Writing sample by Aaron Grad.
© 2012 Aaron Grad. All rights reserved.

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In Their Own Words
Aaron Jay Kernis, composer

Interview by Aaron Grad

How important has Bach been in your development as a musician?

From the time I started with music, I always had some relationship to Bach. I played the Inventions when I started the piano, and The Sixth “Brandenburg” Concerto was one of the first records I bought when I was 10. In my attempt to be a violinist, I remember buying a copy of the Sonatas and Partitas, and being utterly wowed by them. Almost every day, I play or hear Bach in my house—usually, the Well-Tempered Clavier or the organ music, something I can sit down and feel refreshed and challenged by.

What was it like for you to write a piece for Orpheus’ New Brandenburg Project, with such a direct link to Bach’s music?

Many times, if there is a specific influence suggested to me for a work, I find that my thought processes at first get short-circuited or overwhelmed. In this case, the relationship to Bach for a long time made me feel very stuck; there was so much history and so much love of the music that it was hard for me to pull back and find what I needed to express. It took an extra long time to put that in the background and just write the piece I needed to write. But having done that, I am intrigued with the results.


How was it to follow Bach’s model in the Sixth “Brandenburg” Concerto and omit violins?

Writing primarily for an orchestra of violas, cellos and basses was pretty challenging. In fact, I held out the possibility that I might include violins until the very last minute. Only once the piece really started going did I decide to find my way with the lower strings. What I wound up doing in this piece is essentially writing for ten solo strings. I also knew that at a particular point in the piece I wanted to gradually add the winds from the First “Brandenburg” Concerto, because I needed to enlarge the instrumental sound world and take the piece in another direction.

This program begins with Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, a work with its own ties to the “Brandenburg” Concertos and other Baroque concerti grossi. Did Stravinsky’s take on Baroque style have any impact on you?

The baroque influence on Stravinsky played an important role in my thinking about this piece. The “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto is not a piece I know well, but I was reminded of The Rake’s Progress at moments during the writing, for example, and a cubistic approach to fracturing the musical line between instruments. Part of the reason the piece is called Concerto in Echoes—and there are many different manifestations in the piece of the word “echoes”—is that, as I was writing, I noticed that a number of composers who have had a strong relationship to Bach’s work influenced me along the way. I was paying a kind of homage to those composers, in sometimes subtle ways and sometimes more direct ways. Stravinsky is certainly one of those composers, and maybe Bartók or Ligeti a little bit, and Arvo Pärt. I hear certain echoes in the piece of their work as well as from Bach’s.

There is another link between Bach and a more modern composer on this program, with Webern’s arrangement of the Ricercare. Did that piece influence you at all?

The influence of the Webern arrangement is actually really interesting for me, because when I started the second movement (which I composed first), I watched a couple of performances online that moved me alot. What a masterful and unique vision of it Webern has created! I was very much influenced by the Ricercare, certainly more than by the slow movement of the Sixth “Brandenburg” Concerto. My piece is essentially informed by the first couple of moments of the Sixth's first movement, and hardly at all by the rest of it. That opening, echoing viola line just exploded in my thinking to bring Concerto in Echoes into being.

How did you decide to end your piece with a slow Aria movement?

I had actually started a fast movement, but it was too close to a Baroque model, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. So after a while I put that down and let this Aria appear, which was very much a surprise. It is a slow, lyrical movement, beginning with the unmistakable sound of English horn, and ending in a very plaintive fadeout. It is a dance form, as in the Sixth “Brandenburg,” but a slow dance. As I started this composition, something didn’t quite ring true to me to follow the baroque model of fast-slow-fast precisely. I was very happy when I finished the third movement and it had gone in a different direction. The first movement is only strings, and the second movement begins with a number of important viola and cello solos and gradually, bit by bit, adds oboes and horns and the other instruments in the piece. But the third movement really focuses to a great extent on winds, and their special solo characteristics, so it took a very unexpected direction.

Did the ensemble itself influence your ideas, especially the fact that you knew Orpheus would be playing it like chamber music, without a conductor?

The piece underwent such a transformation from my very beginning ideas to what wound up being written. I was initially very concerned about how the music would be coordinated, but as I was writing the music the issue of not having a conductor just evaporated completely. I saw how deeply the piece had been influenced by Baroque concerti: it would not need a conductor, but would use various leaders as the principal lines moved around the orchestra.

Beethoven (whose Violin Concerto appears on the second half of this program) is another composer one might think would hold as much sway as Bach. Yet, in speaking with composers, I find that reactions to Beethoven are surprisingly mixed. What has your relationship to Beethoven been like?

Bach is a composer I have always embraced, and Beethoven is a composer I have always wrestled with. There are types of pieces that I love, and others that I have a more complicated relationship to. The string quartets are unbelievable; I have a more awkward relationship with the piano sonatas and the symphonies, for example. I found I could only really relate to Beethoven once I heard his music through the prism of Baroque performance practice, and conductors and orchestras who cleaned out heavy vibrato from the string playing. I found a lot of the heavy and ponderous aspects of late Romantic performance practice fell away for me, and I began to relate directly to the greatness of the music.