About this Recording
8.559838 - KERNIS, A.J.: Color Wheel / Symphony No. 4, "Chromelodeon" (Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)

Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960)
Color Wheel • Symphony No. 4 ‘Chromelodeon’


The two works on this recording share much in common: from the virtuosic, percussion-rich approach to orchestral writing to the fundamental use of variation as a unifying and essential creative compositional approach. Though written more than 15 years apart, the two works are like related family members—one brash and exuberant, the other more serious and pensive in intent, though no less bold in manner.

Color Wheel (2001)

Color Wheel was composed especially for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening concerts in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in 2001, and in celebration of the orchestra’s centennial. It was premiered at the grand opening of that hall with former music director Wolfgang Sawallisch.

The honor of being asked to compose the first music played by The Philadelphia Orchestra in my hometown in the newest of concert halls led me to conceive of a “miniature” concerto for orchestra which treats it as a large and dynamic body of sound and color. The work features the virtuosity of the orchestra’s larger sections (winds, strings, brass, percussion) and to a great extent focuses on distinct groups of instruments separately and in combination rather than on individual soloists.

There were many experiences that helped to inspire the process of writing this piece. Long before starting it I met with architect Rafael Viñoly and acoustician Russell Johnson to learn about the development of the new hall. Shortly before that I’d completed an ambient sound score for the new Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and was fascinated by the challenge of writing for a specific acoustical environment. Initially I’d intended that Color Wheel would explore specific spatial characteristics of this new hall. As I spent a good deal of time re-familiarizing myself with that splendid orchestra, I vividly remembered many life-changing afternoons and evenings in my early teens hearing the orchestra at the Academy of Music. I eventually decided to concentrate on exploring the unique qualities of the orchestra itself, employing a wide array of contrasts in dynamics and sounds to embolden the ear to discover this new space in what I hoped would be a vivid new musical experience.

Two visual elements have influenced Color Wheel. Color wheels are tools used by artists and designers that teach color relationships by organizing colors in a circle so you can visualize how they relate to each other. Most color wheels show primary colors and myriads of related hues. I feel that this piece concentrates on the bolder contrasts of basic primary colors. (I sometimes see colors when I compose, and the qualities of certain chords do elicit specific sensations in me—for example, I see the A major that ends this work as bright yellow.) I’ve also been fascinated with Sufi whirling dervishes and their ecstatic spinning. This work may have some ecstatic moments, but it is full of tension, continuous energy and drive.

Harmonically, Color Wheel explores a wide gamut of colors, from huge overtone-derived chords, strongly contrasting levels of consonance and dissonance, and occasional touches of jazz harmony and syncopation.

The work opens with a brief, bold, chorale-like introduction which introduces many of the piece’s basic musical elements that will be varied later on. These opening harmonies and vital four- and eight-note motifs in the horns and trumpets reappear later in many guises. The boldness of the opening chords is contrasted with the soft, liquid harmonies and rising lines in the strings. Color Wheel then changes character suddenly, beginning again with a contrasting lighter tone as a scherzo in the winds. From then on the work unfolds as a series of variations on the extremely malleable opening ideas. In fact, the work is a series of inventions on those initial harmonies and motifs.

After reaching a climactic point in its spinning, a variation of the slower music returns, passing rising melodic lines between sections of the strings. The faster music returns gradually in a series of more compressed variations and re-examinations of elements from before. The work builds to a whirling high point and closes with a return of the opening chorale idea in its grandest harmonic context and most fully realized melodic shape.

Color Wheel is dedicated with love to my wife, Evelyne Luest.

Symphony No. 4 ‘Chromelodeon’ (2018)

Writing symphonies can seem anachronistic in 2018, but to me (as Mahler says) they contain the entire world. It is the totality of the musical worlds of Mahler, Sibelius, and Haydn (plus Messiaen) that speak most urgently to me. In each of my four symphonies I’ve pushed past boundaries of what I’ve explored in my work up to that point.

“Chromelodeon” seems like a nonsensical word. The only instances of its use that I’ve found come as the name of a microtonal instrument (36 tones per octave) invented by the great American eccentric composer/hobo Harry Partch, and of a cult progressive rock band in the late 60s. But for me it has a particular meaning: “Chroma-,” relating to the chromatic scale of notes, or intensity of/or produced with color; “Melodi-,” melody, a succession of tones that produce a distinct phrase or idea; and “-eon,” one who performs. In other words, chromatic, colorful, melodic music performed by an orchestra. This new symphony is created out of musical elements, not images or stories, though I would not be surprised if the influence of living in the chaos of the world today—at a “molecular” emotive level—didn’t play a part in its creation.

The first movement, Out of Silence, is the most continuously chromatic, characterized by shifting 6–9 note chords first heard in bells, and later, strings, followed by a pensive tune first heard in the viola. It unfolds from an uneasy yet frequently contemplative sound world that grows in drama and intensity, and through many variations in texture. Before beginning the movement I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Silence and thought again (after many years) about John Cage’s essential book of essays also of that name. I’ve only begun on a journey suggested by those readings, and very possibly the experience of writing this symphony is part of that.

Chromaticism and consonance coexist side by side (or even simultaneously) more clearly in the other movements. After a dense, hectoring chorale opening, the second, Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel) exposes a melody vaguely influenced by Handel with an antique-sounding string quartet which is soon opposed by shifting, chromatic chord clouds, and leads onward to ten or so mostly short variations. The longest and most languid variation is for strings alone, and leads to a varied return of the opening chorale and final variation of the tune which is destroyed by wave-like outbursts. Finally, to close the movement, part of the original Handel tune appears, distorted and broken. (The title of this movement comes from the central words in the text of two versions of the famous and deeply touching aria Laschia ch’io pianga from the operas Armida and Rinaldo.)

Armida (1707)
Leave the thorn, take the rose;
you go searching for your pain.

Rinaldo (1705)
Let me weep over my cruel fate,
And that I long for freedom!

The final, and shortest movement, Fanfare Chromelodia, makes the coexistence of opposing forces even clearer, placing ringing brass exhortations, repetitive little “musical machines,” and wide-ranging disjunct melodies appear side by side, with a final slow chorale placed below fast runs and nearly ecstatic melodic figures that end boldly and unexpectedly in a ringing open fifth.

Symphony No. 4 ‘Chromelodeon’ (2018) was cocommissioned by the New England Conservatory of Music, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its founding, for its orchestra, Hugh Wolff, director; the Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero, music director; and the Bellingham Festival of Music, Michael Palmer, artistic director, with the support of Anacrusis Productions Ltd.

Aaron Jay Kernis

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