Interview: Aaron Gervais

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NS: Can you begin by discussing how you got your start with music? What is the path you’ve traveled to arrive at your current position?

AG: Apparently I’ve been drumming since I was two years old. My mom says I would pull out all the pots and pans and bang for hours, throwing a tantrum if anyone tried to cook dinner. Once I was old enough to realize what drumming actually was, I begged for them to get me a drum kit. They tried to distract me with piano lessons but that didn’t work. They eventually gave in, and I studied percussion, mostly jazz drumming and classical mallets, until the end of high school. I then pursued postsecondary jazz performance studies before eventually switching to an exclusive composition focus.

In terms of writing music, it was similarly a vocational calling. I didn’t think of it as composing until toward the end of high school. Composing was just the thing I did so I could play the music I wanted to. But as I studied music, I found myself gradually composing more and performing less. One day I sort of realized, “Gee, I guess I’m a composer.”

My musical upbringing was eclectic, and I’ve always valued the perspective I gained from early immersion in both jazz and classical music. I continued in that vein through much of my 20s: studying with as many people as possible, taking world music classes, spending a summer in Havana learning folkloric Cuban music, listening to everything from 13th-century French polyphony to noisy electronic club music.

After undergrad, I went to the US and then the Netherlands for grad school, although I eventually dropped out, leaving it at just a master’s degree. The five (five!!!) postsecondary institutions I attended were valuable in their own right, but I’ve always said I learned despite school and not because of it. Contrasting the experiences is really where you hone your bullshit detectors and figure out who you are.

Consequently, I don’t really believe in university music programs anymore; I think composition and performance should be taught in conservatories and stay very practical. The rest of what you need to know is life experience. Going to school is fine but it’s not going to make you an artist, and the sooner you get the f— out, the sooner you start living life. For that reason, I’ve chosen a non-academic path. I realized I didn’t want to be a professor of composition—I just wanted to be a composer.

NS: What is your current “job” as a musician? Can you tell us about your various gigs and some highlights along the way?

AG: I’ll take this to mean “what kind of musical activities do you do?” In brief, I write commissions freelance and I mount my own projects. I’m also working on publishing some music pedagogical materials, although I don’t teach anymore. I enjoy teaching, but I’ve known too many academic composers, or even just people with busy private studios, who burn out. I want to maximize my chances of creating some great music in my life, and I know personally I wouldn’t do that if I were teaching full time—you can only listen to so many hours of stick control exercises before your brain goes to mush. So I chose not to teach. Instead, I hustle to get commissions, to pitch collaborations with people and ensembles, to apply to open calls and competitions, to write grants, etc. It takes a lot of self-discipline and the hours certainly aren’t any less, but I find it rewarding.

I’d like to do more performing, and I’m exploring that a bit. Percussion equipment is large and heavy and it’s not very conducive to apartment living, so I didn’t have any instruments with me for years. Lately though I’ve started playing again, doing a few pickup gigs with my Latin percussion. I have the congas set up in front of the living room windows. We’re on the top floor of a typical San Francisco townhouse, so at the end of the day I can practice and watch the N train go by, packed with commuters. That’s very soothing somehow.

NS: Much of your music doesn't have the sound that many people would equate with classical music, can you describe some of your influences, inspirations, and ideas about modern classical music?

AG: I’m happy to hear you say that, I’d like to think that I create something original…  Specific influences or inspirations are hard for me to nail down. As I mentioned, my musical upbringing was eclectic, so I have always found myself comparing traditions—it’s what falls between the cracks that inspires my music.

I think of my process as “debullshitization.” Human beings love to pretend that they’ve figured out how stuff works. But whatever you think you know about music, it’s wrong. On all the levels that actually matter, art is unknowable; we just dress it up in elaborate theories to avoid facing reality. So I chip away at abstract musical concepts to try to 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. I learn something through the process and usually an interesting idea sprouts out of that musical compost pile, which then becomes the piece.

