three, everybody wants to know what happened to one and two.

SA: Well, that’s for the musicologists. You know it’s wonderful for them.

FJO: So there are no manuscripts hiding out somewhere.

SA: No, because I’m old enough to have experiences with fallen colleagues’ wives. You know, colleagues who have died, and their wives find a piece and say, “This is a masterpiece my husband wrote.” Always, it never fails. If he was a friend of mine, they call me and say, “Sam, this must be published.” What are you going to say? She was in love with the man. That’s great. But the piece shouldn’t be published, you know. So I make sure that it doesn’t exist.

FJO: Now hang on. You say these pieces shouldn’t be published, but you also said Brahms went too far. Isn’t it helpful to aspiring composers to see the failures as well as well as the successes?

SA: You’re absolutely right. But it’s a little embarrassing, I think. I mean, it would be for me. Look, Brahms’s early works, Opus 1 to 8, those fantastic pieces for piano, these are already mature masterpieces. Mine were not. I have to admit that, and why not admit it and get rid of it. I’m very proud of the Third Quartet. I think it’s a decent work, it works very well. People love to play it. Great.

FJO: Now the earliest piece of yours I know is the Horn Sonata.

SA: Yeah, that is the earliest. I fell in love with a horn player and wrote this for her junior recital, as a matter of fact. It was also the reason I wrote so many brass pieces in those days. I’m very sorry about them. And you see, those pieces were immediately published because my theory teacher was Robert King of Robert King Music, music for brass. So whatever I wrote, he published right away, including the Horn Sonata. Now I’m not ashamed of the Horn Sonata. It’s very Hindemithian, and I know that. I’m not ashamed of the First Symphony which is a combination of influences from Copland and Piston. I was very happy to write it and I still like it. For my 80th birthday, there were ten performances of it. And I must say, the tenth performance I actually liked.

Adler in military uniform conducting an orchestra in front of an audience

Samuel Adler in Germany in the early 1950s conducting the Seventh Army Symphony . (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: I’m curious about what the attributes are for a piece that you think is truly you and how you are able to sense it as a composer.

SA: That’s a tough question because at one point you just feel that it’s going—it’s saying something. That’s really all I can say. I have to be a little abstract about it. You just know that this is a piece. And also, it comes from the performer. The first two string quartets I played myself and I was always dissatisfied, but I didn’t know what to do about it. By the way, the performance of the Third Quartet that was hailed here in New York, it’s not the way the string quartet is now, because it was re-done five, six years later. I usually don’t re-do pieces. I’d rather throw them away. But I think that was worth doing and, as a matter of fact, the second movement is the elegy that was played in Berlin. That was written before the Third Quartet was redone.

FJO: So was the Third String Quartet the piece in which you feel you found your personal voice as a composer?

SA: No. The Second Violin Sonata is the first piece that I think is me. The Horn Sonata is not. I’m not ashamed of it. I think it works. I just heard a beautiful recording of it by the principal horn in the Houston Symphony, William VerMeulen. He plays it as if he were playing the Hindemith sonata. The Hindemith is very good and unfortunately, this gets coupled with it all the time. Some people like it better. Most people don’t like it better. But that’s alright.

I find that a piece has to be satisfying to play and have some kind of a message to give. What it is should be the composer’s secret. I’m very much against telling too much to the audience because the result that I have seen, if I’ve said too much, is, “Well, it doesn’t mean that to me.” This is a danger, you know, like the whole idea of “Do you think I’ll remember this melody when I leave the concert hall?” Look, you’re going to remember Schubert Unfinished because you’ve heard it six thousand times. Of course, when you hear it again, you’re going to know it and sing it on the way out. I’m not for writing melodies like that necessarily, but I do feel that part of it should be communicative. The music should say something, give an experience. All I ask of an audience is not that they like the piece or don’t like the piece. All I want is for an audience to have an experience with me, an adventure, something new, something different. I cannot have them expect a piece that sounds like Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms or Debussy or Stravinsky. It may have parts of all of these things, but I want it to be an adventure. Most of our audiences don’t want an adventure because they’re told they shouldn’t like the piece in the first place, instead of just letting them enjoy it.

FJO: I think one of the problems—and this is truer with orchestra concerts than with other formats—is that the new piece has to co-exist on a program with older pieces that are already familiar.

SA: Which actually I like. I don’t like new music programs, because most of them are the same. That is, it’s all music that is new to everybody. I would much rather have my piece played as a sandwich in between Haydn and Beethoven or Brahms and Stravinsky than between Mary Jane and John Doe. This started in the ‘60s, the whole business of new music groups. It said that our music has to be anaesthesized, and I don’t think so. At least I would hope not. They’re wonderful, and I love them, and I write for them, and again I love them. But we’re writing music in a tradition, not the tradition, but a tradition.

Side view of Adler with arm raised conducting an orchestra

Adler conducting the Eastman Philharmonia on October 28, 1966. Photos by Louis Ouzer, courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: Well, most of the pieces you have composed clearly fall within this tradition—six symphonies, a dozen concertos, sonatas for all different kinds of instruments, ten string quartets minus the two that you’ve hidden from us.

SA: Operas.

FJO: Yeah, five operas—we’ll get to those soon. But before we do, these are all types of pieces that have hundreds of years of history behind them. When you call something your Symphony No. 4, not only does it automatically reference your previous three symphonies, but everybody else’s symphonies. It makes the piece part of a continuing dialectic, and because of that I think it gives listeners an expectation about what they are going to hear.

SA: Well, my Third Symphony is altogether different because it’s for wind ensemble and is only two movements. As for the rest of them—you mentioned the Fourth Symphony. In the Fourth and Fifth symphonies there were really experimental things, especially in the Fifth Symphony. I was going for 12 years through a period of being influenced by serial music, aleatoric music, and so on. I think a composer needs to go through what’s going on and still make it his own. I think Webern sounds very different from Schoenberg and Berg sounds very different from Schoenberg or Webern. No people’s music can sound more different than mine from my closest friend in the last years at Juilliard, Milton Babbitt. And yet, he could talk to me about my music like nobody else. He didn’t have to write like that; he actually loved that music. And I don’t have to write like him to love his music.

What is difficult today for an audience is not that name “symphony.” It is that they don’t know what’s coming and therefore I, for instance, feel that an orchestra that’s doing a new piece should send out to its subscribers a CD of that piece before they come. Again, I go back to the Schubert Unfinished. I have 20 recordings of it at home. Well, I don’t, but some people do—you know, Karajan, Ormandy, this, that, in order to get different perspectives on the piece. Well, if you know it that well, of course you’re going to love it when you hear it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have all those recordings. I feel that that’s very important for a new piece. When I go to an orchestra that does a new piece, I always ask the orchestra to record certain portions of it. And when I give my pre-concert talk, I use those. For example, in the Viola Concerto, the first theme you hear eight times, so I’d say, “Look, you’re going to hear this eight times” and I play it for them. I play it for them on the piano. Then I have the viola play it and the oboe play it. Well, they know what to expect then. The more complex parts, I play for them because I feel what music does is to give the composer’s view of his time, the energy of his time. Most people don’t want to hear the energy of our time because they’re afraid of it. But we have to be true to ourselves.

Boulez , Benson and Adler talking and holding drinks in cups.

Samuel Adler (right) with Pierre Boulez (left) and Warren Benson (center) on February 17, 1974. Photo by Louis Ouzer, courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: I want to go back to what you were saying about Babbitt’s music being so different from yours. As you know, Babbitt was somebody who was very embracing of a much wider range of music. A lot of people are unaware that he actually encouraged people who studied with him not to write music like his.

