Notes from the underground

The moment you’ve all feared is finally upon us – I’m returning to reviews of 20th century music, after weeks of examining the pieces that I “grew up on” musically. Actually, last week’s composer, Sergei Prokofiev, was a 20th century composer as well as one of my musical “building blocks,” and so he will serve as the segue, bridge or (for the musically inclined) point of modulation from the past to the present.

Although this week marks a return to more difficult music, I’m going to start with a contemporary composer who is at once interesting, accessible, creative, emotional and witty. Aaron Jay Kernis is possibly the “hottest” young composer around these days-and not in the Leonardo DiCaprio sense.

Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in music at age 38, he has already achieved one of the highest honors given to composers at a relatively young age. I suppose it’s strange to refer to a man twice my age as “young,” but I also call rookies in professional sports “that kid” even if they’re 26, so there’s at least a precedent.

Kernis is a wonderful composer and, by all accounts, a good guy. For one thing, he wears hip glasses, which (as you all should know by now) counts for a lot in my book. His music is difficult to categorize, partly because of the baggage that accompanies so many of the existing categories.

I could call his style “neo-Romantic,” and most people would, but I really despise that term. It attempts to relate a new form of expression to a 19th century aesthetic, a very inappropriate application. What is termed “Neo-Romantic” music is characterized by a greater accessibility than its predecessors, emphasizing more traditional harmonies and rhythms. Kernis certainly does this, but I fail to see what it has to do with any romantic aesthetic.

Kernis has a wonderful feel for color and texture, two terms which I have used a lot in this column. The traditional means of examining and analyzing classical music is to examine the form and structure of a piece. One would take into account the harmonic structure, or for newer works, the pitch sets or other devices used to construct the piece.

There are other formal examinations that can be performed on just about any piece of music, but I find that color and texture are equally or more important and very difficult to describe. When I say “color,” I am referring to the actual sound of the instruments used by a composer. “Texture” broadly refers to the interaction of those instruments.

The CD I’m reviewing (CD K38 4) has three pieces on it: the Second Symphony, Musica Celestis, and Invisible Mosaic III. The first is a large-scale work that deals with the composer’s reaction to the Persian Gulf War. The liner notes say that “the Gulf War inaugurated a new loss of innocence for the composer, the darker dawn of a worldview all too aware of man’s limitless taste for destruction…”

While I personally question how the events of 1990-91 could have such an effect on anyone not immediately involved with the war itself, the Second Symphony is a remarkable piece. I am more affected by the piece itself than by the events of the war, but the conflict obviously had a profound impact on Kernis.

The title of the first movement, “Alarm,” could be interpreted as referring to an air-raid alarm or some other such war-time signal. I hear it more as a movement about the state of alarm felt by soldiers, men and women who acknowledge their duty to die for their country. This piece certainly evokes that sentiment, keeping the listener in a constant state of tension, through unresolved harmonies and a frantic pace.

The second movement, “Air/Ground,” brings with it a state of uneasy calm. Passages of emotional beauty are interspersed with periods of tension – although unlike the tension from the first movement, these periods are made more remarkable by the beauty which surrounds them.

The third movement, “Barricade,” is one of the most militaristic movements written since Shostakovich. The orchestral forces seem to be gathering in preparation for a great strike, and just when they are wholly amassed, the power of sheer noise (from the tam-tams) destroys them all. This mood of unfulfilled promise echoes throughout the entire piece.

The second work on this CD, “Musica Celestis,” is similar to the Second Symphony only in its equally wonderful use of orchestral color. This could be music to die to, in the best sense, as it is a reaction to the image of “heavenly angels singing in praise of God without end.” I admit that the unabashed tonality and pure beauty used here took me by surprise, though it is ultimately refreshing.

This is certainly a Twentieth Century work, but it does not fit the established cliches of our time. Kernis is a postmodernist in the best sense: he has looked back on the methods of the past and forged his own style with them all in mind. Listen to this piece and see if you still wish to tell me that there is no place for the composer in our society.

All this time, I’ve talked about color and texture. For a perfect illustration of what I mean, listen to this work, which seems to be a study of just these concepts. The orchestra sounds amazingly alive in this recording, thanks in part to the marvelous direction of Hugh Wolff and the excellent playing of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Mostly, though, it is Kernis’ talents which make this concoction of color work. It almost sounds like movie music for a movie that was never made, though with much more structure and depth of character than any movie score I’ve heard.

This whole album is phenomenal, so listen to it! I’m buying a copy soon, and then you can borrow mine. Also note the cool pyrotechnic cover, a major improvement on the usual picture of the composer or “pastoral setting.”

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