I have to emphasize though, I don’t get any closer to “The Truth” than anyone else, it’s about constant self-discovery and exploration. Whenever I try to repeat something that I’ve “figured out,” it crashes and burns and I get pissed off that I wasted all that time and effort.

So why classical music? That’s where I feel that I fit in best. I don’t believe classical music is in any way superior to any other music, but I am most comfortable working in the classical milieu, and I like the culture of conservatory-trained musicians. I’d also be happy fronting an innovative indie band like The Dirty Projectors or Of Montreal, but I’m not hooked into that scene. And since I listen to all sorts of music, those influences work their way in and I get something routed in the classical tradition but that is a representation of a broad range of my interests.

At the end of the day, then, I’m taking what I know and what I like and making something along those lines that fits into the performance opportunities that I have. I believe strongly in writing for context, so I try to create idiomatic music—repertoire pieces that can be played over and over and can accommodate a lot of different interpretations—as opposed to rarified creations that can never be recreated. So it’s music for classically trained musicians, but I’m not particularly concerned with what classical or modern classical is “supposed” to sound like.

NS: Your blog focuses quite frequently on the state of classical music and its position within our culture, as well as lots of references to non-classical sources.  What is your opinion about the current state of classical music within society? Is there a particular thought or idea that has been on your mind lately?

AG: I’ve constantly got this stuff on my mind, which is why I have a blog… I’m currently planning articles on why rich people donate to the arts, on the influence of quantification on art, and on productivity. Like I said, I don’t believe classical music is superior in some way, but it is an important cultural tradition that is worth knowing. Similarly, if the world didn’t have Korean food, there would still be tons of amazing stuff to eat, but we would be poorer not having known kimchi and Korean barbecue.

If I had to sum up the state of classical music, I’d say it looks like the end of the Roman Empire (though I hope it ends differently). We used to be the establishment, but the barbarians have knocked down the gates while we were busy telling ourselves how impossible that was. Now classical organizations are scrambling. There’s still infrastructure, but it’s not being built like back in the glory days of the mid-20th century. The Cold War was a pretty awesome time to be in classical music.

Despite the challenges, I have high hopes for classical musicians and institutions, because there are some really amazing people involved who really really care, and I have to believe that if enough of them pull together, the end result will be an important cultural contribution. It might not look like the contributions of years past, but it will f—ing matter.

We live at a time that idolizes entrepreneurs and the mass produced, and that seeps into our valuations of art. I know that lots of people think classical musicians should either join indie bands or stick to playing weddings or get other jobs, since everyone listens to pop music anyway. That’s completely backwards. It’s the Korean food analogy again—part of the reason kimchi is valuable is because they don’t serve it at every fast food restaurant. With the possible exception of Coca-Cola, no mass produced thing has ever truly made a lasting mark on culture, so we shouldn’t encourage creative people to get in line and start making more disposable baubles. The niches are what matter, and the classical mindset resonates with a large-enough minority of people who want something “not pop,” or something in addition to pop. Scratching that itch makes the world immensely richer, even if classical music never regains its status as cultural top dog.

NS: Do you think classical music should/can be influenced by other genres? Does this happen in your own music?

AG: It’s unavoidable. Any artist is a sum of his/her experiences. My music has to include influences from other genres. It would be pretty douchey (and dishonest) to say, “Genre X isn’t relevant to me.” Do you really believe that Genre X can’t teach you a single goddamn thing? That’s just arrogance. Great artists are forever curious and explore every possibility.

NS: Have you found there’s a difference between being a musician in Canada as opposed to the United States? Do you identify yourself as a Canadian composer and is that something that’s relevant to how you think about music?

