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Aaron Jay Kernis (b1960)

Goblin Market

The New Professionals, Rebecca Miller (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: September 2008
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Matt Howell
Release date: January 2011
Total duration: 66 minutes 42 seconds

Christina Rossetti’s nineteenth-century poem Goblin Market has long divided and bemused readers as to its meaning and intent. The story of two sisters and their encounters with the sinister Goblin men and their ‘forbidden’ fruit, has been variously interpreted as an allegory of proto-feminism, a critique on the rise of advertising in pre-capitalist England, and an exploration of feminine sexuality in relation to the Victorian world. This multitude of interpretations only adds to the poems mystique and imagery, captured here by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis.

Performed by London-based ensemble The New Professionals under Rebecca Miller, the work is a unique concoction of music, mime and masks that delves into the overripe and at times grotesque and shocking imagery of Christina Rossetti’s poem. Goblin Market explores both the Victorian repression coded into its text as well as its parallels with contemporary social issues.


'Aaron Jay Kernis is now well established among the middle generation of American composers, though his music has enjoyed only an intermittent profile on this side of the Atlantic. That may be to do with a finely calibrated fusing of neo-expressionist and post-minimalist traits which is effective if scarcely innovative, though this is not to deny the impact of a work such as Goblin Market (1995)' (Gramophone)

'It is difficult to describe Kernis's music precisely because it is so multicoloured. He has the kind of ear for texture and colour that his teachers Adams and Druckman have, but his melodic style is frequently wide-ranging and angular … Enthusiasm for Goblin Market should not blind one to the high-octane romp that is Invisible Mosaic, a dazzling, mercurial essay in orchestral texture and colour. It's quite a diffuse work, and technically challenging, but there's not a moment that's not ear-catching. As with Goblin Market, it presents evidence of huge enjoyment on the part of its performers' (International Record Review)» More

'A RECORDING OF THE YEAR 2011—Not quite a faultless recording technically, but intoxicating, outrageous and unforgettable: Kernis's Goblin Market is one of the great musical works of art for theatre of the twentieth century. Sample: 'Laughed every goblin when they spied her peeping'—a truly awesome, epicurean crescendo of sensual poetry and orgiastic sounds—surely one of the most spellbinding passages in all music' (MusicWeb International)
As one of the youngest composers ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize (in 1998, for his 2nd string quartet Musica instrumentalis), and also the 2002 winner of the internationally-esteemed Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition (for Coloured Field, a work for cor anglais or cello with orchestra), Aaron Jay Kernis is among the most successful American composers working today. His has been a remarkable, if not supersonic, career trajectory. Born in Philadelphia, and at first self-taught, he later studied with some of the most respected names in American music—among others, John Adams in San Francisco, Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music and Morton Subotnick, Bernard Rands and Jacob Druckman at Yale.

Early in his career he was already garnering national acclaim for his Dream of the morning sky (premiered by the New York Philharmonic when he was only 23), his first symphony (Symphony in Waves, 1989) and the Second Symphony (1991, inspired by the tragedy of the First Gulf War), but his reputation could be said to have gone nova with the Pulitzer and Grawemeyer awards.

Kernis has been literally showered with commissions for many of America’s leading performers, including the sopranos Renee Fleming and Dawn Upshaw, violinists such as Joshua Bell, Pamela Frank and James Ehnes, the pianists Christopher O’Riley and Anne Marie MacDermott and guitarists David Tanenbaum and Sharon Isbin. He has also received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra (for the inauguration of its new home at the Kimmel Center), the Rose Center for Earth and Space at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the San Francisco and Seattle Symphonies, the Minnesota Orchestra, Lincoln Center Great Performers Series, American Public Radio, the Los Angeles and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestras, the Aspen Music Festival, the BBC Proms and the Walt Disney Company (this is not an exhaustive list). His works have been performed frequently around the world and many have been released on disc. Among the principal compositions in his multitudinous list of works are Musica celestis for string orchestra, Lament and Prayer for violin and string orchestra, Symphony of Meditations (Symphony No 3) for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, Newly Drawn Sky for orchestra, 100 Greatest Dance Hits for guitar and string quartet, Two Movements (with Bells) for violin and piano and Still Movement with Hymn for violin, viola (or clarinet), cello and piano.

