Writing for the Chinese stringed instrument known as the erhu isn’t the craziest challenge composer Aaron Gervais has taken on: that would probably be scoring his Concerto for Mozart Piano Videos, in which the soloist plays a sampler loaded with 88 audio-visual clips, each featuring a different keyboardist performing Wolfgang Amadeus’s music.
Other works by the Edmonton, Alberta–born artist, who’ll be in town this weekend as composer in residence for the annual Sonic Boom festival, include Work Around the World, for mezzo-soprano, laptop, and percussion quartet, and Disney Princess Disasters, for one piano, three pianists, and squeeze toys.
It’s obvious that the 35-year-old Gervais is no stranger to the unconventional. Yet the relatively straightforward Who Made the Inch of Grass, commissioned last year by Nicole Li and Corey Hamm of Vancouver’s Piano and Erhu Project, taxed his imagination in a new and productive way.
“One of the first things that I realized I had to deal with was that the erhu is a lot like the violin, but it’s not the same,” Gervais reports in an early-morning telephone interview from his home in San Francisco. “There was a danger that I would end up just writing a violin-and-piano piece, and have that played by erhu and piano instead. But I didn’t want to do that: I wanted it to be a piece that was more truly for the erhu and the piano. So Nicole very helpfully put together a bunch of resources for composers who want to write for erhu and piano: some videos that show the techniques that are specific to the instrument and how they work and what’s idiomatic and what’s not.
“I spent a lot of time looking at those, and I based my writing around that,” he continues. “In the end, I found it was a little bit more like writing for something like an oboe, instead of writing for a violin, because the tone quality of the erhu changes a lot as you move along the range—and it has two strings instead of four, so the range is a little more restricted. And then in the erhu tradition there’s a lot of ornamentation, which is something that is not as common with the western classical instruments. So there was that to keep in mind: if I really wanted it to feel like an erhu piece, I either had to write in those ornamentations or give Nicole the space to add them herself according to what she felt was appropriate. So I did a little bit of both.”
Who Made the Inch of Grass, which takes its title from an ancient Chinese poem, will be on the program at Pyatt Hall on Saturday (March 28); PEP is one of Sonic Boom’s two resident bands, along with the Turning Point Ensemble. Gervais will be in attendance, and he’ll also be around for a master class with young composers on Sunday (March 29) and, before all of this, an artist’s talk on Wednesday (March 25).
“I don’t want to give away too much of what’s going to be in my presentation,” says Gervais, although he notes that he’ll discuss how his PEP piece was written, and how he made the transition from youthful percussionist to young composer. “Rhythm and movement and the energetic qualities of music came naturally to me as a child,” he allows. “Things like melody and song, the more intimate qualities of music, they didn’t interest me much until I got older. It took me a while to find a path into that kind of writing that made sense.”
Sonic Boom takes place at Pyatt Hall and the Orpheum Annex from Wednesday to Sunday (March 25 to 29).