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Aaron Jay Kernis

Leta E. Miller

Publication Year: 2014

Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Grawemeyer Award, Aaron Jay Kernis achieved recognition as one of the leading composers of his generation while still in his thirties. Since then his eloquent yet accessible style, emphasis on melody, and willingness to engage popular as well as classical forms has brought him widespread acclaim and admiring audiences. Leta Miller's biography offers the first survey of the composer's life and work. Immersed in music by middle school, and later training under Theodore Antoniou, John Adams, Jacob Druckman, and others, Kernis rejected the idea of distancing his work from worldly concerns and dared to compose on political themes. His Second Symphony , from 1991, engaged with the first Gulf War; 1993's Still Moment with Hymn was a reaction to the Bosnian Genocide; and the next year's Colored Field and 1995's Lament and Prayer dealt with the Holocaust. Yet Kernis also used sources as disparate as futurist agitprop and children's games to display humor in his work. Miller's analysis addresses not only Kernis's wide range of subjects but also the eclecticism that has baffled critics, analyzing his dedication to synthesis and the themes consistent in his work. Informed and engaging, Aaron Jay Kernis gives a rare mid-career portrait of a major American cultural figure. Publication of this book was supported by a grant from the Henry and Edna Binkele Classical Music Fund

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: American Composers

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-x

This book would not have been possible without the enthusiastic cooperation of Aaron Jay Kernis, who not only opened his archive of documents to me but also gave unstintingly of his time for interviews and innumerable email messages. He was frank and forthcoming and, although he read every word I wrote (in some cases several times), he allowed me complete...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-6

“I’m so pleased you’re writing about me,” said Aaron Jay Kernis when I approached him about this book. “My only hesitation is that I feel I should be twenty years older.” Indeed, readers may pose the same question: what justifies a book about a composer who is only fifty-four years old?
On the most basic level is Kernis’s impressive productivity: the large number...

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2. Learning the Craft: Early Years and Training (1960–1983)

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pp. 7-25

Aaron Jay Kernis was born on January 15, 1960, in Philadelphia. For the next eight years his family lived in the Olney area in the northern part of the city. His father Frank (1923–2004) was a mail carrier, a job that brought him great pleasure. Kernis recalls, “He loved to talk to people along his route; he loved the outdoors; he loved to walk.”1 Frank Kernis also loved jazz, particularly...

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3. Kernis Meets the New York Philharmonic

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pp. 26-42

On June 7, 1983, a highly public—and widely publicized—event catapulted the twenty-three-year-old Kernis into the national spotlight. At 8:00 that evening, in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, in front of an audience of nearly a thousand, the New York Philharmonic spent an hour reading through and rehearsing Kernis’s “dream of the morning sky” (Cycle V), conducted (and...

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4. Coming to Grips with History (1984–1991)

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pp. 43-70

For Kernis, the period 1984–1991 was one of wandering physically, emotionally, and artistically. He lived in Europe, various parts of the United States, and Canada. He experienced periods of intense loneliness but also the pleasure of a significant romantic attachment. And, after freeing himself musically from strict self-imposed controls, he confronted head-on the challenges of...

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5. War, with Interludes (1991–1995)

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pp. 71-99

By the end of the 1980s Kernis had established a reputation as one of the most promising young composers on the contemporary scene. New York critics approached his concerts with their antennas up and pens poised. Allan Kozinn called him “an eloquent young composer [who] finds an excellent balance between abstraction and lyricism.” John Rockwell characterized him as...

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6. Triumphs and Tribulations: Big Commissions, Big Risks, Big Rewards (1995–2001)

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pp. 100-125

In 1995 the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored Kernis with a $7,500 prize to facilitate a recording.1 Accompanying the award was a tribute to the thirty-five-year-old composer noting his “Dickensian abundance” in pouring out “many remarkable large-scale pieces. . . . As each work grows in both precision and eloquence,” said the tribute’s author, “Kernis seems destined...

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7. Family Matters (2002–2009)

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pp. 126-151

Kernis’s millennium prayer that the twenty-first century, through its children, would usher in a “new era” of humanitarianism and peace shattered almost immediately after the century dawned in the devastating terrorism of 9/11. Aaron and Evelyne had just returned from California on the evening of September 10, 2001. Like many others around the country, they heard about the...

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8. Looking to the Future

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pp. 152-162

Perhaps the most frequently quoted comment by Kernis is his expressed desire to “include everything” in his music. “I want . . . soaring melody, consonance, tension, dissonance, drive, relaxation, color, strong harmony, and form—and for every possible emotion to be elicited actively by the passionate use of those elements.”1 Critics have made much of his embrace of diversity, noting...


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pp. 163-170

Suggested Listening

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pp. 171-172


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pp. 173-184


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pp. 185-200

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About the Author, Other Works in the Series, Production Notes

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pp. 201-206

Leta E. Miller is a professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Music and Politics in San Francisco: From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War...

E-ISBN-13: 9780252096440
E-ISBN-10: 0252096444
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252038532

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: American Composers