SA: Look at Sondheim.

FJO: Well, before Babbitt started writing serial music, he had written a musical theater work. And for the rest of his life he maintained a love for Tin Pan Alley music.

SA: He knew more Tin Pan Alley than anybody else.

FJO: One thing I found so intriguing was the little piano piece you wrote honoring Babbitt.

SA: For his birthday. That’s on his name.

FJO: It’s part of a cycle, which also included pieces for Ned Rorem, David Diamond, and Gunther Schuller. What I found so interesting about them is that in each you created pieces that evoked their music but you did it basing the material on letters from each of their names. Babbitt starts B-A-B-B. There are all of these Bs, so whatever music you create from that should instantly sound tonal, yet you still managed to compose something that sounded serial, even though it isn’t serial.

SA: That’s right. Well, you can do B both ways: you can do it as B-natural or you can do B as B-flat. We don’t use H, like in German. In America, we use B. But in German, B would be B-flat. Then [since A is the first letter of the alphabet and C is the first letter of the musical alphabet], if you can count C as the first one [e.g. A], B [which is the second one] would be C-sharp. So you have three ways of doing it. That’s how I got its 12 tones.

FJO: Ah, so you cheated.

SA: Of course. That’s how you compose—you cheat!

FJO: It’s funny to hear you say that because one of the things that you’re known and revered for is for writing one of the most definitive books on orchestration, which is the opposite of cheating. It is a bible for many composers, the book people turn to for the answers on what works and what doesn’t work.

SA: Oh well, I was kidding. The orchestration book I did as a tool because I had to teach orchestration. I could never see an orchestration book without every note being recorded so that students could hear it. By the way, the fourth edition is coming out and it will have streaming of all the music, so you have it on your computer. All you have to do is click and you hear the piece. We’re going into the 21st century and that has to be. The fourth edition is ready, but it’s going to take a little time because it’s so big. It’s going to have almost a thousand pages.

FJO: Wow.

Covers of Three Books by Sam Adler: Sight Singing, The Study of Orchestration, and Choral Conducting

Samuel Adler’s books have been a tremendous resource for generations of musicians.

SA: We added a long chapter on the band, which is necessary, I think.

FJO: Well good, that was actually what I wanted to talk about with you next—the difference between writing for orchestra and wind band. You’ve written a lot for wind band. You already mentioned your Third Symphony. You talked about people being able to hear 20 different interpretations of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It’s very rare for that to happen with a new piece.

SA: Except when it’s wind ensemble.

FJO: Precisely.

SA: That’s why we write for wind ensemble. I’ve written 19 pieces for wind ensemble. I just finished a new one for a consortium of wind ensembles. It’s wonderful because, number one, you get lots of rehearsals. Number two, you get young people who are very excited about doing a new piece. My first wind ensemble piece, Southwestern Sketches, was written in 1960. An orchestra piece gets, if it’s lucky, one performance every three or four years. This gets a performance every week some place, you know. So, it’s worth doing.

 

Ed. Note: One of Alder’s most popular band pieces is A Little Night and Day Music which incorporates aleatoric elements. © 1977 by Carl Fischer Inc. (ASCAP). All rights reserved.

 

FJO: But even though there have been some extremely high profile composers who have written for wind band—Persichetti, Karel Husa, Copland, Hovhaness—there’s been a huge amount of really high-quality repertoire for wind band. But there’s still a stigma about it. I remember when Corigliano’s Third Symphony had its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall.

SA: I was there.

FJO: That was a very exciting performance, but because it was part of the CBDNA conference, and was performed by a student ensemble, The New York Times wouldn’t cover it.

SA: Oh, wow. I don’t really want to say much about The New York Times except one thing. I think they have some knowledgeable people as music critics, but I cannot understand how these people can let the arts section, when it says “new music,” be all pop. I think once a week they have a whole page that says new music, but they only discuss the new albums by pop singers. New music to me means more than just pop music, at least I hope so. And that’s why I think your endeavor is so important. I think this has created and I hope creates more new audiences that listen.

It’s wonderful to have a birthday these days because either it’s honored on National Public Radio or my wife puts it on Facebook. They have birthday celebrations on NPR stations and you’d be surprised how many people write to the composer then. I got a slew of letters last week because, for instance, the Oklahoma system and the Minnesota system had celebrated my birthday. That’s a wonderful feeling. I think if we did more like that in the newspapers, focus on new music not just music that sounds so different that nobody every wants to hear it again, but music that’s written by hundreds of wonderful composers, young composers—I just came back yesterday from Minneapolis where I heard a new opera by my former student, Kevin Puts, The Manchurian Candidate. I thought it was just a terrific piece. What’s interesting was what the comments were. An opera cannot be one style. Even Wozzeck, one of the great operas of the 20th century, changes styles quite often. Kevin did the changing of styles just beautifully and, of course, he was criticized for it, which I think is wrong. When you have a band marching on the stage, you have to write music with the band marching on the stage. So they said something sounded like John Philip Sousa. Well, good. He’s a great composer of marches, you know. I think so much great music is being written, and we should not feel that we need to apologize in any way.

Samuel Adler and Kevin Puts, both wearing a jacket and tie, standing next to each other.

Samuel Adler and Kevin Puts in Minneapolis following the premiere of Puts’s opera The Manchurian Candidate in March 2015. (Photo courtesy Kevin Puts.)

FJO: We didn’t really touch on your operas yet. You wrote five operas, but I have not heard any of them yet.

SA: One you can hear streaming on Naxos—The Wrestler, the second opera, which is a 12-tone opera by the way.

FJO: Wow. Five operas is a formidable amount of work, but it’s interesting that you haven’t written one in nearly 40 years. Something must have made you stop.

SA: Well, I have an opera lying on my shelf which can’t be done. It’s based on a story, and the author objected to the libretto, so we can’t do anything with it. I’m in negotiations with him. Maybe I can move him a little bit. I sometimes see him. But you know, I can’t be sued for five million dollars. I don’t have that.

FJO: So this is something that you wrote more recently.

SA: Yes.

FJO: So you are still interested in writing operas.

SA: I am. As a matter of fact, I would like to do a children’s opera. In Germany they commissioned a piece for children on a subject that I’m sorry American children don’t know, but every child in Germany knows, and that’s Max und Moritz. It’s been very successful in Germany. It’s for narrator and large orchestra. It’s like Peter and the Wolf, except everybody knows the story Peter and the Wolf. Max und Moritz is a darker story. They get ground up at the end. They’re bad boys, and so.

FJO: You’ve also written a great amount of choral music.

SA: Too much.

FJO: Well, one thing that I find fascinating is that you’ve written a lot of sacred choral music, including what I think is an extremely effective setting of a mass. But you’re not a Christian.

SA: This was an ecumenical mass and it was commissioned for a specific purpose. As a matter of fact, I have two. One commissioned by Notre Dame in 1975 called We Believe. And the other is the mass that you’re referring to. I feel that religion has very few boundaries when you get on the basic level of it. Even though I am a practicing Jew, sometimes anyway, and I believe in my religion, I can also see other religions and they mean something to me. Especially I’ve studied a lot of Christianity. My father, being a cantor, was also a great expert on the literature of Christianity, and I have steeped myself in that, too. I had a teacher at Boston University who for two years taught us chant, starting with Gregorian chant, going all the way through Lutheran and Episcopal chant and everything else. And of course I’ve studied Jewish chant and this influences some of my writing.