Kernis has been described as a true Postmodernist composer. Certainly he is notable for the wildly catholic range of influences that he acknowledges, from Gertrude Stein to hip-hop and rap, to the European symphonic tradition and the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. Coming to find his voice in the 1980s and 90s, he seems to have taken everything that was in the air around him to synthesize from it a distinctive, colourful and emotionally communicative music.

So far, Kernis has not written an opera: but one work has been singled out, since its first performance, as showing he has remarkable operatic potential. This is Goblin Market, a setting for narrator and large ensemble of Christina Rossetti’s poem of the same name, written in 1859 and first published in 1862. This haunting, enigmatic and highly suggestive poem was one that Rossetti herself warned ‘was not suitable for children’, though she later changed her mind on this. Its sensuously over-ripe and indeed sexual imagery, within the framework of what seems a dark fairy-tale about sisterly love, gives it a resonance that challenges any simple interpretation. In Laura’s eating of the goblins’ proffered fruits there are clear parallels with the Biblical story of Eve, the serpent and the forbidden fruit; her hunger for more of the fruit and her decline when denied it seems like a metaphor for drug addiction. Lizzie’s ordeal in being drenched with the juice of the fruit, and Laura’s licking it from her skin, have sensual overtones far at variance with mid-Victorian repression, though the eventual happy ending seems to satisfy the moral demands of the time.

Kernis composed his setting in 1994-5, accompanying the (preferably female) narrator with an ensemble consisting of five woodwind players (three of them doubling on various instruments), horn, trumpet, piano, four strings (violin, viola, cello, bass) and a very large percussion ensemble wielded by two players. It was a commission from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group jointly devised with Trestle Theatre Company and Writer/Director Toby Wilsher, the Trestle’s Artistic Director. Kernis has written that he envisaged no specific staging for his work, but the world premiere—which was staged, with masks and mimes—set the story in a contemporary dystopia, with the sisters as hungry beggars and the goblins as ghostly barrow-boys in a deserted fruit and vegetable warehouse: rather far from Rossetti’s sense-bewitching pastoral setting. This took place in London in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 12 January 1995 with Mary King as narrator and the BCMG conducted by Daniel Harding. Later in January the staged production went on tour throughout the UK; the work was later presented in concert, without staging, at the 1996 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and subsequently in the US.

Kernis divides his setting into two parts, arranged in scenes like a stage work, and prefaces the whole with a Misterioso scene-setting introduction whose evocative languor immediately defines an atmosphere between dream and fairy-tale (with already some dark undertones) and shows the composer’s skill at making his small ensemble sound like a full orchestra. The jazzy, angular opening of the first scene then shows that Kernis can write in quite another style. In fact, as the tale unfolds—the narrator’s part is strictly notated rhythmically—the music continually reveals new aspects, new colours, new strategies. Kernis’s language ranges effortlessly between Stravinskyian rhythmic drive, Bergian lyricism, decadent chromatic expansion, iridescent impressionism à la Debussy and Ravel, jazzy syncopation, folk-fiddling and so on. Every player is at some time a soloist, and every conceivable combination of instruments is used to support, undercut, or illustrate Rossetti’s text, producing a work which is a tour-de-force of vivid orchestration and theatrical narration.

