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Grammy Winning Composer - Aaron Jay Kernis

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

Luke: Why do you think it's important for guitarists and composers to collaborate on writing new music?


Kernis: The life of the composer is often fairly isolated, so collaboration enables us to come into the light, to see the world and to meet other people. (Forming) friendships and working with other musicians can be so inspiring. It can be difficult at times as well, but mostly I'll give a little red star to the inspiring side. It's been really vital for me. Most of my concertos and a lot of my solo works were written with direct input from the player, either during or after the writing process to make the work better and more idiomatic. I think it's crucial on many levels.


Recently I arranged a piano piece for harp and trumpet. I'd written harp music before, but (this arrangement required) the involvement of a harp player on a very detailed level to make it idiomatic for the instrument. The guitar is also very difficult for non-players to come to grips with.


L: What do you think is the most unique or most gratifying aspect of writing for the guitar?


K: Guitar music wouldn't have come about in my life without collaboration. Since my very first piece for guitar, David Tanenbaum, one of my dearest friends, has been at the forefront. I was really inspired right away by his playing. Then we worked together through the intricacies of the guitar, especially the technical issues of the guitar. This has made me a more flexible composer, as well as deepening my friendship (with Tanenbaum). It’s just been great over so many years.


L: Overall, how do you approach a new piece, whether it is a commission, a collaboration or a personal project?


K: This question is difficult because it's so broad. There are certain things that different pieces have in common, but for the most part each project from different times in my life had a slightly different process. If text is involved, that is one extremely important element that shapes the entire process from the beginning to the end. With a collaboration, if there’s a soloist involved, you have to consider who you are writing for, which shapes the trajectory from the beginning. Abstractly, at least 50% to 60% of the time, a piece starts with something that feels very personal and very unique. I experience a combination of a visual and a sonic imprint. It's a sort of like a sound made visible from a lot of visualization. That’s just the way that I work.


When I'm writing for a particular performer, I see and imagine them. If I'm writing a concerto, early on I get to know that player’s (style). I watch videos of them and listen to their recordings. I try to see them performing live, so I can have a sense of how they move, what their sound is, what kind of person they are and what interests them. These things don’t create a conscious direction for the piece, but they certainly create an unconscious imprint of who the work is being written for. The same applies when I am writing for an orchestra. I take time with their recordings, and if I can, I will go see them live or get to know some of the players. This helps to create a bond with the group, organization or soloist.


Also, sometimes an emotion will create an initial spark, color or sensation (related) to what I'm thinking about. In the past, I would write down actual images in lieu of a structural map. I would think of the progression or the form of the piece as a narrative in pictures. Then, I would create a document with words to sketch out the structure and the direct intent. Those are some starting points before the notes go down and the form gets developed. Those are the really essential parts.


Having very strong colors is an important element for me. I am not a stereotypical synesthete who (experiences) a direct relationship between visual color and sound all the time, but sometimes it happens. When I'm imagining a sound in my head, there are (visual) and emotional colors associated with it. I'm not in complete control of it. It just happens. These (images) come into my visual imagination without any conscious decision, and then they inspire the progression.


L: Do you have any advice for composers who haven’t written for guitar and might feel a bit apprehensive?


K: My only advice comes from my own experience, which I am sure is similar to some other composers. I first started (composing for guitar) when I was 19 or 20 after I met David Tanenbaum. (At the time,) I was working through very definite ideas about pitch that were very strongly chiseled. You see this particularly in the Partita (1981). Those ideas came about before the collaboration, so I had to battle with David a little bit. In other words, I was forced to decide between the idiomatic and the unidiomatic. Was I going to accept those (limitations) or work around them? Could I adjust to work on the guitar? During the next collaboration with David, I developed the flexibility to allow my ideas to be shaped for and by the guitar, rather than having external ideas that needed to be reshaped by a guitarist. That's key to the way I have written for the guitar over time, which came from this collaboration. I’d say that composers should find a guitarist that they like and really want to work with, who can be their guide and can help them shape the work to the instrument.


L: Thank you so much!

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