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Aaron Jay Kernis

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Symphony In Waves (1989)
Commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Chamber Orchestra
Year Composed
30 Minutes
Purchase CD
Programme Note
Aaron Jay Kernis Symphony In Waves (1989)
N.B. — Symphony in Waves requires a minimum of 6 to 8 hours rehearsal time.

Composer Note:

Prior to writing this work in 1989 I never imagined I would write a symphony. It seemed such an outdated and irrelevant form. But since that time I've become increasingly excited by the communicative potential, by the highly varied ideas and emotions, latent in traditional forms. I hope to find what 'symphony' means to me, to define the form for myself, by bringing my own experiences and passions to it.

I am not dealing with waves in a strictly programmatic sense. I think about waves of sound in addition to those of wind and water. Each movement uses some aspect of wave motion: swells and troughs of dynamics, densities, and instrumental color: the 'sounds' of light broken into flickering bits by water's action.

— Aaron Jay Kernis

  • Ensemble
    New York Chamber Symphony of the 92nd Street Y
    Gerard Schwarz
  • G. Schirmer / AMP:
  • Ensemble
    Grant Park Orchestra
    Carlos Kalmar
    Cedille Records:
  • Ensemble
    New York Chamber Symphony
    Gerard Schwarz
    Phoenix USA:
The longest work here is Symphony in Waves, written in 1989 and already recorded once before in 1992, by Gerard Schwarz and the New York Chamber Symphony... I haven’t heard the earlier recording, so can make no comparisons. The present performance certainly has plenty going for it – not least a vivid recorded sound. The ‘Waves’ of the work’s title (and we should note that it is a Symphony in Waves not a Symphony of Waves) are to be understood not just as phenomena of the sea, rather as the movements of all kinds of energy, with the concomitant swells and troughs, regularities and irregularities, changes of density and the like; one might think just as well of sound waves, brain waves or electrical wave patterns as of the movements of the sea. The work explores the principles of waves rather than mimicking the external form of any single kind of wave. It is made up of five consistently interesting movements. The opening movement, ‘Continuous Wave’, has a considerable dramatic intensity and in its insistent repetitiveness (though the music, when heard more than once, begins to sound rather less repetitive than it did the first time round) reminds one that Kernis studied with Adams. The second movement, ‘Scherzo’, is full of chirping interchanges between violins and violas, wind and brass, the whole seeming far more fragmentary than the first movement, altogether less insistent; but it eventually evolves into a unity, as if the cells of an organism have been allowed to coalesce of their own free will; indeed, by the end of the movement the initial ‘fragments’ have achieved a kind blues-influenced coherence. In the third movement, ‘Still Movement’ there is a renewed sense of drama, with an opening full of foreboding, followed by a rather forlorn passage for strings and a briefly serene interlude for solo flute; but the threatening presence of the movement’s opening returns, aggressively percussive, before a quite close. A wave, it seems, has passed over and through us and left us where we were, but altered by the experience. ‘Intermezzo’ is the briefest movement and offers a pause of edgy calmness, before the ‘Finale’ returns us to insistent energy, with surging waves of orchestral sound, some forceful writing for the trumpets and also some of the fragmentation of phrase which characterised the second movement. The whole offers a compelling journey across a varied but coherent musical landscape, which one completes with the sense that what one has listened to has encompassed a diversity of emotions and structures but has had a larger coherence. That one has, in other words, been listening to a symphony.
Glyn Pursglove , Music Web International,20/06/2009
The 1989 Symphony is a big, ambitious, and original work—in fact, a pretty astonishing accomplishment for a composer only 29 years old at the time. It is in a five-movement arch form, and the “waves” of the title are in fact different concepts of musical growth and decay, which allow the composer freedom to do whatever he pleases. That conceptual vagueness in no way compromises the music; in fact it seems to liberate Kernis. The music owes something to the post-minimalist practice of one his first teachers, John Adams. But Kernis is a composer who loves both the grand gesture and a proliferation of varied detail. Where Adams may create a “wave” by an irresistible surge of concerted pulsing in most of the orchestra, Kernis tends to construct it from the assemblage of myriad small, interlocking cells that have slight differences one to another, more like a biological structure. The music isn’t too fussy as a result; rather, it seems organic. One of course hears antecedents. The most remarkable movement for me is the third, which begins with ringing Stravinksian chords. But from this clangorous opening it moves into music of great poignancy and fragility before returning to its opening texture. Kernis is a brilliant orchestrator, and while he knows how to create a magnificent wash of sound, he’s also not averse to breaking the perfect surface with incongruity, like a strident cowbell, or strings and winds deliberately “too high,” so as to communicate the proper tension and anxiety of his vision. In the work, the only movement I wondered about was the final one, whose rapid shifts of rhythmic texture seemed a little random at first. But on relistening, I now am convinced; what first seemed like an avoidance of momentum in fact seems to create it in a fresh manner.
Robert Carl, Fanfare,01/01/2009
To put it simply, Kernis' music is stunning in its waves of beauty. It's void of any sharp edges, but can be boisterous and serene, minimalist and Romantic. It's music that surprises with unusual changes of harmony, but stays firmly planted in harmonic traditions. The Grant Park Orchestra, based in Chicago, gives this piece an exciting performance under conductor Carlos Kalmar.
Anna Reguero, Democrat and Chronicle,26/12/2008
Contemporary orchestral music recordings don't get much better than this. Aaron Jay Kernis was lucky in that the music on which his current reputation rests (including Symphony in Waves) was recorded when it was new, by Argo. It deserved to be. His vibrant eclecticism, a mixture of minimalism, lyrical melody, and tart dissonance, with a touch of popular music and jazz idioms, remains a potent and very appealing recipe, and it has worn well. Behind the flash and dazzle is no mere potpourri of undigested influences, but music of substance and wide emotional range, as these performances attest. The major work here, receiving its second recording, is Symphony in Waves (1989). Its five movements add up to a very satisfying whole...I can't stress enough how gratifying it is to see a first-class independent label picking up where the majors left off, and making sure that Kernis' music remains available to be discovered by curious music lovers.
David Hurwitz, Classics Today,29/09/2008
Kernis' music is void of rough edges, which is why it sits so nicely among musicians and listeners alike. Even the more intense moments have a refined beauty and focus to them. The soaring melodic material and unexpected harmonic changes leave one with a feeling of awe, hence why Kernis is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Here, Symphony in Waves, on the Cedille label, shows a plenitude of the musical sides you can find in Kernis. The first movement, "Continuous Wave" has a touch of minimalism to it, repeated patterns that flow in waves of rapid notes, in both serene and boisterous forms. The "Scherzo" is quick-witted. "Still Movement" is probably the most dissonant of all the movements. "Intermezzo" is back to flowing, flowering minimalist patterns of the strings. "Finale" draws back on more popular genres. The other selections on the disc are world premiere recordings, played stupendously by the Grant Park Orchestra with conductor Carlos Kalmar.
Anna Reguero, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle,26/09/2008
Kernis, at 48, is one of the most successful composers of his generation: oft-performed and recorded and awarded (he won a Pulitzer Prize at an age when many composers are still cursing general neglect), he is also on this disc about as wildly eclectic a traditionalist as you’re likely to find. The pieces receiving premiere recorded performances from Chicago’s splendid, contemporary-minded Grant Park Festival Orchestra are the 2005 Newly Drawn Sky “inspired by a twilight walk on a Long Island Beach” and the 1996 Too Hot Toccata, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Symphony in Waves from 1989 has been superbly recorded before, but it’s one of Kernis’ best and most representative works and probably deserves to be thought of as a contemporary concert hall staple.
Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News,17/09/2008
Most arresting new orchestral piece of 1991
The New York Times, ,01/01/0001
A roar of approval from the audience greeted Aaron Jay Kernis' Symphony in Waves Friday at the Ordway.... Even the truncated performance John Adams led in 1989 — the symphony's first two movements only — showed the essentials of Kernis' skill in construction and communication, and his ability to orchestrate so clearly that every instrument makes itself heard. But only in its full, five-movement format does the symphony make its full impact, the slow movement serving as a center of gravity, the fourth movement balancing the second, the finale rounding out the structure with a brief look back at the very beginning.

