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.
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.
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.