FJO: But despite what you’re saying about religion having few boundaries, we’re living at a time where we’re seeing a very extreme interpretation of religion, and there’s a great rise in intolerance all over the world that is triggered by the extreme interpretation of religious beliefs. Now more than ever it seems important to stress that there can be a much broader ecumenical view.

SA: Yes, especially here in America. Europe is becoming much more secular, but religion does play a part. I had a commission by the Bach choirs of Germany, to write a cantata on Jonah. It’s in German, but it’s been translated and it’s going to be done in New York next year in English. It was first done in my home town, Mannheim. I went to the morning service, and there were hardly any people there. There were 30 people in a church that seats 1900. Well, I thought, “Oh my God, nobody’s going to come this afternoon.” So I talked to the organist who commissioned the piece and he said, “Sam, just don’t worry. The place is sold out this afternoon. We have a concert every Sunday afternoon because people don’t come in the morning, but they will come to music things in the afternoon.” It was packed.

FJO: Absolutely fantastic. All this discussion about being ecumenical and embracing things that are not of your immediate background reminds me of the last time we spoke with each other, which was after the New York premiere of your Tenth String Quartet. That performance was part of the Kyo-Shin-An Arts concert series and everything else on the program incorporated Japanese traditional instruments. We talked at that time about places your music would go, and places your music wouldn’t go. At that time, you said that you don’t really know the workings of these instruments, so you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing for them. This spirals back to the beginning of this conversation where you were talking about getting expertise in different instruments if you’re going to be a composer. So I’m curious about the level of risk you’re willing to take, things that you would set out to do in your music and things that you wouldn’t do and why.

SA: Well, I do take risks. You referred to the sonatas; I’ve also written a series of concert etudes for 22 instruments, including everyone in the orchestra. I tried to make those people take a risk to the nth degree of their ability. That’s the kind of risk I like to take. My heritage is European, from a religious point of view, Jewish, and also Western religions. That influences me and I feel comfortable writing for all these things. I’ve had many Chinese students, Korean students, Thai students, from all over. And I think they should write not only for Western instruments, but also for others. One of my students is the vice president of the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Xiaogang Ye, a wonderful composer. He has written a ballet on a subject of the 13th-century Dalai Lama, for Hong Kong, which has an orchestra and a Chinese orchestra. It’s fantastic. I couldn’t do that because I didn’t grow up in that tradition. He did. I’m too old now. Even if I were younger, I think it would be sort of fake for me to do that. Debussy once said, “A composer writes in his language.” That’s very true. And composers should take care of that. I can write in my language—a language I feel comfortable in, the language that I speak. I speak three languages, so I feel at home writing in those languages. While music doesn’t express any particular thing necessarily, there is a big difference between Debussy and Hindemith. Even though his Viola Sonata Opus 11, No. 4, starts out sounding like Debussy, very soon, after the fifth measure, it sounds like Hindemith. And Hindemith spoke perfect French, by the way. But that’s not his native language, nor mine, you know.

Adler, Rands and Schwantner standing and talking in a classroom in front of a blackboard with musical staves across it.

Samuel Adler (left) at the Eastman School of Music with Bernard Rands (center) and Joseph Schwantner (right) on April 2, 1986. Photo by Louis Ouzer , courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: But you have written music for instruments that are outside your native language, so to speak. For example, you wrote a wonderful solo harpsichord piece. Part of what makes it so wonderful is that it’s very different from what one expects in terms of the sound world of a harpsichord.

SA: Right, that’s why I wrote it. There are two recordings of it, and both are excellent, but the new one on Toccata Records is fantastic. I’ve never heard anybody play it that fast. It’s amazing. But you know, that’s the risk I take, you see. Bach is my favorite composer, but I don’t want to write like Bach, because that’s not me. So I write like I think we can do something today with it. So, that’s my risk. I wrote it because I had a student who is a wonderful harpsichordist and organist, Barbara Harbach, who wanted a piece for harpsichord. She also recorded the piece. Anybody that wants a piece gets a piece.

FJO: So if somebody does want a piece for koto or pipa?

SA: Well, then I’d have to think about it. I’d have to first really study it, because it’s not easy to write for. I love these instruments, don’t get me wrong. But other people should write for it. The literature is growing by leaps and bounds. Five of my students have written pieces for pipa and also for koto, and they’re very good pieces.

FJO: What about electronics?

SA: Well, I love people, and I love what comes out of people when they play or sing. I don’t necessarily want to do electronic things unless there’s a definite reason, like in The Wrestler. I need to feel that it’s organic in the music. To add electronics, that has to have a very special reason. And I have not felt that I needed it. In The Wrestler, because I feel Jacob is wrestling with himself rather than with the angel, the angel is there but never speaks. It’s a distorted voice of Jacob that sings the angel’s part.

FJO: You’ve brought up a number of your students throughout the course of this conversation. Teaching has certainly been a very important part of your life for more than half a century.

SA: Sixty-three years of teaching.

FJO: So I wonder, aside from the incredibly generous activity of imparting your knowledge and experience to others, how this interaction fuels your own creative work.

SA: I’m very inspired by my students, especially because I’ve been able to choose my students, and they’ve been just great. I can’t think of the student that I wouldn’t have wanted to teach. I feel the teacher’s task is first and foremost to inspire the student to write as much as possible without any consideration for style and things like that. And then, slowly, to see if he or she can be moved to be something very special. And many of them can and do. I’m very happy with the result if you don’t immediately say, “I only want 12-tone music” or “I only want tonal music.” Let them bring you something, and go from there. You talked about Milton Babbitt. I feel exactly the same way. He never imposed his very strict system on anybody. If they wanted it, certainly. I had students who, after studying with me, went to Milton at Juilliard and also at Eastman, because we had Milton up in the summers to teach at Eastman. He never changed somebody’s style just because it should change. That’s the way I feel also. I think you have to be very careful with students because they’re volatile, and I am very careful because the most difficult thing in music is to create music. And after all, this is what they’re there for.

FJO: So how has teaching influenced your own music?

SA: I think I’m more careful. I see the problems that students have that I also have. Sometimes I solve them for myself by solving them for the students. That’s a great influence on me, as has being with young people, and always being fed new ideas. This has inspired me all my life.

FJO: And having taught for 63 years, that’s an incredibly long time.

SA: Yes, it is.

FJO: You don’t have to teach anymore. You can do whatever you want, but you’re still teaching.

SA: Well, I’m teaching in Berlin, that’s six weeks out of the year. And I go around the country doing masterclasses. I really quit Juilliard because of the commute. We live in Ohio. I commuted every week. That’s a tough thing. I did it for 18 years; I thought that was enough. The other thing is, I really would like to have more time for myself. I’m composing and I’m reading what I want to read a great deal. I’m actually practicing the piano, which makes me very happy. I’m the worst pianist, but it makes me very happy to have that tactile experience. And so every day I practice the piano, and I do a great deal of reading on all kinds of subjects. And I’m writing an autobiography with somebody, and so that takes up some time, too. So, I’m always busy.

FJO: Well, I’m glad that you made some time to talk to us today.

SA: It’s a great pleasure. I thank you for doing it.

Helena Tulve: Trust, Discovery, and the Creative Process

The academic portion of my Fulbright experience is situated within the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. Although I am not enrolled in coursework (I have ABD status at Boston University, and Fulbright does not technically require a course-load), I have had the opportunity to sit in on lectures and speak with other students about their educational experiences. EAMT is a unique institution: it has gone through various stages of management, including an adherence to Soviet pedagogical ideals during the occupation, over the course of its 95 year tenure. Currently, EAMT offers bachelor and graduate degrees in a variety of areas, including a Masters in Contemporary Improvisation run by professors Anto Pett and Anne-Liis Poll. I have met several really fascinating students from this program, some of whom do not have traditional music backgrounds, who not only study improv in the Academy but are also active performers at various clubs within Tallinn.