There are other young composers today who might have written something like one of the symphony's quicker movements — though probably not with such wry wit. But to sustain the musical argument over the 15 minutes of the slow movement was the mark of rare accomplishment. Here was not merely a collection of enchanting sounds, but a real symphonic movement with the weight and breadth one rarely encounters in this day of music-by-formula

Michael Fleming, St. Paul Pioneer Dispatch,01/01/0001
Friday night's concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra must have been a gratifying experience for...Aaron Jay Kernis. It had taken (three) years for his (complete) Symphony in Waves to be performed, and here was the audience at the Ordway Music Theatre giving him a standing ovation after the work was played....

Symphony in Waves turned out to be a rather spectacular piece of music.... Kernis has a great ear for unusual sonorities and orchestral effects and, above all, great skill and imagination. Let's hope that he writes another work for the Chamber Orchestra...

Michael Anthony, Minneapolis Star Tribune,01/01/0001
...a big, brilliantly wrought piece that imaginatively exploited the collective and individual talents of all 34 players.... Kernis manipulates textures and complex, high-energy rhythms so cannily... Symphony in Waves is music an audience can enjoy that doesn't insult their intelligence. We are much in (Hugh) Wolff's debt for introducing it to us in so persuasive and seemingly trouble-free of a performance. Orchestra Hall gave the work and its composer an overwhelmingly positive reception.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune,01/01/0001
...Schwarz gave the premiere of an imposing half-hour score by 31-year-old Aaron Jay Kernis, Symphony in Waves. Like most composers of his generation, Kernis achieves his ends by avidly sponging up the myriad stylistic choices now available to him, from minimalism and salsa back to Wagner and Schoenberg. Few absorb, combine, and use all these materials with more originality or brilliance — a major new work
Peter G. Davis, New York Magazine,01/01/0001
...arresting...remarkable...Kernis [has] fearless originality and [a] powerful voice.
Bernard Holland, The New York Times,01/01/0001
An arresting new American piece was heard Saturday in the 92nd Street Y, where the New York Chamber Symphony under Gerard Schwarz gave the premiere of Symphony in Waves by Aaron Jay Kernis. Sort of an American La Mer, this 35-minute work is full of ingenious invention, and exudes great exhilaration that obviously connected with the audience. A recording would seem mandatory.
Bill Zakariasen, New York Daily News,01/01/0001
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