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Aaron Jay Kernis

Aaron Jay Kernis

January 6, 2021

Hosted by the award-winning classical music radio announcer, Naomi Lewin, this episode features Aaron Jay Kernis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, and explores two pieces he wrote for Tippet Rise: First CLUB Date, for piano and cello, and String Quartet No. 4 (“Oasis"), for string quartet. We hear musicians, audience members and the art center’s cofounders reflect on Kernis’ work, and we hear the composer discuss a major inspiration for String Quartet No. 4 (“Oasis"): the rugged Montana landscape, which he calls “a heavenly place.”

Photo: James Florio



00:02 Melissa Moore: Welcome to the Tippet Rise podcast, brought to you from Tippet Rise Art Center located on a 12,000-acre ranch in Fishtail, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. I’m Melissa Moore. At Tippet Rise, we celebrate the synergy of art, architecture, music, and nature, out of which we weave our identities. The Tippet Rise podcast explores these connections. In today’s episode, we’ll hear about American composer, Aaron Jay Kernis and his commissions for Tippet Rise from Naomi Lewin.


00:41 Naomi Lewin: Aaron Jay Kernis is one of America’s most celebrated composers. A few years ago, he got a call asking for three new pieces for Peter and Cathy Halstead, the founders of Tippet Rise.

00:54 Cathy Halstead: We’ve really loved his work for so many years, so we just felt incredibly fortunate that he said yes, and is writing a series of pieces for us.

01:05 NL: For Kernis, the Halsteads’ chamber music request came at the perfect time.

01:10 Aaron Jay Kernis: I’d been writing a lot of concertos like one after the other after the other. And my philosophy over all these years was when possible, not to write two works with an orchestra in a row. To do something smaller in between, clear my mind of the large, go back to the smaller things.

01:31 NL: The first Tippet Rise piece was originally supposed to be for solo piano, but Kernis decided to write for cello and piano. His teenage son, Jonah, was studying cello and Kernis wanted to write something his son might be able to play and something that would incorporate his son’s interests.

01:48 AK: It’s sort of a jazz-based piece, basically inspired because my son has just fallen in love with jazz over the last number of years, and out of that fascination he had, I thought, well there’s not much cello music that has a jazz basis. And it enabled me to revisit many of the artists and influences I’ve loved over the years because each piece has different jazz or popular music elements in it. For example, the first movement has a very strongly blues element in the middle, like fast blues kind of thing. There are various bebop elements that thread through the piece, influences of Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Benny Goodman, a little touch of Astrobeat, Sola, some ragtime, some funk.


03:05 AK: My son’s favorite band is a group called Snarky Puppy and so the second movement is called Puppy Love. It doesn’t sound anything like Snarky Puppy, but it has a kind of Basicali bass line like a lot of what Snarky Puppy’s grooves are like.


03:42 NL: The heart of the piece, is the fourth movement, elevating the jazz standard.


04:11 AK: That movement is the biggest movement in the piece, a cross between jazz ballad and Scriabin.


04:35 NL: The title of the piece is First CLUB Date.


04:48 AK: The idea was what would a young cellist need to know of past jazz, present jazz and techniques, if he was trying to get his first gig at a jazz club? So it was just a fun game for me in building the piece and thinking about history of jazz.

05:05 NL: First CLUB Date, premiered at Tippet Rise in August 2017, with two top-notch artists: Pianist Pedja Muzijevic, and cellist Matt Haimovitz. With his son in mind, Kernis consulted Haimovitz while writing the cello part.

05:20 AK: Whether I should make it less hard, more approachable to a young cellist. And he said, “Absolutely not. Just have it be ability-building situation for Jonah.” And it’s quite quite hard. And Jonah’s played three out of five movements at this point. We’ve been doing it as a duo, as a father-son duo, which has been great.


06:20 NL: After that Kernis, turned his attention to the next piece for Tippet Rise, a string quartet. For him, the composition process starts with taking walks and visualizing the music in his head.

