meet the composer and his Symphony No. 4 “Chromelodeon”

Aaron Jay Kernis by Richard Bowditch

Many novelists have commented about the intriguing way that characters take off and behave unexpectedly, leaving the writer to follow their lead. Composer Aaron Jay Kernis is similarly fascinated about the self-direction of musical ideas.  “One of the beautiful things about composing is that you usually start with an idea,” he says, “but then the piece starts finding its own way.”

This was true of his Symphony No. 4 “Chromelodeon,” which he wrote on a joint commission from the Bellingham Festival of Music, New England Conservatory, and the Nashville Symphony. The work will have its West Coast premiere, July 11 at the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center, as one of the centerpieces of the Festival’s 25th Silver Anniversary Season.  Artistic Director Michael Palmer will conduct the BFM Orchestra.

A much honored figure in classical music, Kernis is the winner of the 2002 $200,000 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, and 2011 Nemmers Award, and serves on the music faculty of Yale University.  He will be in attendance at the Bellingham performance.

Kernis talked about the Symphony shortly after the World Premiere in Boston, April 18, and the first Nashville performance in late February.  Scored for large orchestra (woodwinds in threes etc.), it is set in three movements with the evocative titles, “Out of Silence,” “Thorn Rose/Weep Freedom after Handel,” and “Fanfare Chromelodia.”

The subtitle, “Chromelodeon,” may seem “like a nonsensical word,” Kernis explained. “The only instances of its use that I’ve found come as the name of a microtonal instrument (36 tones per octave) invented by the great American eccentric Harry Partch, and of a cult progressive rock band in the late 60s. But for me it has a particular meaning—‘Chroma’—relating to the chromatic scale of notes, or intensity of/or produced with color— ‘Melodi’—melody, a succession of tones that produce a distinct phrase or idea, and—‘eon’—one who performs. In other words, chromatic, colorful, melodic music for orchestra.”

Kernis consults with conductor Hugh Wolff before NEC premiere. Photo courtesy of Margie Apfelbaum.

There were three initial starting points as Kernis began work. “I was in the middle of reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise,’ and I was so taken by the images, the ideas of a kind of sound. But however great those images were, I wasn’t able to get there.” The delicate, shimmering, bell-like timbres of the opening phrases do evoke an eastern, meditative atmosphere. “But the musical ideas led somewhere else, out of silence,” Kernis said.

A famous Handel aria that he “couldn’t get out of his head” provided the inspiration for the second movement.  Originally written for Handel’s 1705 opera “Almira” as a purely orchestral sarabande, the melody was repurposed twice in typical Handelian fashion, the first as “Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa” (“Leave the Thorn, Take the Rose”) for an oratorio, and later as “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let me weep over my cruel fate and let me sigh for liberty”) for the opera “Rinaldo.”  “I’d heard the aria in various recordings and it took me in many, many different places that I was never expecting when I started the piece. I never anticipated doing anything remotely like what I did,” Kernis recalled. “I was searching for a way to use it. And I turn it in all sorts of ways. It’s only at the very end that it appears in its original form.”

As for the much shorter fanfare finale, Kernis revived a “tune” he had written six years before. “I always really liked it and I tried to develop it, but it didn’t go anywhere. (That’s where the title ‘Chromelodeon’ comes from.) I decided that I was really going to get it to work this time.  And it also felt right to me to have a movement that, if not exactly celebratory, had a major chord quality.” This, of course, was a gesture toward the anniversaries being celebrated by two of the commissioners—New England Conservatory’s 150th and the Festival’s 25th.

Linking these three seemingly disparate movements, Kernis described a structural thread that “holds the narrative of the piece together.”  “Each movement is a different way of viewing variation.”  It’s part of a long-time focus on “how one develops and varies music to build a big structure. The second movement is a very clear theme and variations; the others are less direct in that way. But each takes the idea of transforming and varying the ideas.”

Unlike some earlier works, Kernis did not use the Symphony as a means to express deeply felt spiritual, humanitarian, or political ideas.  “This new Symphony is created out of musical elements, not images or stories,” he said, “though I would not be surprised if the influence of living in the chaos of the world today—at a ‘molecular’ emotive level—didn’t play a part in its creation.

“Before, I’ve said things more directly, but I didn’t want to go back to that.  I wanted to be more subtle.  What I feel every single day is that it’s such a gift to be an artist. And musicians have a way of being personally expressive, of being able to say things post-verbally without having to box the ideas in or where they come from or what emotions they come from.  I’m more interested in saying less where things come from and more interested in seeing how people bring their own responses to the experience. ”