Aaron Jay Kernis' Colored Field and Still Movement with Hymn: A Review of the Recording

[Argo (Decca Record Co.); San Francisco Symphony and Piano Quartet; Alasdair Neale, conductor]

by Lon W. Chaffin

In the concerto, Colored Field, tragedy seems to persistently lie beneath the facade of peace and innocence.  This imagery stems from Kernis' experience while visiting the former death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.  While touring one of the sights, he noticed a young Brooklyn girl sitting on the ground, chewing on blades of grass which, it occurred to him, were growing from soil that had once been blood-soaked from the victims who had been tortured and killed there.  This realization, that something so overwhelmingly tragic could exist beneath the surface of what is perceived as peaceful and innocent, led to the musical imagery of a facade dropping away to reveal an unsettling, ominous wind blowing through the score.

A pastoral mood opens the first movement, as would lend itself to the character of the english horn.  An oscillating wind-like movement in the strings, which are juxtaposed as two separate ensembles on either side of the stage,  is revealed and becomes more dominant, overpowering the opening innocence of the english horn.  The english horn becomes more and more agitated in response.  The frighteningly ominous orchestral forces build to two massive climaxes, the second of which leaves very little room for any kind of resolution.  The solo ends this movement with a distorted reflection of the opening melody.

In the second movement, "Pandora Dance," an equally disturbing background seems to release evil elements into the light where they become more visible.  Kernis himself describes this as "little black things slithering out of a box."  The english horn seems to struggle to find its place among this "slithering" chaos -- sometimes breaking through to let its voice be heard  -- sometimes getting lost among the evil.  The orchestra takes hold of the english horn line, distorts it and claims it as one of its evil own.  No matter how innocently pastoral the solo is, there is a constant swirling, wriggling undercurrent that frequently explodes and engulfs it.  There is a continuously shifting dance that seems occasionally reminiscent of The Rite of Spring but more often resembling passages of Bernstein's theatre work.

The third movement, Hymns and Tablets, opens with large block chords that perhaps suggest an imagery of the stone tablets written on by God and brought to the people by Moses.  It could perhaps be symbolic of stone grave markers.  The english horn solo intermittently breaks through, but seems to be wandering and questioning, looking for meaning.  The work ends with a glimpse of hope from a major key but is quickly overcome by the dark chords that opened the movement.

Kernis has made a powerful statement with this work.  Its poignancy is a result of his skillful use of orchestration, harmonic structure, melodic content and development, and a sensitivity to dramatic implications.  The performance by the San Francisco Symphony and Ms. Giacobassi on the english horn is outstanding -- they bring this powerful vision to life.

The phrase, "Still Movement", raises an interesting question; paradox; oxymoron.  "Still" and "movement" seem to be at opposite poles.  Kernis, however, takes these opposites and effectively combines them.  The opening piano chords with lengthy gaps of silence between them could very well be a musical version of what is called "stop action" photography.  An image is taken, time passes, another image is taken, time passes, and so on.  The resulting sequence of shots shows us movement even though each is a moment frozen in time.

Kernis also maintains the bi-polar concept in another way.  The piano and strings, even though playing simultaneously, retain their own individual flow of time.  They are juxtaposed to each other.  The piano chords, still disjointed and separated, move at their own pace with gaps of time passing in between them, while the strings maintain a more fluid, connected, continuously moving line.  This demonstrates directional opposites -- vertical, in the piano, and horizontal, in the strings.

The mood of this section is along the same lines as Colored Field, very elegiac, mournful, searching and at points tragic, and like the previous work, resolution seems hopeless.

Hymn seems very contemplative.  It forges through a passage, then waits, as if to ponder, then moves on again, only to pause and reflect once more.  Even when there is movement, there is still a sense of waiting.  It too expresses a mournful state as it looks, but never really finds peace.  The harmonic waves seem to ebb and flow -- passing through dissonant clusters to find full-bodied consonce then on again to the tensions of dissonance.

This recording as a whole is exceptional.  The performances are splendid and the power of the composition is remarkable.