The entrance to the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater

The Estonian Academy of Music and Theater

The improv scene is perhaps the most rewarding surprise about my Fulbright experience in Tallinn. Improvisation has not been stressed in my education, so to be surrounded by people who are actively making music is a curious change. As a composer, my music lives within my head for much longer than it exists acoustically. Needing to compose ‘in real time’ at an improvisation workshop was a vital exercise that forced me to consider sounds and gestures that emerged from my body without the filter of my thoughts. Many performers of contemporary music in Tallinn also participate in improvisation, and I see a lot of the same audience members at both types of concerts. I believe that this setup provides a very proactive attitude: members of the community seem to be constantly organizing different projects and concerts that happen without much difficulty.

While Helena Tulve is not directly associated with the improvisation scene in Tallinn, the notions of immediacy and composing from the body that prevail in improvisation manifest in her creative process. Tulve and I spend a good deal of time in our lessons talking about the creative process. In my experience as a student of composition, these types of conversations are often the most enlightening. Not only am I fascinated by how different people create, but also I tend to experiment with new modes of operation in each new project because I still have not found a practice that feels right. I think that part of my recent ‘musical identity crisis’ has to do with my process’s unsure footing. Speaking with Tulve about her methodology has the dual benefit of opening a window into her personal musical world and helping me to discover my own.

In the earlier stages of her life as a composer, Tulve used pre-compositional methods such as charts, drawings, and graphs to guide her work. She experimented with different compositional techniques that many students continue to learn today. Yet she so often found herself deviating from her plans that she eventually decided to see what happened if she let them go. The result was a deeply intuitive compositional process that she still relies on today.

Helena Tulve

Helena Tulve

Tulve approaches each new piece as a blank slate of sorts; perhaps she has a small idea, either sonic or metaphorical, but nothing more. She then works out the essence of the entire piece in an improvisatory fashion, often in as little as two hours. The essence is a bit difficult to grasp. Tulve describes it as a bright line that runs throughout the music. Yet this line is not necessarily what one imagines when one thinks of a musical line. Rather, I understand Tulve’s line as the energy flow of the work. Her focus on this singular element stems from her study of Gregorian chant while at the Paris Conservatoire. In chant, importance is placed on one voice, one organic, simple line that is flexible and malleable yet follows laws of tension and gravitation. Many of her biographical sources cite chant as an important influence on her music. While she does not deny these claims, Tulve has stressed to me that the art-form is not a stylistic influence but rather her “musical mother-tongue” which directs her way of thinking.

Working out the piece’s line is an act full of discovery for Tulve. She does not want to compose that which she already knows. This is another reason why she avoids pre-composition exercises that can often rely on habits. Discovering the line happens quickly; the time-consuming part of the work lies in carving out the details of where the line resides. Tulve describes this process as creating a mental space to navigate within. She observes the colors, shadows, proportions, and dimensions of the space. Obviously the space changes as she continues to work on the piece at hand. Internal consistency instead comes from her constant observations of the space; while the space changes, her observer role remains stable. It is a process built on discovery, exploration, and confidence. The process is deeply personal and difficult to articulate or understand, yet when I listen to her music I can hear the internal logic and physics of the world she created.

Tulve’s ability to approach each new project as a blank slate is the result of her experiences and an intuition built on years of musical training. It is highly unlikely that this process would work for someone in the nascent stage of a compositional practice. Tulve is careful not to place a value judgment on her process. What works for her will not necessarily work for everyone. When Tulve brought her Contemporary Performance and Composition student group to visit the Seto woman that I wrote about last week, she explained that she wanted to expose us to another way of living without stressing that one way was better than the other. I read her approach to compositional process in the same light. She knows that she functions in a more intuitive realm rather than one of discrete structures, but that is not to say that the latter place falls short. Formalized music builds what she calls a “help structure”; essentially, a preconceived framework that governs the piece of music. Yet Tulve maintains that music’s abstractness allows it to take shapes and forms that stand against the laws of so-called intellectual physics. For her, finding these new shapes would not be possible if she did not approach each piece as a new and undiscovered world.

What is there to take away from learning about Tulve’s compositional practice aside from personal interest? While I do not want to mimic her process verbatim, I do plan to attempt to adopt her powerful sense of self-awareness and the proactive attitude I have witnessed in the improvisation students. I often catch myself succumbing to feelings of inadequacy about my music because of a lack of intellectual rigor. I search for justification for my compositional choices in the often used extramusical places of science and philosophy, but these places exist outside myself and I occasionally feel like a bit of an imposter. I often think about Tulve’s assertion that the act of composing is an exercise in trust, and feel empowered to trust my instincts and internal musicality with more force in the future.

Using extramusical models and precise planning is a fantastic toolset that works in many instances, yet relying on a musical intuition built on years of study and practice can also be a powerful and fruitful working method. I often feel that academic study of composition places emphasis on the former methodology. Although my intention is not to pick apart the merits of music’s place in the university system, I do think it is important to take a step back and measure how one functions within the system. Creating art within academic structures can easily cause one to overthink, overanalyze, and exist only on the horizontal axis that I described in the second article. Yet for me, music is not an exact science; the meaning I derive from listening, performing, and composing is not quantifiable. Perhaps the best thing to take away from Tulve’s discussion of process is to do the often difficult work of finding your own way and not simply relying on the “help-structures” that working within a university system tends to create.

*The views presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

“Which of these Aaron Jay Kernises am I?”


A conversation in Kernis’s New York City home
February 11, 2014—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photos by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

When he was just 23, he was thrust into a kind of stardom that many dream of but few ever achieve. He reached one of the top levels of fame in a career which, at the time, rarely paid attention to someone so young—in fact, in a career that rarely paid attention to someone alive. He was aspiring to be a composer of orchestra music and it was the early 1980s. The name John Adams, whom he had recently studied with, had just barely started to register in the national consciousness. This was before the Meet The Composer Orchestra Residency Program was launched. Sure, Philip Glass and Steve Reich had already become familiar names, but it was certainly not due to orchestra concerts. But a major American orchestra played a piece by this young composer on a festival that was attended by critics from all over the country. The conductor of the orchestra attempted to show him who was the boss during an open rehearsal. He talked back. The audience ate it up and he became something of a cause célèbre. He was suddenly the next big thing, the person to watch.

He continued writing music and went on to receive a bunch of accolades for it. While still in his 20s, he was signed by one of the top music publishers. By his 30s, he was signed to a five-year exclusive contract with a major record label and he won the Pulitzer Prize. Not long after turning 40, he received the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award, which is the single largest American award for composers. He was at the top of his game, so to speak. But at the same time that he was pursuing his craft and being successful at it, he decided to devote a significant part of his life to being a mentor to younger composers and help them attain the same kind of achievements that he has had. He founded the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, one of the premiere programs for nurturing emerging talent, and oversaw its activities for over a decade. To this day he’s on the faculty of the Yale School of Music whose successful composer alumni nowadays seem ubiquitous.

He’s had a pretty complete life, so much so that later this month the University of Illinois Press is publishing a biography of him, a rarity for a living composer. But he’s only in his early 50s. What do you do with your life after all that? Where can you go from there? What’s life like after someone writes your biography? It’s a tough act to follow. But that is the conversation we were eager to have with Aaron Jay Kernis.

