Aaron Gervais on turning trombone puppies into musical interfaces

Aaron Gervais

Most of our pre-concert interviews are conducted by executive director Aaron Gervais, but since he is the one being interviewed this week for our Stravinsky-focused October 2nd concert, we asked artistic director Chad Goodman to step in with some questions. Aaron has two pieces on the show, a shorter trombone duet called Puppies!!! and a longer piece for the full Stravinsky instrumentation called Don’t Look At.

What is your earliest musical memory from childhood?

I remember falling asleep to the sound of my dad’s cover band when I was maybe five or so. Back then you could still make money playing covers in a wedding band, and he did that throughout college to help pay the rent (and also because it was fun). In particular, I remember listening to the organ riff from Dire Straits’s “Walk of Life” as I was lying in bed. For some reason, I never thought to ask what the song was called, but that riff stuck with me for years in the back of my head, long after my dad’s band had stopped playing. Then one day I just had to know what it was, so I spent a long time searching until I found it. It was a pretty great feeling to put a name to that early memory.

What instrument(s) do you play?

Percussion is the only thing I play with any proficiency. I’ve always been attracted to drums, since before I can remember, and as a kid I begged and begged my parents for a drumset until they finally gave in (but not before they made me take four years of piano lessons first).

How old were you when you wrote your first composition?

I think I was in junior high school. There was a video game I liked, and my parents had a bunch of MIDI sequencing gear they had bought to play around with. I started playing with it too, eventually figuring out the theme to that video game. Then I set about composing a bunch of variations on the sequencer. I worked slavishly at that for, I dunno, it must have been a couple of weeks. I was really obsessed.

What are your favorite activities outside of music?

I love to cook, and I also brew beer. I’d have to say culinary activities are my favorite pastimes.

Puppies!!! and Don’t Look At: your two pieces have unusual names. Can you explain what they’re referring to?

Well, for my trombone duet Puppies!!!, it’ll make sense when you hear it. Basically, it’s about, well… actually, never mind. It’s better experienced than explained, just come to the concert. All I’ll say is that there are glissandi (continuous slides between two notes).

Haha, OK fine. What about Don’t Look At? What shouldn’t we “look at”?

This one I can share. Don’t Look At takes the materials from Puppies!!! and expands it into a longer piece for larger forces. It reinvents and reimagines that first piece, which is very trombonistic, and makes the materials work for a combination of instruments that isn’t exclusively trombones.

Searching for a title, I thought of Richard Strauss, who is often misquoted as having said something like, “Don’t look at the trombones, it only encourages them.” In reality he said no such thing; he simply stated that you should be brief and direct when cuing brass instruments. But the quote is funny, and I thought the misunderstanding was a good metaphor for the piece, where something very specific to the trombone gets warped into something that has little to do with the original.

Don’t Look At is also the same combination of instruments as Stravinsky’s Octet, which is also on the program. In what ways did this instrumentation change the way you approached your composition?

As I explained earlier, the octet takes the materials from the duet and expands them, yet the original materials in the duet are very closely connected to the physical performance techniques of the trombone. That means the musical ideas don’t translate very easily. It’s not like taking a chord and writing it out for strings versus winds, it’s more like taking a piano and trying to make it sound like a flute.

For that reason, the instrumentation of the octet is pretty fundamental to how the music unfolds. For example, there are a lot of glissandi in the trombone duet. That’s a technique well suited to the trombone slide, but it’s hard to do on a lot of other wind instruments. I did still use a lot of glissandi in the octet, but I had to be very strategic. Registers, direction, length, specificity—all those are instrument-specific variables that are less flexible than they are on the trombone.

In an article you wrote last year, you explained how nearly all music of today explores “pastiche” which you defined as “appropriation designed to be recognizable.” With this in mind, what other music/sources served as inspiration for your octet?

In this piece, the most direct appropriation is the material from Puppies!!! You will hear both pieces on the same concert, and it’s pretty clear that the opening of each piece is related. That said, this isn’t a piece where pastiche plays a dominant role. I’ve written other works that are pure collages and obviously have a lot of referentiality in them, for example my Concerto for Mozart Piano Videos, which is a concerto for a keyboardist playing video clips of amateur pianists playing Mozart:

In Don’t Look At, pastiche is really more of a tool for connecting to the theme of the concert.

What is your goal when writing a piece of music?

I want to create experiences that resonate with people, that make them see something in a new light or feel something they hadn’t anticipated. Of course, the actual music is only a small part of whether that happens or not. It’s more about the shared experiences we bring into the room and the context in which the music is heard. For that reason, I’m often composing to a context: I want the piece to be heard, at least initially, in a concert or setting where it makes perfect sense and fuses with all of the other elements around it.

Recently I learned that there is this principle used by computer programmers called “coding to an interface.” Basically, it means that at the start of the project you step back from the specifics and instead create a simple template that could be realized in any number of ways. I feel like that’s a good metaphor for how I think about composing. I take the context, the instrumentation, the theme, and all the other inputs, then I organize them according to my musical interests to figure out what the piece will be “about” in some abstract sense. Only after I’ve got all that in place do I start thinking about actual sounds.

For that reason, I’m pretty sure that if I wrote the exact same piece in a different context, the musical result would be completely different. It would still sound like my music, but a different side of it, fine-tuned to its own context. This is pretty much the exact opposite of the “art for art’s sake” ideals of the 20th-century modernists. It’s more like “art for its community’s sake,” and I find that a much more rewarding way to work.

Name three of your favorite albums that came out in the last few years.

When it comes to recorded music, I have to say I’m not much of an album guy anymore. I’ve gravitated strongly toward the spontaneous discovery of the playlist format as online streaming technology has matured. That said, here are three fantastic albums that have stuck in my mind in recent years:

  • Xiu Xiu – Angel Guts
  • M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
  • Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

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