The Consonant Classical Challenge is all about showcasing living composers who are writing in an accessible tonal style that extend -- rather than break with -- classical music traditions. The goal is to refute the assumption that all contemporary music is ugly and unlistenable (actually, I enjoy quite a lot of "ugly" and "unlistenable" contemporary music, but that's a discussion for another time). I've found composers all over the world whose music give lie to that stereotype -- some fairly obscure here in the U.S.
But not all. Aaron Jay Kernis is one of the most famous -- and most performed -- composer of his generation. And with good reason. He's often said he's more comfortable writing beautiful music as opposed to atonal works. And with influences as far-ranging as Debussy and contemporary hip-hop, Kernis is fully steeped in the musical vernacular modern audiences understand.
Kernis' Air for violin is his most famous work. Kernis creates a simple and beautiful melody that charms the listener with its quiet expressiveness. Harmonies have the openness of Copland's, giving support and subtle shading to the gorgeous and expressive melody.
"Colored Field" is a deeply emotional work, composed after Kernis visited some European concentration camps. The music gets its strength from the darkened harmonies. Rather than using simple triads or even stacked open fourths, the denseness and dissonance built into the texture give the work its emotional power without fully moving to atonality. Kernis' skill at orchestration delivers his emotional message with great effect.
The Superstar Etudes have such great technical challenges, it does indeed take a superstar to perform them. In the second etude's musical content one can easily hear how the venaculars of jazz and pop music have been incorporated into Kernis' style.
Yes, Kernis is basically a tonal composer, but he also has a highly original voice. His "Symphony In Waves," for example, gradually builds -- in sonic waves -- with an undulating rhythm that strongly suggests water. But this isn't a strictly programmatic work. Rather, it's one that conveys the movement and sensation of floating on waves through imaginative and beautiful orchestration.
Aaron Jay Kernis is not only a popular composer, but a prolific one as well. He's written over 30 chamber works and almost as many works for orchestra, including concertos for cello, violin, and English horn. He's won both the Pulitzer Prize (not always a commendation for tonality, but always an indication of quality), as well as a Grammy. If your local chamber music group or orchestra isn't programming at least an occasional work by Kernis, you should ask why. It's the type music that's speaks the musical language of today, while remaining understandable to those who prefer the classical music of the past.
Kernis: Colored Field, Musica Celestis, Air
Kernis: Symphony in Waves
Kernis: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2