Kernis claims that his biggest epiphany after reading through the proofs of the book (it’s not an unauthorized bio) was realizing that there were connections between pieces he wrote that he originally felt had little relationship with one another. He thought he had abandoned post-minimalism in his youth. The angry angular pieces from the early ‘90s (like a symphony he wrote in response to the First Gulf War) also seemed worlds away by the time he was composing the vast soundscapes of the past decade. And how to explain how any of that related to the numerous laments he has composed for lost family members, friends, even John Lennon whose murder inspired a gorgeous rhapsodic piece for cello and piano, one of the earliest pieces of his that’s still in his active catalogue?

I did not have the reaction of wanting to flee but rather to explore that question of “which of these Aaron Kernises am I?” … For a long time I thought it was always a completely different direction, but now I see that there are circles; it circles back with new perspectives, new materials. … When I finished the book the first time, I thought about my newest work. Are these works related? Or are they something totally different? I don’t have the perspective yet. I don’t have enough distance from them to know quite where they fall on the continuum of cycling relationships. … I’m a different person than I was when I was 29.

But mostly he doesn’t worry about neatly sorting out these connections and just tries to balance teaching, raising a family, and writing music. When we visited with him in his cluttered apartment near the northern tip of Manhattan, where children’s toys freely mix with books and scores, he had just completed a viola concerto.

I have work time during the day and time with my kids at night. It’s very special time, unlike any other. And I don’t travel to performances as much, unless they’re premieres. I love to travel, but now it’s time to travel with my kids. Luckily I’m in a situation where I can teach one day a week and have the rest of the time to compose. It’s a full day. Sometimes it spills over to another day, or some students come down here and we have some extra time. But I try very much to fit it into one day. My composing time is really pretty sacred.

I’m glad he took some time out of his schedule to talk with us.


Frank J. Oteri: There’s a weird contradiction to your music. On the one hand, it’s very much of this time; many pieces are directly informed by mainstream popular culture. But, on the other hand, it seems to go against the grain of whatever our zeitgeist is supposed to be. Of course, to have your own voice, you have to fight against the zeitgeist.
Aaron Jay Kernis: But what is the zeitgeist? It’s always shifting, and it’s so large. That’s the thing about our time. The formative musical experiences I had were from college radio. And my worldview became one of just everything—‘20s jazz, minimalism, hard core, uptown stuff, lots of Irish folk music, all over the place. The idea of this multiplicity of possibilities was a great way to start. But the problem with that is that it sometimes makes choosing difficult for me, so I kind of move back and forth between things that continue to interest me.
FJO: But some things interest you more than others.
AJK: Oh, definitely.
FJO: So why are certain things constant recurring themes for you? You just mentioned ‘20s jazz, but ‘50s rock and roll and even disco have inspired you.
AJK: Right.
FJO: Everything figures in, but you eventually have to strip things away. It’s like you’re sculpting, chiseling at the musical universe to get at an essence, rather than adding to it.
AJK: Things appear and then they vanish for five or ten years. I’ve seen that very much with any interest I have. Actually, it’s kind of an interesting time now, because my daughter loves Top 40. So every morning, or pretty much any time she’s in the car, we’re listening to Top 40 together. I’m pushing her toward the independent rock stations, because I’m curious to see, in a language she’s most interested in, what cool stuff I’m going to hear. But mostly, any rock and roll, disco, or salsa influence appeared in a short period of time, and then pretty much has vanished and was replaced by the influence of jazz, which is a core kind of thing from my childhood. But I’m really curious about your provocation about not being of this time.
FJO: Well, one thing about your music that stands out is how so much of it revels in the long line and long forms. This is definitely at loggerheads with our era of limited attention spans and instantaneous gratification. I couldn’t imagine you on Twitter, for example.
AJK: And I’m not. You’re right. I’m not planning to be, but I have been kind of curious lately. I’m not really interested in poetry, but I am interested in looking for things on the internet, maybe on Twitter, to set as texts. I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m just kind of starting to see that for myself.
Photo of Aaron Jay Kernis in mid sentence.
FJO: I’m surprised to hear you say that you’re not interested in poetry.
AJK: Not right now.
FJO: Not now, but all your life, you have been.
AJK: Yeah, all my life. But I’m very interested in prose right now and things that may not have started as poetry, but that can be extracted and be poetic.
FJO: That seems very different from Dominick Argento’s reason for setting prose to music, which he says he does in order to not be straitjacketed by the rhythms of the text.
AJK: Well, that’s another reason I’m interested in prose, exactly. When I’ve used poetry recently, I’ve started to sculpt it more. Rather than being completely respectful of exactly what the poet has to say, I’ve started shifting lines around. I use text where I can do that and feel comfortable not using all the lines or the exact structure that was laid out.
FJO: That’s very interesting, because one of the things I’ve always noticed about your vocal music is how respectful you are of the texts that you set; you don’t even repeat lines. You let the shape of the poem determine the shape of the setting of it.
AJK: That was true maybe until the Third Symphony [Symphony of Meditations], where I had this enormous text. For shorter texts, I did pretty much respect the structure and the number of lines. But the [Third Symphony’s] texts were so large, and there were some lines I didn’t like, and it was ancient poetry. My friend Peter Cole, who was translating, was completely willing to let me do whatever I wanted with the text, and that was very freeing. So I just made my own version of the text rather than feeling that I had to respect its totality at every second.

Kernis Symphony No.3 Score Sample. Copyright © 2009 by AJK Music (BMI) International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. All rights administered throughout the World by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI) New York, NY Used by Permission.

A passage from the score of Symphony of Meditations (Symphony No. 3) by Aaron Jay Kernis.
Copyright © 2009 by AJK Music (BMI)
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the World by
Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI) New York, NY
Used by Permission.

FJO: So you’re actually contradicting the earlier you. You’re becoming another you.
AJK: Yeah.
FJO: This makes you and history kind of a tricky thing. Of course, I bring this up because there’s a book that’s just been written about you.
AJK: Right.
FJO: Biographers always look for a through line, to try to connect the dots and to get at the essence of a person. But perhaps now that there’s a book out about you, you want to rebel against that and be somebody completely different.
AJK: I read the [galleys of the] book through without being so concerned with making corrections. I wanted to just see what the through line of the book was finally. This was about a week ago. And, you know, I did not have the reaction of wanting to flee but rather to explore that question of “which of these Aaron Kernises am I?” [The book’s author] Leta Miller very consciously wanted to draw the body of work together, rather than having it broken up into different areas. This was also my concern. We all remember having reviews that frustrated or repelled us. It was always incredibly frustrating if a critic would say, “This sounds like nothing else in his work.” Of course, I knew that. In fact, there were three or four other pieces that clearly the critic didn’t know that were part of a group. Sometimes they were three years before, sometimes just the month before. There always have been groups of works of different types. I kind of do one for a while, and leap over that and do something else, and then find my way back in a circuitous way. But there’s been a transformation, too, that usually happens.

Kernis bio book cover

The cover for Leta Miller’s book, Aaron Jay Kernis, published this month by the University of Illinois Press.
(As a complement to the book, UIL Press has also put together an extensive webpage of audio links for many of Kernis’s compositions.)