In scoring Goblin Market, Kernis has used specific instruments as analogues of particular characters in the poem. For example the curious, reckless, sensual Laura is embodied by the viola, with its initial long, rising line. The role of her sister Lizzie, who saves her by undergoing the ordeal at the hands of the goblins, is taken by the violin. The goblins themselves are often represented by the woodwind section, with motivic material imbued with semitones and trills: single woodwind colours delineate their animalistic qualities (‘the cat-faced purred, the rat-faced spoke a word of welcome’). In addition, and following in the grand tradition of Romantic music-drama from Wagner on, Kernis employs a network of leitmotifs (leading motives—melodies or strongly characterized short elements) to represent the recurring characters, events and psychological states. A particularly prominent example is the use of trills and flutter-tonguing (a distinctive effect made by vibrating the tongue or back of the throat) in woodwind and brass instruments, which evokes the way Laura is inhibited and robbed of strength by the goblins’ deadly fruits.

Goblin Market is also a memorial piece: it bears the dedication ‘in memory of David Huntley’. Huntley (1948-1994), head of promotion at the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes in New York, was an engaging personality and in his lifetime one of the most intelligent and amiable advocates for contemporary music in the USA. His interests and friendships, on both sides of the Atlantic, extended far beyond the Boosey & Hawkes catalogue, and his early death was felt as a grave loss throughout the American new music community. Many composers wrote pieces in his memory, and Kernis had already contributed a short piece that was played at his memorial service.

Kernis has composed three works with the title Invisible Mosaic, all within a short time of one another, and traces them to the experience of viewing the magnificent late-Roman mosaics of the churches of Ravenna when he was staying in Italy in 1985. Noting the artists’ virtuosity in constructing gigantic and vivid images out of thousands of fragments of coloured tile, he was inspired to use an analogous process in his music, building up a large structure through the patterning and layering of tiny fragments. While Invisible Mosaic I is scored for only four instruments, and Invisible Mosaic III for full orchestra, Invisible Mosaic II, composed between October 1987 and February 1988 in California and New York, and premiered in Paris by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Kent Nagano, requires a large chamber ensemble of 17 players—four woodwind, four brass, piano (doubling celesta), harp, string quintet and two percussionists who play a wide variety of instruments including vibraphone, marimba, gongs, drums, chimes, cymbals, tom-toms, wood block, thunder sheet, anvil and a canister filled with sand.

The work begins with a raucous, heterophonic toccata in constantly changing metres for the full ensemble marked meccanico, filling the entire available register with furious activity. This is interrupted by staccato, leggiero writing for high woodwind and pitched percussion, with flourishes from solo celesta. The toccata resumes, only to be interrupted again by fanfare-figures of rapid repeated notes, and then by canons in the strings marked intenso, and then a more forceful string-piano-woodwind music in triplets, with pizzicati and exaggerated glissandi in the strings. And so the music proceeds, continually changing focus, adding new gestures for different instrumental combinations, although the earlier fragments—especially the opening music, which functions as a kind of ritornello—do recur, usually in a varied form or as brief echoes of themselves.

This continuous nervous activity persists until five minutes into the piece, when it dissolves into a silence, out of which emerges something very different—long, slow, quiet and above all sustained lines at a Lento tempo, which build up from the lowest register on strings and woodwind and become an evolved an intricate wind-instrument polyphony. This happens several times, in slow waves, becoming an intense, melodious, almost devotional music in high register of the strings and woodwind and become an evolved, intricate wind-instrument polyphony.

Eventually the fast, fragmented music sets in again, starting with a version of the staccato, leggiero music for woodwind percussion and celesta that was the second ‘fragment’ to be introduced at the start of the work. This and other fragments from the first section return in varied forms, but now with a calm rising line or lines, typical of the slow section, entwined with them. A heterophonic climax topped off by a passage of constantly-accelerating repeated notes breaks off for a new, determined unison passage (piu mosso) in the strings, woodwind and percussion, still with sustained rising lines in the brass. This could be regarded as the beginning of a ‘finale’ section, which grows steadily more spring-like in sonority and ecstatic in melodic gesture. A calm coda combining the rising lines with decorative arpeggios in harp and piano and soft repeated notes in low registers eventually fades out in the remarkably beautiful, beneficent final pages.

Malcolm MacDonald © 2010

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