PHIL PONCE: This year's Pulitzer Prize in music was awarded to composer Aaron Jay Kernis for his work "String Quartet #2." The work was originally written for the Lark Quartet. Here's a passage of their performance from the end of the piece. (PORTION OF "STRING QUARTET #2")
PHIL PONCE: Now, we're joined by Mr. Kernis, who's written works for major orchestras around the world. He was formerly composer in residence at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and lives in New York. Welcome, Mr. Kernis, and congratulations.
AARON JAY KERNIS, Pulitzer Prize, Music: Thank you. It's great to be here.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Kernis, the piece we just heard has been described as warm, emotional, accessible. How do you describe it?
AARON JAY KERNIS: Well, for me, it's a piece very much influenced by dance and dance music. I was really inspired by baroque dance music. I've been playing baroque music, especially Bach's music, for years at the piano; every day I play Bach's music pretty much. And I knew it was time for me to begin to deal with dance rhythms in my music.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Kernis, a lot of audiences seem to be afraid of new music. Has that been your experience?
AARON JAY KERNIS: Well, it is, and there was a lot of fearsome music in this century, a lot of very challenging stuff. And I find that the more that one talks the more that one gets to know audiences, the more that one brings the experience of writing music directly to an audience by speaking to them, by getting to know them.
They begin to open up, they begin to give more time to listening to the music, to spending--they begin to really concentrate and free up, and that fear begins to ebb away.
PHIL PONCE: But it's a two-way dialogue, isn't it? And one of the things that you seem to be doing in your music is bringing back melody, bringing back harmony, bringing back some passion, as one writer put it. That must be helpful to audiences as well, yes?
AARON JAY KERNIS: It is. And I feel I very much have to communicate. I have a lot to communicate to audiences and that passion, that desire to bring beauty back into music is really very important to me, and also exuberance and energy, high, high energy.
PHIL PONCE: When did you know that you wanted to be a composer?
AARON JAY KERNIS: Well, it came--came to me gradually. I was playing the clarinet, the violin, the piano throughout high school, throughout middle school. When I was 15, I wrote my first really big piece. I was preparing for that with little choral pieces, little pieces for instruments. But I had this wonderful experience with a high school composition workshop in Philadelphia, and that really turned me around. I think it excited me so much to get my music out there, performed by musicians, by living musicians. From that point on, it was clear to me.
PHIL PONCE: Do you still have that same sense of excitement when you hear one of your works played now?
AARON JAY KERNIS: Well, now it's more fear. And gradually, the better the performances are--and I'm working with wonderful musicians now--the more I can get over that fear fairly quickly. You have no idea when you're sitting in the audience during a premier of a work, just afraid that the music stand for the percussionist will fall down, and some disaster will happen, but generally, it's been coming out all right.
PHIL PONCE: Now, this is not your first brush with fame. You had an encounter at age 23 with Zuman Meda. Tell us about that.
AARON JAY KERNIS: My work--this orchestra piece--was being read by the New York Philharmonic in front of 2,000 people. It was the first time I'd been in front of an audience of that size. And Meda and I were conversing. We were both given microphones during this reading.
It was an incredible experience because Meda was sort of criticizing my work as this rehearsal was in process, and I was--we were supposed to be there commenting to each other. And at one point he just happened to choose a spot that the orchestra hadn't played quite as well or quite as softly as they should have.
And then he said to me, well, Mr. Kernis, this passage is scored too quickly. And I said, well, Maestro, I think you're just playing it a bit too loud. And that may seem like something very small, but the audience erupted in applause and cheers. Here I was, you know, a kid, speaking back to this, you know, great maestro, and demanding that he pay more attention to exactly what I had written.
PHIL PONCE: And with this Pulitzer presumably you will get even more attention now, but how is this prize going to change your life?
AARON JAY KERNIS: Well, you know, I've been thinking about that question and I think maybe I should come back in five years and tell you, but for the moment I've really learned in the last week--ever since I learned of this prize--learned about the generosity and this great spirit that all these people have, all these friends, all these colleagues, people that I haven't heard from for 20 years, who've been secretly or not so secretly following my work, interested in what I've been doing, and the level of support and of almost--I felt this community just suddenly erupt in the few days after the award. It was so moving to me, and to know that there is that level of support out there is such a--is something I can--I feel like I can rely on. It's just an incredible feeling.
PHIL PONCE: That's a personal comment. Professionally, do you think it's going to help you?
AARON JAY KERNIS: Well, professionally, I think it will undoubtedly help me, that the words "Pulitzer Prize in Music," I think will follow me from here on in. I feel so amazed to be in the lineage of composers like Erin Copeland and Charles Ives.
I'm sure that it will allow my work to be recognized by more orchestras. I'm sure that commissions will come that I would have never expected, and I mean, I'm doing quite well as it is, but it's going to be an incredible process of discovery for me.
PHIL PONCE: Well, Mr. Kernis, we thank you for joining us. And, again, congratulations.
AARON JAY KERNIS: Thank you very much.