The Thrive Questionnaire//

Renowned Composer Aaron Jay Kernis on Sriracha Sauce and His Definition of Failure

'If the seasoning is off, adding a pinch solves everything.'

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Aaron Jay Kernis: Before I’m actually awake, and before I check the news, I imagine/lucid dream that I still live in a time where we have a progressive, articulate president and gov’t, where laws that protect our world and people are in place, or that Pres. Obama is still in office. Then quickly reality returns, and I have to try to forget once again in order to give myself some good hours or thinking before I get furious and feel defeated all over again.

TG: What gives you energy?
AJK: Chocolate

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
AJK: Sriracha sauce. If the seasoning is off, adding a pinch solves everything. In music, so it may be to use my favorite part triad/part cluster chords… they give spice to the sound, and create both a center of gravity and a special aura around it….

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
AJK: Can’t have just one – Silence by John Cage, and My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. If you want to know why, you’ll have to ask!

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
AJK: No, but it’s too too close to my bed (or around all the time) even so.

TG: How do you deal with email?
AJK: It’s on 16/24, and I tend to respond immediately. An addiction, for certain, looking for affirmation, and distraction from concentrating on my work.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
AJK: Read, nap, walk and dream, or eat chocolate (see above).

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
AJK: I’m burned out right now, that’s why I’m distracting myself by taking this…. about every fourth piece I write, the flow gets interrupted and I take it out on myself for a while. Happening just now….

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
AJK: My definition of fail = mediocre or boring. I’ve had a good run of happiness with my work, but at the moment I’m confronting all of those old demons that appear when I’m worried about being mediocre. So I keep working and working until it gets better, or I’m too tired to know any better, or I have some chocolate, or play with my kids until the idea of failure is re-learned as purely self-indulgence.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
AJK: (in regard to Rembrandt’s self portrait painted in the last year of his life)
The face is furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time. But the eyes are bright red and, if not young, then somehow transcend the time that otherwise marks the face. It is as though someone else is looking at us, from somewhere inside the face, where everything is different. One can hardly be closer to another human’s soul. …. so what is being depicted here, what Rembrandt painted, is this person’s very being, that which he woke to every morning, that which immersed itself in thought, but which itself was not thought, that which immediately immersed itself in feelings, but which itself was not feeling, and what which he went to sleep to, in the end for good. That which, in a human, time does not touch and whence the light in the eyes spring. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Vol. 1, pg. 26-7

It is a funny thing, but when I am making music, all the answers I
seek for in life seem to be there, in the music. Or rather, I should
say, when I am making music, there are no questions and no need for
answers.
Gustav Mahler

Aaron Jay Kernis is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, a pianist, conductor, mentor and professor of composition at Yale School of Music.

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