Composers Who Matter: Aaron Gervais
Aaron Gervais - "Culture No.3"
Aaron Gervais’ unusual and uncompromising music seems to come from a variety of sources – Minimalism, techno, French spectralism, jazz (which he played as a drummer growing up in Edmonton), and so on – but his varied interests mix easily. It surely helps that he can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t.
“I have increasing trouble keeping genres separated. I mean, I know the distinctions, but I can’t see reasons to keep them apart, except for ideological ones,” he writes. “I take a largely nihilistic view of life, and particularly art. I don’t think any piece of art has intrinsic value.”
Gervais now lives back in Canada, but I got to know him a little when he and I both lived in San Diego. Talk to him about music for five minutes and he can sound almost indifferent, but talk to him for five more minutes, or listen to his music, and the apparent indifference is revealed as a kind of benign skepticism. His music stubbornly refuses to do what modern classical music is supposed to – not because he’s reactionary or defiant, but simply because he would rather do things his own way. His music features consonant elements that mingle with bits of microtonality; ear-twisting explorations of the overtone series that have nothing to do with the rhetoric of spectralism; and jumpy, irregular rhythms that he connects to Afro-Cuban music and jazz. None of those elements appear in his music with quotation marks around them, so Gervais’ music doesn’t necessarily fit comfortably in the concert hall. He seems fine with that.
“Knowing that most of the people who come to hear my music are 20 to 40 years old, far left politically, underemployed, and overeducated, I want to write music that is appropriate and relevant to them,” he says. “I don’t write music for the grey-haired Mozart crowd.”
Although it would be strange for a young composer to say that he does write for the “grey-haired Mozart crowd,” it’s interesting that Gervais says he doesn’t, because most young composers have no particular idea who their audience is. Actually, Gervais gets it exactly right: most contemporary music concertgoers are young, liberal and open-minded. And yet much contemporary classical music clings to rather grey-haired ideas about concert etiquette and logistics.
Gervais breaks from these ideas in a couple of ways. First, the texts of his pieces are often irreverent – the text of Culture No. 2 (or, Shoot like a Film Star) is drawn entirely from a spam email, and Shit Around the World features, as its title suggests, the word “shit” spoken in languages from all over the world.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Gervais’ new piece Recycled 80s Live is designed to be performed in clubs, not in concert halls, and he has plans to take the piece on tour. “Concert music is great, and an established venue for composers,” Gervais writes, “but you only reach certain people in that way, and the opportunities are not as abundant as they once were.”
As its title suggests, Recycled 80s Live is a collage of 80s songs. Gervais has compiled them not as kitsch, but as a sort of protest against restrictive copyright laws. “[C]opyright is increasingly being abused to prevent borrowing,” he writes in the program notes to the piece. “Over the past 100 years, corporate interests have increasingly tried to restrict or remove [fair use provisions] from copyright.” A century ago, Gervais notes, jazz, the U.S movie industry, and other major cultural developments grew thanks in part to looser copyright laws.
This would seem, surely, to be an odd stand for a classical composer to take: the composer is supposed to be walled away somewhere, creating works of undeniable originality. But Gervais wouldn’t see it that way; this is a composer who writes of Beethoven’s 9th symphony that “[t]he genius in it is perhaps in reaching the bourgeois segment of the population so directly,” rather than something inherent in the music. Gervais calls himself a “hardcore subjectivist,” and that subjectivism influences almost everything he composes.
Subjectivism isn’t new to classical music – it’s been around at least since Erik Satie, and it’s been popular since Minimalism emerged in the early ‘60s. While there are clear connections between Gervais’ music and Minimalism, though, he isn’t too keen to align himself with it.
“I’ve taken a sense of repetition from that tradition, but it would be disingenuous to say I didn’t borrow just as much from earlier electronic influences of mine like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, or from my background in jazz and Cuban percussion. I am also not very interested in the minimalist idea of process,” in which a composer systematically changes a musical texture over time. “And I don’t believe in the aesthetic project of the post-minimalists,” he writes. “[A] lot of it seems really fadish to me and I want to avoid that.”
That may not help his career; as Gervais notes, the big problem with art today isn’t finding it, it’s sorting through it all. Artists who fit into cleanly defined categories – or who create their own – tend to be rewarded. But one can’t worry much about that. Ultimately, Gervais notes, “I make the music I want to hear. I can’t really be 100% committed to any other aesthetic project anyway.”
Visit Gervais on MySpace here.
By Charlie Wilmoth