AG: Yes, there’s a difference, it’s a different culture. Americans are more entrepreneurial and believe more in the role of private initiative—even the more left-leaning among them. Canadians believe more in building and maintaining public institutions that can support innovation. Of course it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, but that’s the broad outline. There are SO many private foundations that support the arts in the US; Canada has nothing like that. The US leads the world in private philanthropy per capita, and you see this in the arts too. That said, American artists aren’t rolling in cash. I feel there’s more of a floor under the earnings of musicians in Canada. Run-of-the-mill musicians in Canada lead more comfortable lives, in my opinion, and they get paid more. But the most successful Americans are internationally famous and earn lucrative commissions that are unheard of in Canada.

Living in the US has slowly influenced my art. I still very much consider myself a Canadian composer, but I also consider myself a Californian composer. I have become entrepreneurial in a way that most of my Canadian colleagues aren’t, which I don’t necessarily see as a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a product of where I live. And it’s affected the kind of musical problems that interest me. However, I’ve also become less nationalistic. Canada has a lot to offer. So does the US and pretty much anywhere else where smart people are able to express their talents. Where you live will affect your work, but at the end of the day, is that so horrible?

NS: Who are some artists that you are currently listening to or enjoying?

AG: I’m a big fan of online streaming services. I’ve discovered a lot of artists through Pandora and more lately Rdio, which is a better service for people who actually care about music. However, I don’t really listen to much classical music on recording with the exception of early music interpreters like Anonymous Four and Andrew Parrott and sometimes some classical-era string quartets. Those things work on recording, but I feel like the vast majority of classical music needs to be heard live. Virtually 100% of the live music I see is classical, and of that almost all of it modern classical music, but I prefer pop music on recording.

So for day to day listening, Matmos and St. Vincent are two that come to mind lately. Also Cymbals and Ex-Girl, Jose Gonzalez, Fleet Foxes, Kanye West if I just ramble a bit here… I’ve also recently changed my mind on Feist. My first experience with her was those godawful Apple commercials way back when and I thought she was an embarrassment to Canadian music. But I’ve since heard some of her more thoughtful work and it’s amazing, so I apologize and I take it back. Feist is awesome.

NS: What do you enjoy most about being a composer and musician?

AG: I love creating music, the actual creative act feels better for me than anything else. But if I’m being totally honest, I have to say… just as often it sucks. If you’re a true artist, it’s not so much about loving it, it’s about being driven by your vocation. I’m reading a great book right now called Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey (there’s also a blog). He just provides anecdotes from the lives of great artists and thinkers about how they structured their days. The specifics are all very different but the common theme is the hoops artists jump through to deal with the bullshit of life so they can do the work that actually matters. From Mozart to Agatha Christie, it’s the same damn thing.

So I am grateful that I am able to pursue this thing that pulls at me from deep inside, that I am not forced to work as a subsistence farmer or a stockboy at Walmart. Don’t get me wrong—I work hard, I’m not independently wealthy and I have to make rent. Twelve-hour workdays are about average for me, and I get up at 4:30am to compose every weekday. But the times I’m unhappy are when I have too many distractions and I can’t make music, not the times I’m working hard.

NS: What are you working on right now? Can you discuss some upcoming concerts, compositions, events etc.?

AG: I’m finishing up the orchestration for my first full-length opera, scheduled for the 2015/16 season in Toronto. I’m about to start on a piece for chamber orchestra and live video, where the video is performed by a keyboard player, so it’s sort of a visual concerto. And after that I will be working on a piece with dancers, on the theme of prescription drugs.

In terms of notable concerts, I have a premiere in November in San Francisco that I’m really excited about. It’s based on JFK’s famous 1963 speech on civil rights, and it uses the actual recording of him giving the speech (US government works are public domain upon creation). It was commissioned by Artists’ Vocal Ensemble; SSAATTBB chorus plus electronics, with call and response between the live singers and the recording of Kennedy’s voice. It builds over the course of the piece and is very exciting, both musically and in terms of the theme. I’m really looking forward to that one.

To check out Aaron Gervais' website, click here.

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