FJO: In terms of how your work is part of history, it’s interesting to ponder earlier versions of music you have revised—because you’ve revised work.
AJK: Not that much.
FJO: Perhaps I should say reuse work.
AJK: Reuse. Yes. That’s true.
FJO: But I was thinking of one of your earliest pieces, the Partita for solo guitar, which goes back to 1981. You were 21 years old at the time. What did the 21-year-old Aaron Kernis sound like? Since you revised the piece in 1995, it’s hard to know. How much of that piece is the you of 21, and how much of it is the you at the age of 35?
AJK: Let me see if I can remember. It’s a three-movement partita. That was more of a revision. It was awkward. Some of the sections were too long. Some of the guitar writing wasn’t sustaining as much as I liked and it was kind of working against the instrument. In ’95, I wrote 100 Greatest Dance Hits, and at that time I was able to work with David Tanenbaum and tried to work through the issues in the piece. But the voice in that piece—one scale per movement with a lot of nested processes like numerical forms going on—that was a lot of who I was at 20 and 21. So I think that really does reflect me until about 1983, until I was 23. Then I’d had enough of that. That’s often how it is. I get to a point and then I want to go off in another direction. For a long time I thought it was always a completely different direction, but now I see that there are circles; it circles back with new perspectives, new materials. For example, one of the circles back was after a comment that Russell Platt made about a recent piece, Pieces of Winter Sky, that I wrote for eighth blackbird that in certain ways feels like a new direction for me. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a direction, but it’s certainly a new place to go. But Russell said, “Oh, that seems more like the old you.” The “old you” that he meant was the Invisible Mosaic II world, which was much more strongly dissonant, not really process-like in any way but more moment form. Pieces of Winter Sky is definitely a series of moments. But even in Mosaic, there was a process going on. It has a moment form and process form. So I see the relationships, but it felt very different. At 52, I’m a different person than I was when I was 29.

Photo of Kernis in his 20s

Aaron Jay Kernis in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Aaron Jay Kernis.

FJO: Has reading the book made you see those connections or is this something that you have always thought about?
AJK: Leta and I talked a lot about the connections through the whole process of [her working on] the book. As I said, that was really a major focus for her. What I’m curious to see as I reflect on this more is what the connections are that I don’t perceive. Are there patterns? Which patterns am I less familiar with and are they more revelatory? Are there any or have I known all this? When I finished the book the first time, I thought about my newest work. Are these works related? Or are they something totally different? I don’t have the perspective yet. I don’t have enough distance from them to know quite where they fall on the continuum of cycling relationships.
FJO: Well, something you definitely have distance from at this point is dream of the morning sky. You mentioned being 23 and suddenly the process wasn’t as interesting to you and you were doing other things. There are certainly older pieces of yours that are still in your catalog and that people perform. But dream of the morning sky put you in a public sphere in a way that nothing else had up until that point. Getting a piece played by the New York Philharmonic at the age of 23 was huge for you. I think it ultimately not only shaped your subsequent compositional career, but also your role as a musical citizen and mentor to other composers.
AJK: I agree.
FJO: In hindsight having had such an experience so early on definitely seems to have been the initial impetus for you eventually founding the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute many years later. It also seems like something that planted the seed for your ongoing role as a composition teacher. So what happened at that time that ultimately led you to a lifetime of wanting to provide that kind of compositional nurturing to other people?
AJK: There were a couple of aspects. One was that Jacob Druckman was a very supportive teacher to his students and he was very beloved by his students. He was very engaged with the music of his time and how students fit into what interested him, and what he saw was going on in music as a whole. Definitely that experience with the New York Philharmonic came about because of him, and I saw firsthand how such an experience could change one’s life. So now, whether it’s a recommendation for a commission or for a residency, I understand how important—public or private—these steps can be for young composers. For some it will make a big life difference and also an aesthetic difference; for others it will just be a step along the way. In Minnesota, when I was given an opportunity to help craft that kind of experience for young composers, it was on a much bigger scale over many years. But it infuses my teaching as well, and my view of young composers.

Photo of young Aaron Jay Kernis

A young Aaron Jay Kernis around the time of his breakthrough at the Horizons Festival. Photo courtesy Aaron Jay Kernis.

FJO: In terms of your teaching, I think there’s something that’s particularly practical about the training that people get at Yale, both from you and from the other people on the faculty there. A testimony to that is how many extremely successful composers have CVs that state that they went to Yale. Obviously, something’s happening at Yale that’s creating a recipe for composers to function so effectively in this field in terms of their practical skills.
AJK: There’s no doubt that they get some of that from what we relate of our experiences to them, real world suggestions about where to look, where to go. There are varying of degrees of entrepreneurship among the faculty but I don’t think by any means that it comes from the faculty all the time, or specifically from them. It’s an environment where these graduate students, if they’re so enthused, can get involved with the drama school or other productions around campus, and already find outlets for their entrepreneurial efforts. We certainly see composers who come in and they’re already raring to go to make concert series, to put together ensembles, to get involved in the theater world at Yale.
FJO: To bring it back to your experience as a 23-year-old having the New York Philharmonic perform dream of the morning sky: the other thing, besides serving as a model for your subsequent role as a mentor to younger composers, is that it placed you as a composer within a zeitgeist, for better or worse. The festival was called Since 1968, a New Romanticism? Suddenly there was this new label. Labels always simplify things and it definitely put your music in a context which it doesn’t completely fit in comfortably.
AJK: It never did. It was a strand in my work; it comes and goes. When I was writing a bunch of pieces using sonata form, should I have been called part of a new classicism? I don’t know.
FJO: Except when you were using those forms they were big and expansive, more like the way that the 19th-century Romantic composers explored those forms than the way, say, Haydn would have.
AJK: No. I definitely think it’s more toward the Romantic, looking both at the teeming inner world and nature and art and writing; the influences are very vast.
FJO: And certainly the long line, the idea of a long melody that grows and keeps developing—
AJK: I start with that for virtually every piece. Even if today I’m sitting down to write a short piece that is the antithesis of that. I’m always thinking of myself as wanting to create the long line through singing, through breathing; that’s the starting place.
FJO: Where did that come from?
AJK: I think it came from very formative experiences as a choral singer and the first lessons I ever had as a child. My mother started me with voice lessons, just completely out of the blue. I have no idea what inspired her to do that. I think she always wanted to be in the theater. She had a dream of herself somehow in show business. And so she started me at six or something with voice lessons. I learned to use my voice a bit, then choral music, then hearing Mahler, all kinds of ringing big bells, playing the violin, and long lines there. So it’s pretty central.

Cover of Cedille CD of Kernis orchestral music

Kernis’s love for Mahler pervades all of the music on a disc of his orchestral music featuring the Grant Park Orchestra conducted by Carlos Kalmar released on Cedille Records.

FJO: To take this back to teaching, this probably didn’t come from any of the people you studied composition with. I don’t really think of Druckman or Wuorinen as long line composers.
AJK: I don’t think anyone ever talked to me about that, no. I don’t have a memory of that being anything coming from any of them.
FJO: So what did come from them?
AJK: Different things from everyone, of course. My first teacher, Theodore Antoniou, was very important. He started me with kind of Hindemithian counterpoint and voice leading exercises, also some 12-tone row manipulation exercises, then a lot of looking at European avant-garde scores with extended techniques, both his work and the work of other Greek composers. And George Crumb, of course, was a great discovery of mine at 15. [Antoniou] always emphasized that if you’re writing for an instrument, the music you write should only be able to be played on that instrument. So he was always stressing the unique qualities of every instrument. I haven’t necessarily followed that all the time, but it was certainly an opening idea for a 15-year-old to really look at what the sonic and technical possibilities are that made each situation unique.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear about that from you since, by not following his advice and transforming your English horn concerto Colored Field into a cello concerto, you wound up receiving the Grawemeyer Award.
AJK: Well, of course, the cello version can’t be played on any other instrument. Though you’re right, and it’s both for practical reasons and feeling comfortable with, à la Bach, making various versions of pieces work on other instruments, sharing the love in a way.

