• Aaron Jay Kernis
  • Color Wheel (2001)

  • AMP and AJK Music (World)
  • 3(pic)+pic.3(ca).3(Ebcl,bcl).3(cbn)4431timp.4percpf(cel).hp.ebstr
  • 24 min

Programme Note

15 December 2001
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor

Composer note:

Color Wheel was composed especially for the Philadelphia Orchestra's opening concerts in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and in celebration of the orchestra's centennial.

The honor of being asked to compose the first music played by this orchestra in this new hall led me to conceive of a "miniature" concerto for orchestra which treats it as a large and dynamic body of sound and color. The work features the virtuosity of the orchestra's larger sections (winds, strings, brass, percussion) and to a great extent focuses on distinct groups of instruments separately and in combination rather than on individual soloists.

There were many experiences that helped to inspire the process of writing this piece. Long before starting it I met with Rafael Vinoly and Russell Johnson to learn about the development of the new hall. Shortly before that I'd completed an ambient sound score for the new Rose Center for Earth and Space at the Museum of Natural History in New York, and was fascinated by the challenge of writing for a specific acoustical environment. Initially I'd intended that Color Wheel would explore specific spatial characteristics of this new hall. As I spent a good deal of time re-familiarizing myself with this splendid orchestra, I vividly remembered many life-changing afternoons and evenings in my early teens hearing the Orchestra at the Academy of Music. I eventually decided to concentrate on exploring the unique qualities of the orchestra itself, employing a wide array of contrasts in dynamics and sounds to embolden the ear to discover this new space in what I hope will be a vivid new musical experience.

Two visual elements have influenced Color Wheel. Color Wheels are tools used by artists and designers "that teach color relationships by organizing colors in a circle so you can visualize how they relate to each other." Most Color Wheels show primary colors and myriads of related hues. I feel that this piece concentrates on the bolder contrasts of basic primary colors. (I sometimes see colors when I compose, and the qualities of certain chords do elicit specific sensation in me — for example, I see A major as bright yellow). I've also been fascinated with Sufi whirling dervishes and their ecstatic spinning. This work may have some ecstatic moments but it is full of tension, continuous energy and drive.

Harmonically it explores a wide gamut of colors, from huge overtone-derived chords, strongly contrasting levels of consonance and dissonance and occasional touches of jazz harmony and syncopation (re-surfacing from a period of study during high school at the old Temple University Annex on Walnut Street).

The work opens with a brief, bold, chorale-like introduction which introduces many of the piece's basic musical elements that will be varied later on. These opening harmonies and vital 4 and 8 note motives in the horns and trumpets will reappear later in many guises. The boldness of the opening chords is contrasted with the soft, liquid harmonies and rising lines in the strings. Color Wheel then changes character suddenly, beginning again with a contrastingly lighter tone as a scherzo in the winds. From then on the work unfolds as a series of variations on the extremely malleable opening ideas. In fact, the work is series of inventions on those initial harmonies and motives.

After reaching a climactic point in its spinning a variation of the slower music returns, passing rising melodic lines between sections of the strings. The faster music returns gradually in a series of more compressed variations and reexaminations of elements from before. The work builds to a whirling high point and closes with a return of the opening chorale idea in its grandest harmonic context and most fully realized melodic shape.

Color Wheel is dedicated with love to my wife, Evelyne Luest.

— Aaron Jay Kernis


Nashville Symphony
Aaron Jay Kernis, composer

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