Reflection on the music on Michael Karasis

Personal Reflection on the music of Michael Karasis
Jeffrey Kowalkowski, composer and music theorist
December 2023
Chicago, IL

The music of Dr. Karasis is very conventional, with expert orchestration. On the surface it sounds like Berlioz, Mendelssohn, John Williams, or Morricone for a casual listener. However, If you read the program notes, you learn that the subject matters Karasis has chosen for his specifically “late-romantic” and “programmatic” style are well above and beyond the scope of the music.
Subjectively, trying to connect as a listener to Karasis’ huge themes of global issues (extreme wealth and extreme poverty) are quite traumatic. Translating these themes to Orchestral music is extremely confusing and confounding for me.

Photo by Iwona Biedermann

The music seems predominately tonal and orchestral in a “common practice” sense, with all of the instrumental writing quite “sight-readable” for any musician trained in western classical technique. I applaud Dr. Karasis for bringing the attention to the audience: world political injustice, and for committing to being a “political” composer. Perhaps, expressing his own frustrations through his music? His experience as a medical doctor and also an ethnomusicologist is very inspiring for me, and my young music composition students.

The cognitive dissonance for myself is: how does this music relate to the reality of the programs he has composed? Is this music a sorrowful reminiscence of world tragedy? Or, an “apology” for all of us to hear? Should we, as listeners, take away sorrow from the past or hope for the future?
Karasis’ approach reminds me of composers like Benjamin Britten (War Requiem), Charles Ives (patriotic realism), or George Flynn’s Solo Piano work referencing the Vietnam War and also the Invasion of Poland during World War 2.

Many composers take “world politics” as a point of inspiration in their work, and Karasis is among them. I am reminded of Stephan Wolpe’s “Guernica”, or Frederic Rzewski (everything he wrote), though, in contrast, these composers seemed to attempt to directly reflect the emotional trauma of economic disparity in the sound of the music. It also brings to my mind Anthony Davis’ opera “The Life and times of Malcolm X.” Similar to Karasis…. “beautiful” music that is extremely accessible to the average listener. For example, Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Karasis calls out all composers to instigate the relationship between the orchestra as a means of expression for personal belief. Yet, the problem for me: if the audience does not know the programmatic intent, it sounds like Berlioz, or Hollywood film music. So here is the intersection between politics and singular personal expression.

The dialectic of absolute versus program music.

Again, referencing other composers past, I think of Penderecki’s “Trenody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” Upon hearing that piece, I might enjoy the dissonance for it alone, but learning the program I become traumatized.

The use of global politics as inspiration seems to be an honest starting point for composers, but I do not connect the musical result to the goal (What is the goal?). Perhaps Karasis is best
described as a composer of “protest” music, with a deep personal involvement with his programmatic themes. For example, how can I compare Karasis to Shostakovich, with all of the hidden political narratives?

On a purely musical level, Karasis is GREAT! I love all of the orchestral colors and unimaginable sweeps of emotion, and the classical structure of everything. Karasis has a master technique of instrumentation and uses all the families of instruments very effectively, and the music never loses a forward momentum which I admire.

Jeffrey Kowalkowski

In my reflection upon this music, I believe it can be heard as purely absolute, without any programmatic attachment. For example if you play this for a listener who has no knowledge of the inspiration (Papa New Guinea, Government Issues), they would just make up their own story.
In conclusion, I am a great admirer of Karasis, and am very inspired by his work and musicianship. It is solid orchestral writing, and very pleasant to hear. My only question is what is the deeper message behind the programmatic? Or, what are we supposed to do now?

Any of the pieces I have listened to may well be titled “Symphony.”

Read more about Michael Karasis on the Blog.