06:33 AK: And the visualization thing is the most mysterious part to me, because I will actually visualize an orchestra or the orchestra I’m writing for. I will hear sounds in my… I’ll not exactly hear sounds in my head, but I’ll imagine some kind of sonic thing going on between my ears. It’s pretty mysterious to me too, but it’s a lot of textures and images and not tunes or notes, that comes later. And then the next stages, I sit down at the piano, I start to improvise and then I’ll sing, I’ll walk around, I’ll play the piano a lot and come up with some workings through.

07:07 NL: He also thinks a lot about the mood he wants to set.

07:11 AK: There are pieces that are more serene and pieces that are more jazzy or more influenced by popular music and a lot of pieces that are less influenced by popular music and far less serene, more dramatic, more tense, more harsh.


07:28 NL: Kernis traveled to Montana for the summer premiere of First CLUB Date and returned when Matt Haimovitz recorded the piece with pianist Andrea Lam for the Tippet Rise CD Daydreams. That took place in December when he found the place very different.

07:44 AK: First few days were dry, wintry, very cold, but then there was a huge snow storm. There weren’t many people around and I was taken on tour of the place by truck and some things started to click about the whole panorama of Tippet Rise and the Montana landscape.

08:06 NL: Kernis had intended the new string quartet to be part of a series with his first two which both have Latin names borrowed from medieval times: Musica Celestis, music of the heavens, and Musica Instrumentalis, music that’s performed physically.

08:23 AK: So, I came across another phrase, Musica Universalis, that would be music of the universe, but I tried to work on this and it just didn’t happen. I’d written lots and lots of sketches, and it just wasn’t working. I gradually realized I had all this good music that I was happy with, but the form that I was thinking of was not right. Rather than thinking of an idea that I had of what the piece should be, I had to now look at what the piece was becoming. And so that’s what was like a kind of “a-ha” moment. And then I began to think, you know, what really had influenced this was my experience at Tippet Rise in December and certain memories and photographs I’d taken of the landscape, both with and without snow, and in a way, that’s a kind of universe in itself.


09:28 NL: Kernis decided to name the new quartet, “Oasis.”


09:37 Yeesun Kim: It’s always fascinating to work with living composers.

09:41 NL: Yeesun Kim is the cellist of the Boston-based Borromeo String Quartet, which played the premiere of Kernis’s Quartet.

09:49 YK: You kind of know their music and then you’re actually with a person and suddenly you can tell that their music is them. He writes a lot of these cluster of chords that are difficult to hear, especially when it’s spread apart by several instruments and we’re trying to tune it, we’re trying to hear it. But then when he sat down and played these chords on the piano, suddenly we understood, I mean I heard it.


10:21 YK: Watching him working through certain processes, and changing things and reorganizing, and it’s very subtle shifts, but even the tiny bits of revoicing and things like that where he asked us to change up who’s playing which notes, even though they were the same notes, it really made a huge difference in terms of how the whole texture worked.

10:45 NL: Kristopher Tong is second violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet.

10:50 Kristopher Tong: Part of what’s really exciting about learning a new piece like this is that even if you don’t know what to make of it, you identify with something right away. It just strikes you. Maybe it’s a particular harmony or maybe it’s a particular gesture or something, the way in which the parts work together. At the same time, the composer is hearing something for the first time, he has imagined it but he doesn’t exactly know what it’s gonna sound like. And for me, that was one of the more fascinating things working with Aaron these past few days.

11:19 NL: The String Quartet Oasis has four movements. The first of them is Rising, which Aaron Jay Kernis says is reflected in the musical lines.


11:35 AK: What this movement does is it goes back and forth, between things that rise and things that fall. And the things that rise are always trying to go further and further.


12:00 NL: The second movement, Portal Night Song, is a jazzy lullaby inspired by the Tippet Rise sculptural installation, Beartooth Portal.


12:44 NL: The third movement has the same name as the entire string quartet, Oasis.


13:21 NL: It took Kernis a while to figure out what to call the final movement until he opened Peter Halstead’s 2018 book of poetry, essays and photographs of Tippet Rise and saw the word “mysterium”.