Score sample from Colored Field (English horn version) Copyright © 1994 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

Measures 62 through 65 from the original version of Colored Field, for English horn and orchestra by Aaron Jay Kernis.
Copyright © 1994 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

Score sample of the cello version of Colored Field. Copyright © 1994 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY This arrangement Copyright © 2000 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

The exact same passage in the version of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Colored Field for cello and orchestra.
Copyright © 1994 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY
This arrangement Copyright © 2000 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

But that doesn’t work with many pieces. I mean, it’s not something I’ve done for more than maybe five or six pieces; it’s not an everyday thing. When I wrote Trio in Red, the clarinet part is a clarinet part. It uses the entire range and focus, just as Antoniou would have stressed, to make it special for that instrument.
So, that was Theodore. Then through Joe Franklin, I was exposed to Relâche and the Philadelphia new music scene—a lot of early post-minimalism and highly theatrical music. After that, [I studied with] John Adams for a very short time. Certainly it was really fundamental to hear Shaker Loops in a big loft space in San Francisco and to hear his first successes like Harmonium and Harmonielehre. It was just around the time that his life was really changing. But San Francisco didn’t quite match with my metabolism; I was antsy that it was so relaxed.
So I came back to New York and studied for a year with Wuorinen and just slammed into a confrontational way of teaching. It was scary. I was terrified for a number of weeks. I was like, before a lesson, “What is this man going to say?” I knew he was a master and it was a very important year. Very much to his credit, I think he saw that I wasn’t looking to study strict 12-tone technique and so we worked through other issues: structure and language to a certain extent. Very pithy, highly focused, and very important confrontations occurred.


Then Elias Tanenbaum—I already had all this stuff to process. Elias was a great teacher to be with. He was very supportive, but also—in his kind of needling way—he made me own up to what I was choosing to do and also recognize that the possibilities were large. Following that, rather than having specific techniques that they were imparting, the teachers from that point on were more generous in the sense of following what I was doing and making comments. After that point, I didn’t feel I had teachers that were trying to fundamentally change me.
FJO: So now that you’re teaching young composers, how do you balance the need to expose students to the wide range of techniques that you’re fluent in while making sure they don’t turn into clones of you?
AJK: As I teach for more years, the goal for me has been to learn more and more patience. At first, I came in with some expectations about what I was looking for. Over time, I just dropped those more and more. It’s about each student: the work they’re producing and what could be strengthened. It’s about what kind of exercises or tool-strengthening devices could be put in their direction that they can grow from, and trying—whether it’s over a half year or a year—to figure out more and more about who they are and what their work is doing and to help it be even more of what it already is.
FJO: In terms of who you are, your composing with long lines pre-dated any of your teachers, and it has stuck with you. Being very interested in process in your early years, on the other hand, is something that has slipped away, and you have grown more and more toward writing music intuitively. But intuition is something you really can’t teach. You can’t even teach it to yourself.
AJK: No, and it’s always so awkward to use that word because even if you’re using an absolutely rigid and unyielding series of processes that essentially make all the decisions for you, even then you’re using your intuition to structure those processes—unless you’re giving over choices to an external structure like the first computer that LeJaren Hiller used. Even so, intuition is always a part. What sounds good? What sounds good to you? What are choices where you think, “Oh this doesn’t quite work; I’ll change that to make it more internally satisfying”? So it’s always very difficult to talk about becoming more intuitive. But right now it’s true. My process feels quite different. I’m more interested in going where I don’t know what the next step is and how I get to that next step, rather than thinking, “Oh, I want to go here or go here. How do I go there?” It’s a different enough change and it’s frustrating to do that for too long; it gets very tiring actually. I can’t decide whether I want to go back to a more pre-compositional ordering of some elements or to play this out for a little bit longer. You have to be so alert at every moment to leave doors open and it’s very difficult.
FJO: When you say leave doors open, what does that mean structurally? Could you give me a specific example?
AJK: This is key to pieces like Winter Sky and Perpetual Chaconne and my new viola concerto, the last movement particularly, and even Color Wheel—that’s sort of where that began but I still had some big goals along the way. I’m very visual when I write. I’m seeing a path. I’m seeing a series of steps, or of textures, or coupled harmonies that are core harmonies, that I’m heading towards. In those more recent pieces I just mentioned, there is more a sense of a series of moments. There’s still a developmental long line in those moments, but a number of them were written as kind of blocks. It’s more an assemblage than writing in a through-composed way. So I’ll write things more out of order and not exactly know what’s the end, what’s the middle. It will develop out of—as I said—a kind of more intuitive process rather than an external idea of what was going to happen when it began.

1998 Photo of Kernis (left) and his wife Evelyne Luest with Kernis holding his Pulitzer Prize

Aaron Jay Kernis and his wife, pianist Evelyne Luest at the 1998 Pulitzer Prize Ceremony.

FJO: Everything we’ve been talking about has been really abstract. But one of the main things that’s served as a catalyst for pieces of yours throughout the decades has been responding to an external source, whether it’s history, current events, or something personal such as the death of your parents or the birth of your twins who’ve now been around for more than a decade. The Gulf War inspired your second symphony. One of the most heart-wrenching stories is the story you tell of your visit to Birkenau and how that triggered Colored Field. These extra-musical elements are often what draw non-composers into this music; it has emotional gravitas in a way that, say, a Symphony No. 12 does not.
AJK: Right. That’s something that hasn’t stopped, but the influences more recently are more internal and very personal. But all of the things you mention, all of the external reactions trigger emotions. And emotions then trigger sequences of ideas or ways of conceptualizing a musical form. That’s definitely what happened. I can still feel a relationship between the way I thought about big forms in Colored Field or the pieces that I consider the war pieces, and this emotional triggering of ideas and moods. Pieces of Winter Sky is crucial for me right now because it’s like those roughly 18 pieces were like 18 melancholy studies. I didn’t want to call the piece that. In fact, it almost reminds me of that black and white film that was done with Cage’s 101—you have what seems like an unchanging series of grays that are changing very subtly—or in the late work of Rothko. That was the experience of that piece, not looking at the sky when it was blue, but for days only a slightly changing gray sky. What would it be like to write different sections that reflected variations on that, how that affected me visually? The ironic thing is that it is an incredibly colorful piece, with all this metal percussion, and all this distinctive writing for each of the instruments, going back to what Antoniou said. Yet the experience of creating it had to do with finding differences in the similarity of a fairly unchanging picture.
FJO: But the medium you express these emotional responses in is this abstract form of music. You’re not writing short stories or poetry. You’re not painting the landscape. When people hear this music, they don’t necessarily get what’s in your head, especially what you were saying about a gray sky. They’re hearing all this color with the percussion. So how important is it for you that people get this? And how much do you feel people can get?
AJK: In the fall I had a performance in Princeton of Colored Field. Before and after the performance they invited a number of schools to bring their classes and expose the kids to the piece and to the background of the piece and to respond to it. I just got in the mail this incredible artwork and story writing that kids did through the experience of hearing Colored Field. It’s just amazing.

Art created in response to hearing Kernis' music by children 1 of 3

Colored Field by Shubha Vasisht (who last year was in the 7th Grade at The Hun School).

