Composer Aaron Jay Kernis: 'Take Risks and Seek Beauty’

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The Seattle Symphony and violinist James Ehnes premiere a new violin concerto by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis on March 16, 17 and 18. Kernis shared with us about this piece, how he keeps the creative spark, his advice for young composers and what’s on the horizon.

Tell us about your new violin concerto. What do you love about it?

It feels like a bold statement for me — at this stage —  to say " I love ___ about my new work" since at this moment is still exists inside the head and the ears, and it's waiting to be brought to full life in the upcoming performances. So, ask me that in a few months! But I can say that I'm thrilled that it was written for James Ehnes, and the four partner orchestras with their terrific music directors. The concerto is truly a labor of love for all of them! (Especially James...)

You’ve worked with James Ehnes previously. Could you describe your collaborative process for this concerto?

Over the years I've written a lot of music for violin, but for me this concerto continues to push boundaries in violin technique and in the huge presence that the violin has throughout. James can play anything! But during the process I had a number of questions for him, and we worked in person and on the phone to answer them. (Now we can reach each other pretty much in any time zone via Skype, so that makes it easy). James edited very finely what I wrote to make it all possible while also keeping that sense of pushing the boundaries of virtuosity.

Starting a piece can be both exhilarating and terrifying. How do you confront the blank page?

By taking long walks, visualizing musical ideas and improvising — anything to free the mind from pre-conceived limits or boundaries. If those don't work, there's always chocolate!

New music is critical to the development of our art form. Why do you believe it is important for audiences to listen?

I really enjoy I Love Lucy, and have been revisiting it with my daughter (along with the Beatles). But for old TV shows, classic novels and the British Invasion to be my only diet? I'd miss the exhilaration of discovering new movies, books, all the very inventive TV writers and the brilliant crop of young composers coming up just now... Music is a vital art form, it's now, and I wouldn't want (or want other listeners) to miss any of the lively and stimulating work being made today.

How did you get your start with music? Was there a turning point that inspired you to pursue music as a career?

I started because of an orchestral concert that I heard on the radio when I was 8. After that I began to seek out classical recordings, attend live concerts, sing, play the violin and begin to compose. My turning point as a composer was being part of a high school composition workshop when I was 13, finding my first composition teacher through that and learning how much I was compelled to express myself through music.

You’ve frequently work with young composers. What advice do you give them?

That would fill pages — but a few things I'd say (or would want to say): Write what you love. If you don't love what you write, how can you expect anyone else to care? Take risks. Avoid favoring the development of your intellect over heightening your intuition. Seek beauty, and especially develop the things that are unique to you.

What do you enjoy doing when not composing?

I love to cook, eat, find new restaurants, read about cooking, eat chocolate, hang out with my kids, go to movies, read, travel and think about my next piece.

What’s on the horizon for you? What projects are you excited about?

I'm particularly excited about a new cello and piano work for my cellist son and a new work for the fabulous young soprano Julia Bullock. But I'm beginning to look for opera ideas again, and hope to do more collaborative work and develop ideas a little outside of the mainstream too. I'm thrilled to be composing all the time!

James Ehnes premieres a new violin concerto by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis on March 16, 17 and 18.

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Posted on February 10, 2017

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