13:51 NL: Peter Halstead’s book also contains the phrase…

13:54 AK: Cosmology brought down to earth. And when I found that phrase, I just found it, that’s what was happening because instead of thinking about cosmology of the imagination of ancient scientists I was thinking actually about this place on earth that is like a heavenly place.

14:11 NL: Kernis began to realize that to capture the mystery of the Tippet Rise universe in this last movement, he wanted more than four instrumental lines, so he created 31 tracks that were recorded and mixed in advance and then played back through speakers positioned around the hall while the Borromeo String Quartet performed live on stage. Nicholas Kitchen is the Quartet’s first violinist.

14:36 Nicholas Kitchen: We all had this interesting thing thrown at us by Aaron of having pre-recorded music as part of the process.

14:46 NL: Nicholas Kitchen and his wife, cellist Yeesun Kim, taped all 31 tracks of the surround sound and then Kitchen devised a video system for the Quartet to stay in sync with the recording.

15:00 NK: There were a lot of challenges of getting that technically working. Those were fascinating just because they were a different construction method of music, but the part that then became really exciting and I felt this in the performance, but I think I felt it very, very strongly when we played it through in the afternoon, the performance, was that I crossed this line where that inanimate object of the tape, I was able to really make music with it. And that was really special because it was a little bit like you’ve made a new species of what happens on stage, and for it to actually become musical and expressive and moving, that was a pretty amazing sensation.


16:15 NL: As the Borromeo String Quartet was about to perform the premiere, Aaron Jay Kernis issued a gentle warning to the audience about his musical description of Tippet Rise.

16:24 AK: This landscape for me is not pretty, it’s rugged, it’s full of openness and grittiness and a unique beauty that is just very special and the kind of language that I needed to use to address my ideas is not really pretty language for most of the time.


17:05 NL: After the performance, it was clear that this resonated with the Montana audience.

17:10 Reagan Volpe: I’m Reagan Volpe and I’m from Billings. This landscape around us that we live in, it’s ever-changing. You never know when it’s gonna throw you a curve, it’s unpredictable, it’s strident, it’s linear and yet voluptuous and all of those things were captured so beautifully and so incredibly, I thought.

17:32 Lucy: My name is Lucy, I’m a student at Montana State. It’s hard to have put that experience into words, but I was holding my breath, but I was also just frozen in time just listening to that, and watching that happen, I felt like the whole room felt that way. And then to have the composer here was just such a unique experience, and I think that’s the first time the world’s ever heard that piece. It’s a very special moment.

17:56 Laurie Durden: My name is Laurie Durden, and I’m from Billings. Such beautiful music that brought so many things in my head of being out in the night sky and watching the stars move through the heavens, and how gorgeous it is and how there is sound to it. There is sound.

18:16 Mike Phillips: I’m Mike Phillips from Red Lodge, Montana. Unlike the composer who said that he thought the piece was rough, it’s not, it’s just beautiful, is what I thought. But then I see this land as beautiful and not rough either. I’ve lived here a very long time.

18:33 NL: And as Tippet Rise founder, Peter Halstead, put it.

18:36 Peter Halstead: It’s made into a world that can’t be described, so you need a new vocabulary for it. And that’s really what Montana is like, it’s a strange land that you need a whole new vocabulary in English and in music for.


19:16 NL: Aaron Jay Kernis was delighted with the Borromeo String Quartet’s performance, and that the audience understood how the music of his String Quartet captures the Tippet Rise landscape, just as the name of the piece, Oasis, captures the Tippet Rise spirit.

19:33 AK: Here, Peter and Cathy have this vast number of acres, I can’t even tell you how many acres they are, and the human footprint on that land is very small. You feel so tiny in the midst of the land and the sky, and the sculptures. So they’ve done a wonderful thing in placing the structures that have been made in this vast amount of land and this is why the word “oasis” is so present for this String Quartet. This sense of some place, so away from the hectic and the tense and all that, a place to nurture arts. Kind of an oasis for the arts. They’ve been developing a very beautifully shaped series of music programs where there was virtually none of this kind of music. So now it’s an oasis for this music, for that community.