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Aaron Jay Kernis

Publisher: G. Schirmer

String Quartet No. 3, 'River' (2015)
Co-commissioned by Caramoor, Carnegie Hall, Classic Chamber Concerts (Naples, FL), Chamber Music Monterey Bay (CA), Chamber Music Northwest (OR), Chamber Music America, and by Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation.
AMP and AJK Music
Small Ensemble (2-6 players)
Sub Category
String Quartet
Year Composed
37 Minutes
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Programme Note
Aaron Jay Kernis String Quartet No. 3, 'River' (2015)
Jasper String Quartet
Chamber Music Northwest
1. Source
2. Flow/Surge
3. Mirrored Surface — Flux — Reflections
4. Cavatina
5. Mouth/Estuary

Composer Note:
This third string quartet ("River") is a significant departure from my two earlier quartets, which looked to the distant past for form and inspiration. Instead, this new work dispenses with classical structure and influences almost completely, touching continually on processes of change and flux. At issue here are literary influences which helped shape and color the emotional tone of its five movements and prompted countless reflections on compositional process at this time in my life.

Before beginning to write, I went back to a novel of the early 20th century, beloved of my mother and seemingly influential to me, Jean-Christophe, by French author Romain Rolland.
"The central character, Jean-Christophe Kraft, is a German musician of Belgian extraction, a composer of genius whose life is depicted from cradle to grave. He undergoes great hardships and spiritual struggles, balancing his pride in his own talents with the necessity of earning a living and taking care of those around him. Tormented by injustices against his friends, forced to flee on several occasions as a result of his brushes with authority and his own conscience, he finally finds peace in a remote corner of Switzerland before returning in triumph to Paris a decade later." (from a Wikipedia article on the book)
I continue to be mystified as to why she gave this book to me as a young child since at least 3/4 of the book would've been nearly incomprehensible to me at that age. But it seems to have inculcated in me the desire to be a composer myself. Its trajectory was fascinating and moving, and the idealism and drive of the composer at its center must've deeply struck a chord. Central as a returning metaphor in this book is the Rhine River; as much change as occurs in the life of Jean-Christophe and the history of the countries the Rhine touches, the river continues its inexorable flow.

Also influencing my musical processes has been a vigorous reading of the first few volumes of the compelling recent autobiography, My Struggle, by Norway's Karl Ove Knausgaard, a sort of Proust for the Everyman, who tells the story of the life of one man, the flow of the everyday along with meditations on the psychological underpinnings of that life. None of the specific episodes in these volumes had any direct relationship to the musical narrative, but their examination of life at its most shattering and mundane shaped my view of composing the work overall.

This new quartet looks at change, flow and flux of musical materials rather than the constancy of harmony, rhythm and formal structures that my earlier quartets embrace.

The five movements create a roughly symmetrical form, with the first and last movements about 6-7 minutes, the second and fourth 3-4 minutes, with the longest, 9-minute movement in the middle. The outer movements are the most related to each other, each opening with a cello solo, but otherwise have highly contrasting characters: the first dramatic and the last more tranquil. The inner ones are also highly contrasting yet more single-minded in speed (Mvmt. 2) and lyricism (Mvmt. 4), and the middle (Mvmt. 3) is the most wildly varied and tough-minded, influenced by mirror-like flecks of light reflecting on water, and drastic and subtle changes of speed and character.

String Quartet No. 3 ("River") is dedicated in loving memory of singer and artistic director Julian Rodescu, who touched countless lives with his artistry, generosity and friendship, and who laid the cornerstone for this collaboration with the Jasper Quartet. It was written for and is dedicated to the members of the Quartet, and was generously commissioned by Caramoor, Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, Classic Chamber Concerts (Naples, FL), Chamber Music Monterey Bay (CA), Chamber Music Northwest (OR) and Chamber Music America.

— Aaron Jay Kernis

Here, an avowed literary source is Romain Rolland's novel on the life of a composer, Jean-Christophe, with its use of the Rhine River as a metaphor for the flow of time…

I was struck by a reactionary, wilful quality to the aesthetic, though Kernis's amazing fluency was enough to keep negative thoughts at bay.
Paul Driver, Sunday Times,25/06/2017
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