Making Time

A music column by Don Mager

Kernis, Aaron Jay. Second Symphony. Musica Celestis. Invisible Mosaic III.
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Wolff. London: Argo 1997: 448 900-2

Kernis's Second Symphony is a war symphony in the grand tradition of Barber, Tubin and Shostakovich, reaching even further back to Vaughn Williams and Nielsen. Through the lens of Shostakovich it also has references to Mahler particularly in its two slow movements. It is a large, by not long, three movement work, with the movements entitled I. Alarm, II. Air/Ground, III. Barricade. Forget these names. The work is not, as I hear it, programmatic, and its mediation on war, like Shostakovich's is both specific and at the same time yearning with a desire for universal consolation. Either despite or because of its obvious genealogy, the work is not really like any of its models. Kernis's musical logic and development of ideas give us a genuinely successful and on its own terms intensely absorbing exploration of the shock of war. Specifically, it is Kernis's response to the Persian Gulf War, as it has come to be called--as if the land mass, cities and civilians of Iraq were no part of it. For listeners, like myself, whose existential orientation to war has been shaped by the protracted events, memories and revisions of Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War came and went like a blip on our collective screen. Aware of the Pentagon's masterful control of media coverage and aware too, at least to some extent, of the devastation to civilians in Iraq, nevertheless, many of us were glad that the combat was so quickly finished. That alone perhaps seemed to justify a kind of celebration, which everything in Vietnam had made anathema. Aaron Jay Kernis (b.1960) speaks from a younger generation. To my ears, his Second Symphony is the most powerful intellectual indictment to date of that war, because for him the Gulf War was the moment of history that rudely awoke his consciousness of unutterable brutality and his conscience of the complicity of a jingoistic, media-manipulated, late capitalist oil wasting body politic. This symphony is a coming-of-age work, a disabusing-of-naivete work, a limenal crossing-over-into-the-sober-knowledge-of-human-megalomania-and-inhumanity work. Its emotional poles confront frenzy and despair.

But, Second Symphony is not a simplistic musical sermon or manifesto; nor is it a self-righteous grand lament. Kernis's consciousness is so thoroughly implicated in the music's narrative shape, that we are drawn into the center of a moral confrontation. Its three taut and marvelously articulated movements carry the meditation to the level of a universal futility that almost collapses into despair, but instead, through the very force of its honesty, manages to fortify us with a kind of strength, a vision of endurance which transcends the trap of triumph versus defeat, the trap of demonized aggressor versus heroic savior, around which Kernis refuses to focus his musical quest. Again one is reminded of the war symphonies of Shostakovich and Barber, especially their expansive and disconcerting slow movements which embrace the sufferings of the enemy as as human as those of one's own ethnocentric fellows. How does Kernis accomplish this? The first movement is a frenzy of angry energy. It propels us forward, but not towards the resolution of heroic purpose, orchestral climax or motivic coda. Its piling up of tensions is without relief. We are forced into a frantic journey of whose purpose or outcome we have no hint. And then the movement ends.

The second and third movements are large slow panoramas, the longest is the middle one at 12 minutes. As its string textures unfold we feel that Kernis is evoking the Mahlerian Adagio, the vast essay in aching sadness, climaxing at some mid-point of excruciating dissonance, only to achieve a kind of transcendent or mystical resignation. But Kernis propels the story elsewhere and the Mahlerian solution is eschewed completely. Indeed, we move to an excruciating mid-point, but from it, we are carried even more deeply into the near despair of the movement's initial mood. Nothing is transcended, no higher grace is proffered. Kernis compels our listening minds to confront bleakly but unflinchingly the horrors of one of our civilization's determining recent historical moments--shorn of hype and simplistic morality play and patriotism.

The third movement initially seems to offer a respite, a slightly lighter texture, pace and instrumental configuration. It too, however, mounts towards a devastating moment of terror and like the longer second movement searches beyond its despair to find only the consolation of having endured. The entire work ends with a hushed and very unsettling dissipation of energy. In a concert hall, I personally, would find it very difficult to bring myself right away to applaud, for reflective silence seems to be demanded by the symphony's entire architecture. Idiomatically, Kernis is well inside the symphonic tradition of the twentieth century; he breaks no syntactic, structural, timbreal nor harmonic grounds, even somewhat conservative in approach; but inside his chosen sound universe, he thinks fresh musical ideas and communicates them consummately in a work of only 27 minutes. Musica Celestis for string orchestra is a 12 minute self-described meditation on the mystical harmonies of Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval Abbess, theologian, painter and composer. It is lovely, and lovely specifically because it is so nostalgically evocative of the Mahlerian Adagio. Like Mahler it is ornately sad, ornately consoling and ornately replete with transcendent gestures. But it is not the compelling and indispensable essay in moral honesty that Second Symphony is.

Invisible Mosaic III is 17 minutes long. I find it repetitious, episodic and architecturally unconvincing. Certainly these three works give listeners a good introduction to Kernis's range of achievement; except for a couple other works which I have not heard, he is new to the CD catalog. To my mind, however, the Argo producer did him a terrible disservice. Although the CD gives us about 60 seconds of silence between the end of the Second Symphony and the start up of Musica Celestis, the introspective silence that the symphony has lead us towards and made us desire is bigger than a mere minute; therefore, Musica Celestis intrudes into our auditory consciousness not as a new musical utterance, but as "the" answer to the unresolved (and perhaps intentionally unresolvable) one that still lies inside our minds. Not only does this totally destroy the effect of the symphony making it easier on our consciences than I'm convinced Kernis intended, it actually offers an undeserved, and therefore dishonest, consolation to the probing anxieties of the disc's primary work. The album producer, Christopher Pope, has badly served this material, its composer, its superb performance, and ultimately its listeners--all of whom deserve much more sensitive packaging.

Despite Pope's inexplicable uncouthness, this is a "must have" recording; it is as seminal a work of symphonic literature as I suspect this decade will produce.

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