Talking with composers: Aaron Gervais

Talking with composers: Aaron Gervais

Jenna Simeonov

Edmonton-born, San Francisco-based composer Aaron Gervais has not only a knack for giving his works great titles (Puppies!!!, Louis CK am Spinnrade, Prescription Drug Nation), but his varied, imaginative music speaks to a creative process rooted in “a place of pure emotion”.

This week, Gervais sees the premiere of his new opera, Oksana G., presented by Tapestry Opera from May 24-30. We spoke with the composer about the pride he takes in his work, and the curious descriptors his music has earned.

How would you describe your musical aesthetic? How have you heard it described by others?

I’m an eclectic contrarian. A lot of my foundational musical experiences have arisen from “why not?” situations: I come across some supposedly sacred principle and, rather than accept it, I attempt to make interesting music that directly violates it. That has taken me down some interesting paths, from collage to slapstick humor to lyricism and everything in between. I don’t always incorporate the anti-principle into my music long term, but the process has allowed me to find what I consider to be unique and rewarding ways of making sound.

People have described my music variously as bright and upbeat, dark and brooding, lighthearted, serious, rhythmic, lyrical, nuanced, funny, colorful. Like most composers, I also get the dreaded “interesting.” Sometimes I get “cerebral,” which really bugs me because I’m a very intuitive composer and everything I write comes from a place of pure emotion.

How do you write music when you’re not feeling particularly inspired (yet)?

It’s about routine. You just need to work at it every day as a part of your daily ritual. Some days are better than others, but you get to the good stuff by ploughing through the bad.

How do you think the perception of being a working composer compares to the reality of the job?

I think people perceive the life of a composer as being mostly about writing music. But when you break it down into hours spent doing stuff, the reality is that you spend a lot more time on administration, organizing, fundraising, networking, and other support tasks.

Do you have a song/album/artist that you’d consider a guilty pleasure?

I’ve never really been sure how to answer this question… but you know what, earlier today I heard “Lovefool” by The Cardigans come on. I’ve always really enjoyed that song, but my experience has been that it tends to inspire groans and eyerolls in other people. So while I don’t feel guilty per se, it’s definitely not high on the list of facts that I volunteer about myself in casual conversation.

Out of your body of work, what are you most proud of, to date?

That’s a tough one. Obviously, my opera Oksana G., which is opening this week, is something I’m very proud of. It’s the longest and most ambitious piece I’ve ever written, the story is gripping and powerful, the vocal lines are nuanced yet singerly, the orchestration is colorful and dynamic, and every moment is vital — there is no “filler” music. It really embodies what I believe makes for great opera.

That said, there are a lot of other pieces I’m proud of for completely unrelated reasons. The harmonies in my string quartet Se contourner se conformer are pretty special to me. I love the lyricism and ornamentation of Who Made the Inch of Grass. The colorful guitar writing in Prescription Drug Nation is something I’m quite proud of. They’re all my precious babies in a sense…

Gervais’ Oksana G. runs at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, 227 Front St. E., May 24-30. For details and tickets, click here.

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