Here’s a question for all of you: name a modern classical composer. Once you can do that, name a modern classical composer you actually enjoy listening to. Difficult? I would argue yes. However, all hope is not lost. A new breed of composer is beginning to arise throughout the classical music world, a type that is connected to their craft as well to the evolution of their listeners. Exemplifying this is the San Francisco (by way of Edmonton) composer Aaron Gervais. Gervais is a wonderfully creative, exciting, and innovative artist. He represents a new breed of composer that can be heard in the concert hall or a dimly lit club, whose music can be analyzed by an academic or discussed in a blog (something he does very well by the way, check it out on his website). A truly “modern classical composer” who sees the music not as a separate art form still ingrained in 19th Century Europe, but a fluid, evolving craft that fits right in with the Daft Punks and Feists of today’s musical culture.
When you hear of the death of classical music, Gervais is the kind of composer that makes you doubt that, both with his attitude and the inspired music he pumps out. Just listen to Jackhammer Lullaby—a raucous and beautiful composition all at once. It begins with a pounding, relentless drum beat that suddenly drops off into a soothing, meditative lullaby of sorts (get it?). The resulting composition is both musically and philosophically intriguing.
The drums may come as a surprise at first, but considering Gervais’ background, they fit right in. “Apparently, I’ve been drumming since I was two years old,” Gervais recollects. He studied jazz percussion and classical mallets, following his parents’ attempt to “distract [him] with piano lessons.” This is all part of a musical upbringing that Gervais describes as “eclectic,” something that has taken him from grad school in the Netherlands to exploring folkloric Cuban music in Havana. This is something Gervais appreciates, as he mentions “I’ve always valued the perspective I gained from early immersion in both jazz and classical music.” These influences can be heard in much of Gervais’ music, which often mixes the rich tones of jazz harmony within classical structure, all packaged in the kind of vitality and drive that could only come from the soul of a percussionist. Although, that being said, the more you listen, the more difficult it becomes to give it any labels.
The same can be said the composition “Se contourner se conformer,” which translates as “To go around oneself, to conform to oneself.”
Upon first listen, the piece gives you the impression of being a pleasant sounding string quartet. However, as it develops things become interesting. The sounds seem to gently ease into existence, delicately emanating from the string instruments, almost stumbling. It’s beautiful, disconcerting, and enjoyable all at the same time. In a nod to popular culture, Gervais has something he calls Recycled 80s Live, an album he composed in 2008. The concept of the album focuses on recomposition and copyright issues. The result? Check out his version of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and find out:
These compositions are the kind of music you would crave to see live, a group of enthusiastic classical musicians playing music with life and energy that bursts with the sounds and aesthetics of our modern culture. Imagine a setting where tuxedos are done away with and instead there’s a stage with a shimmering drum kit, a piano, and music stands awaiting their violinists, clarinetists, and violists, perhaps even audience members with a beer in hand—doesn’t sound too stuffy really, almost kind of fun. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the traditional concert apparatus. However, it was built for music of a particular time and in order to consume the music of our time, we need to find our way to present it.
It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to compare this ideal with one that Gervais calls “debullshitization.” He described it to me as “[chipping] away at abstract musical concepts to try and find some kernel of truth that I can build on, then I explore that idea in a bunch of different ways, try to extend it, try to contort it, try to ‘break’ it, try to prove it wrong.” This sort of aesthetic can be heard all through Gervais’ music. It has the feeling of something without pretense or conceit. And that’s really the impression Gervais gives off when talking to him about his craft, describing his goals simply as “taking what I know and what I like and making something along these lines that fits in to the performance opportunities I have…music for classically trained musicians, but I’m not particularly concerned with what classical or modern classical is ‘supposed’ to sound like.”
Not only is Gervais writing classical music for our time, but he is also writing about classical music (and music in general) in our culture. His blog is a fascinating mix of commentary on modern musical culture of all genres and things specific to a classical musician. With titles such as “Working Weekends Makes You a Worse Composer,” “Composition Lessons: Daft Punk’s Technologic,” and “Accessibility is a Dead End,” it epitomizes his whole approach to musical creation.
If you’re on the fence about classical music, or stuck in your perception of what it represents, check out what Gervais has to offer. You may change your mind.
Read the full interview with Aaron Gervais here.