Two Movements (with Bells) is a memory piece in honor of my father, Frank Kernis, who passed away in 2004. His favorite music was jazz and American popular song of the 40's and 50's, and although when I took up music I gravitated to classical and new classical music, as I was growing up there was a lot of music based in the blues and jazz playing around the house. After distancing myself from it for a number of years, since my father's death I've been surprised to see those musics seeping back into my work I'm becoming more aware of how jazz has implicitly marked my emotional and physical experience of music and what elements in my work can unexpectedly arise from improvisation, the soaring and emotional melodies of mid-20th-century ballad singers, and even the rawness of the blues.
I can also draw a direct line to this most recent of my works, Two Movements (with Bells), all the way back to my New Era Dance from 1992. While New Era Dance is rambunctious and colored by the urban Manhattan cityscape (and influenced strongly by Latin salsa, the "cool" jazz of the '50s and even rap music), Two Movements (with Bells) is essentially introspective and personal in character. Notwithstanding all the virtuosic and rhythmic music in this new work, it varies a great deal in mood, from exuberance, intense lyricism, desolation, emotional distance to melancholy and mournfulness. Much more chromatic than much of my lyrical music, the two movements share a tendency toward frequent expressive shifts, contrasts in mood and speeds and an improvisatory impetuousness. This comes in part out of free jazz and an expressionistic take on the common variation form of standard-based jazz. Certainly there are other influences from classical and 20th-century music at the heart of this work, but I've been aware of their formative role in my compositional voice for longer.
While the first movement is marked "Presto," it is filled with restless, often uneasy lines and silences, which often break into wild figurations and speeds. It is more fast than slow, while the second movement, "A Song for my Father," is the opposite mostly lyrical and song-like with outbursts of activity and intensity.
Bell sounds are not used so explicitly, but I was hearing them in my head during the entire time that I was writing the work, and their presence (especially in the piano part) should color how the performers approach its sound world. Are they funeral bells, bells of distant memory, bells made of dense clusters of overtones which fracture and fragment from the intensity of their physical attack?
Two Movements (with Bells) was commissioned expressly for James Ehnes whose exceptional musicality and virtuosity has inspired this effort and his fine duo partner Eduard Laurel by the BBC Proms. It was written in the late spring and early summer of 2007.
Aaron Jay Kernis