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Kernis Awarded Nemmers Composition Prize

American Aaron Jay Kernis honored for impact on world of music composition

EVANSTON, Ill. --- American composer Aaron Jay Kernis has been named the 2012 winner of the $100,000 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition. The announcement was made today (May 7) by the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University.

Awarded biennially, the Nemmers Prize honors outstanding classical music composers who have had a significant impact in the world of composition. Past winners are John Luther Adams (2010), Kaija Saariaho (2008), Oliver Knussen (2006) and John Adams (2004).

“I am thrilled and deeply grateful to receive the Nemmers Prize, and I thank the jury for this honor, which so generously recognizes a life's work of composing,” Kernis said. “Writing music is a solitary pursuit, so it is especially gratifying to sense that the work emerging from that solitude touches people's lives in meaningful ways. I have had many memorable experiences with Chicago's music groups in recent years. It will be a great pleasure to work with the young musicians and faculty at the renowned Bienen School and be in this exciting environment as the school launches its ambitious Institute for New Music.”  

Kernis has previously won the Pulitzer Prize (1998) and the Grawemeyer Award (2002), two of the most prestigious honors given in the field of composition. A leading musical figure of his generation, he has received commissions from many of the nation’s most respected performers (Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Joshua Bell, Sharon Isbin) and major cultural institutions (New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Ravinia Festival). His music is featured prominently on orchestral, chamber and recital programs worldwide.

As winner of the 2012 Nemmers Prize, Kernis will receive a $100,000 cash award and have one of his works performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the 2013-14 performance season. He will also interact with Bienen School students and faculty during four residencies on the Northwestern campus over the next two academic years.

Kernis’ compositions have garnered significant critical acclaim for their wide-ranging imagination and visceral emotional power. Committed to expressing a creative vision that, as he says, “carries with it the present, past and future at all times,” Kernis draws from a vast array of musical and extra-musical influences that includes classical composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Claude Debussy, the poetry of Gertrude Stein, spiritual writing and popular musical forms such as salsa and hip-hop.

Thematically, Kernis’ compositions frequently engage topics of profound social and spiritual importance. His catalog includes “Lament and Prayer,” “Colored Field,” “Second Symphony,” “Still Movement with Hymn” and “Symphony of Meditations.”  

“The selection of Aaron Jay Kernis as the 2012 recipient of the Nemmers Prize comes at an ideal time for the school due to the recent creation of the Institute for New Music,” said Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of the Bienen School of Music.

“Mr. Kernis’ work reflects an expansive interest both in the relationship between art music and popular music and in the relationship between music and historical change,” she said. “These concerns perfectly correspond with the focus of the Institute. Mr. Kernis’ residencies will function as an important component of the New Music Institute’s activities and will also help realize one of its main goals -- to forge deeper connections between the University’s creative and scholarly communities.”

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize and Grawemeyer Award, Kernis’ many honors include the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rome Prize, an NEA grant, a Bearns Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Award. He has also received Grammy Award nominations for “Air” and “Second Symphony.” His works have been recorded on the Nonesuch, New Albion and Argo labels.

A graduate of the Manhattan and Yale University schools of music, Kernis has been a faculty member at Yale since 2003. His educational involvement also includes a position as director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute, a unique national program devoted to accelerating the artistic and career development of young composers. For more on Kernis, visit

The Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition is made possible through bequests from the late Erwin Esser Nemmers, a former member of the Northwestern University faculty, and his brother, the late Frederic E. Nemmers, who also enabled the creation of the Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in Economics and the Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics, leading awards in those fields. The prizes are awarded every other year.