Soundstreams showcases the work of Canadian and international composers through innovative musical experiences.


Q&A with Soundmakers Composer In Residence Aaron Gervais

Our new SoundMakers Composer In Residence is Canadian Aaron Gervais. Based in San Francisco, Aaron enjoys frequent performances of his work by leading ensembles, presenters, and festivals in North America and Europe. His output focuses primarily on chamber music and opera but also includes orchestral music, live electronics, solo works, and music for theatre and dance. We caught up with Aaron over email to get to know him a little better. On March 20, Aaron visits for Salon 21: Aaron Gervais World Premiere.

Soundstreams: What inspired you to become a composer?

Aaron Gervais: It just sort of happened. I can’t really say something or someone inspired me, I’ve just always been curious about how stuff works, especially musical stuff. As I was growing up and becoming a more proficient performer, figuring out how to put musical ideas together was a natural line of inquiry for me. I explored both fully notated and improvisation-based composition, but I didn’t really consider these activities separate from performing until I was a couple of years into college.

SS: Who are your favourite composers? And who are your favourite musicians?

AG: Oh geez, too many to list… But a few composers that stand out, in no particular order: Mozart, Xenakis, John Oswald, Machaut, Berg, Bartok, Richard Ayres. In terms of listing performers, I couldn’t begin to do justice to all the wonderful people I’ve worked with. But I do want to give a shout out to the incomparably talented Greg Oh who is a dear friend and has been a close collaborator on many projects.

SS: How do you begin a new composition?

AG: It’s always rooted in the collaboration that led to the project, whether I’m working with a performer or ensemble or presenter. I like to see what their interests and needs are, then match them with my own. At any given time I have a grab bag of pet musical concepts that I’m playing with, but I don’t start with those. In fact, I rarely start with musical ideas at all, it’s usually much more technical: where it’s being performed, what else is on the program, logistics of the ensemble, etc. Starting a new piece is a lot like deciding on an agenda for a meeting.

SS: What is your favourite piece of music that you’ve ever composed?

AG: I can’t answer that, they’re all my precious children. Besides, who cares what I think? I just write the stuff. People hear all sorts of different things in my music and I wouldn’t want to prevent that from happening by picking favourites.

SS: What is the one piece of advice you’ve received that you value the most?

AG: The thing that sticks with me the most is probably the Stoics’ advice for dealing with shitty situations: When you’re confronted with the possibility of something bad happening, think it through in detail instead of freaking out. Somehow, that potential bad thing seems so much less awful once you’ve explored all its nooks and crannies and seen how it would actually affect your life.

SS: On your website and blog, you write about issues facing musicians today. What are 1-2 issues you feel are most important for readers to engage with?

AG: For non-musicians, it’s important to realize that our society is rapidly losing any mechanism for supporting the arts. In fact, it’s losing its mechanisms for supporting pretty much anything other than the finance industry. That’s a big problem. We need some way to support the things in life that don’t play nice with market-driven solutions.

For musicians, I’d say the most important thing is to stop treading the same worn-out paths. When it comes to solving our collective problems, we tend to plant our feet in the ground and shout the same outdated clichés over and over again. That certainly doesn’t earn us any sympathy from non-musicians.

SS: We have heard that when you’re not composing, you enjoy cooking and hosting dinner parties. What is your specialty to serve at these parties?

AG: I cook the same way I compose: I start with the context at hand, then I add in concepts and ideas I’ve been curious about that would work in that context. Lately I’ve been smoking meat a lot: pork shoulder, ribs, bacon, chicken, duck, lamb, etc. I also tend to do a lot of French and Mexican cuisine.

SS: If you could be represented by a musical notation, what would it be?

AG: I would rather not be represented by a single musical notation.

SS: What kind of shoes do you wear?

AG: Pikolinos. There’s something off about the position of one of the nerves in my left foot, so I get cramps when I wear the wrong shoes. Those Pikolinos are the only shoes I’ve found that consistently provide a cramp-free experience.


Favourite City:  San Francisco
Worst Airport: LAX
Favourite Song Right Now: I’ll have “favourite artist” kicks, but not usually songs. Right now it’s Xiu Xiu.
Best Concert Hall: One full of enthusiastic concert-goers
Favourite Restaurant: Aziza

Click here to read Aaron's first blog post on SoundMakers, where you can also listen to sound samples, ask Aaron questions or suggest future blog post topics.

Image credit: Tracy Wong, 2012

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