Art created in response to hearing Kernis' music by children 2 of 3

The Face in the Sky by Bailey Eng (who last year was in the 6th Grade at Montgomery Lower Middle School).

Art created in response to hearing Kernis' music by children 3 of 3

Bird’s Prey by Upekha Samarasekera (who last year was in 7th Grade at Montgomery Upper Middle School).
[Ed note: These three original art works were all created in response to hearing the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s November 3, 2013 performance of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Colored Field by students attending nine different New Jersey middle schools through Listen Up!, an initiative of the PSO BRAVO! education program sponsored by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. They were among a total of 36 art works that were part of the exhibition “Listening to the Colored Field” which has been shown at the Arts Council of Princeton and The Jewish Center of Princeton. All are reproduced with permission.


FJO: Did they just hear the piece or did they also get a program note about it or some kind of pre-concert talk by you?
AJK: They didn’t get a talk from me. They might have gotten the program note, from the CD. But some of what I described as my experience is deliberately left incomplete. The thing that fascinates me most is to see the variety of responses to it. The responses could be completely 180 degrees away from what my original experience was. That doesn’t matter at all to me. I hope that people will have their own experiences and will feel something special or deeply; that’s the power of music for me. Hopefully it will allow people to recognize things inside them and maybe they can give voice to in words or maybe they have no words for it.
FJO: Paradoxically the fact that music does not have fixed meaning gives it even more meaning.
AJK: Exactly. Very well said.
FJO: But because you’ve referenced synaesthesia in some pieces, you obviously in your own perception feel there is transference from one sense mode to another.
AJK: Definitely. The way I compose, too. Not all the time, but a lot of times, I’m just walking around and I’m not so much imagining notes. It’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m seeing textures. I think I was exposed early enough to Penderecki, Xenakis, Ravel, that those sonic worlds created a kind of visual relationship and a kind of emotional, textual relationship. I walk around and imagine things, but they’re not necessarily fixed notes, not necessarily tuned. It’s more like how I see shapes; it’s abstract. For a long time, I would come home and try to find a way to form those into something I could feel and grapple with. Now I’ve left that step out. I’m not drawing big structural plans out.
FJO: A lot of what you have written has been memorial music in some way. The earliest unrevised piece of yours I know is the Meditation in Memory of John Lennon, which is a gorgeous lament for Lennon. I can hear a through line from that all the way to your Ballad for eight cellos, and there are many other pieces of yours along the way that have this quality, too. Remembering the dead has brought out some of your most beautiful music, your most moving and most transformative music, at least to me. I find that an interesting through line in terms of what music can mean. I didn’t know your parents, but I have a sense of them somehow because of the music you wrote in their memory. It’s not a clear sense because music is abstract, but nevertheless there’s something in there that reached me and that can reach anybody who hears it and that makes it a more universal thing.

Hand written score sample from Meditation for cello and piano.Copyright © 1981 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

A passage from Aaron Jay Kernis’s handwritten score for Meditation in Memory of John Lennon for cello and piano.
Copyright © 1981 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

AJK: The experience of writing those pieces was always very multi-faceted. In Lennon’s case, it was being around Central Park, being in very close proximity when it happened, and looking for both an element of the music of his that I loved and that affected me and finding some small way to transmit that in that piece. But any of those memorializing pieces have an element that is not necessarily one that people would hear, an element of what the importance of that person to me was in some musical way. I could tell you specifically what those are, but it’s richer than just that. There have been a lot of those pieces. My cousin Michael, who was just a few years older than me, died very young while the Trumpet Concerto was being written. And the Viola Concerto is also a kind of memorial; it’s not so much for anyone that’s passed away, but it’s about how we change over our lives, how things disappear and reappear, get together and get frayed.
FJO: Now in terms of the things that have shaped you, so far we have only talked about texts intermittently, but you’ve written tons of choral music and song cycles both for solo singer with piano and solo singer with ensemble. So text has been extremely important to you. And, when you set a text, that text already comes with its own narrative and set of emotions.
AJK: That’s a frame to hold the music.
FJO: At the onset of our conversation you were saying that you’ve started taking text and reworking it to suit your own needs rather than crafting music that will serve those text’s needs. I’d like to flesh that out a little bit more—what it means in terms of the kinds of narrative you’re hoping to tell using someone else’s words.
AJK: I’ve done this three or four times now. There’s a practical element where the texts are simply too long to set completely. Or I don’t like parts of the text. I recently did a setting of Psalm 104. That’s a huge psalm and I had nine minutes, so I chose the bits that I liked best and tried to knit them together so it didn’t seem like there was a huge hole.
One thing that made vocal music always a little easier is because the emotions are there [already in the words], and are something to respond to. And, as I said, it’s a kind of frame, a time frame to keep the whole work together that the text helps set. As my approach becomes a little bit less structured, it makes me feel freer to play both with musical form and more abstractly to not have a fixed container of the text as well. Another thing, too, is that I’ve missed having really successful collaborations with other writers and other artists. It’s something I really would like to do more in the future. In a way, this creates a kind of collaboration with the text. Even though it’s not with a person, rather it’s just taking a completely fixed form and making it more fluid.
FJO: Your mentioning collaboration with other writers immediately makes me think of opera.
AJK: Yeah, opera is something that has just eluded my grasp. The projects I had did not work out. They were very difficult, and at very difficult times also. For example, I had an opera for Santa Fe Opera. And it was not working with the writer, and in the middle of the process my mother died. Then a number of months later my father died. The kind of intensive pressure that was necessary to make that piece work in that situation was just too hard, so it just went away.
I’m not sure how this will happen yet, but I’m seeing more theater; I’m looking for playwrights. I want to keep open and not just sit here in my studio. In the future I hope that some collaborations will develop. I had a very nice collaboration with a choreographer last year, and I had at least one or two experiences with installations and that was great. I would love to do more of that.
FJO: In terms of doing things in order to put yourself in an uncomfortable zone—not having a structure, not knowing where it’s going to go, to go somewhere else. What would be maximum discomfort?
AJK: Maximum discomfort is different from finding your way without a form. The uncomfortable question is a different one, because the process of composing is always very difficult and no one is a worse critic than I am toward myself. Yet it can be extremely pleasurable when it’s going well, and when it’s purring along. I think I’m looking toward collaboration more with a sense of possibility, rather than a sense of creating more difficulty for myself, setting up invigorating challenges rather than wrenching challenges.

Kernis and his wife with their two young twins, one sitting on his lap, the other on his shoulders

Kernis, his wife Evelyne and their twins in 2004. Photo courtesy Aaron Jay Kernis.

FJO: Of course, the biggest challenge is balancing it all—the music you are writing, your teaching commitments, plus having a family, two young children and a wife who’s also a concert pianist. How do you squeeze it all in?
AJK: Well, it’s difficult. Some things have had to go. The thing that’s most clearly gone is concert going. I have work time during the day and time with my kids at night. It’s very special time, unlike any other. And I don’t travel to performances as much, unless they’re premieres. I love to travel, but now it’s time to travel with my kids. Luckily I’m in a situation where I can teach one day a week and have the rest of the time to compose. It’s a full day. Sometimes it spills over to another day, or some students come down here and we have some extra time. But I try very much to fit it into one day. My composing time is really pretty sacred.
FJO: Well I’m glad you made time to do this with us.
AJK: Me too.

keyboard of piano with pens and toy on top

This photo of the corner of the piano in Aaron Jay Kernis’s composing studio taken by Molly Sheridan during our visit probably shows the combination of worlds Kernis must navigate on a daily basis even better than our conversation did.