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Composer Focus Interview with Jerry Gerber

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got started writing music?

I began studying music at the age of nine years old. I studied accordion and then guitar. I wrote my first piece at the age of 10. By the time I was 13, I was playing in a band, but my interest in popular music was beginning to wane by the time I turned 20, a year or so after taking up keyboard. From then on, about the only music I listened to, and certainly the only music I studied, was music from the renaissance, baroque, romantic, and 20th century classical periods and also music from Bali and India, occasionally. I also studied jazz theory. I received my Bachelor of Music degree in composition and classical music theory and then began scoring soundtracks. I wrote music for industrial films and documentaries, and then I was asked to score 33 TV episodes of “The Adventures of Gumby”, a popular animated TV series for children. After that I wrote the music for the Gumby feature film and then began scoring for computer games. I enjoy doing soundtracks, particularly if I think the story is a good one. I also passionately love writing music for its own sake. Over the past 20 years or so I have produced 11 CDs, 7 symphonies, 3 concertos and a lot of short works. I decided sometime in the 1990s that I would pursue electronic production as the means to hear and record my works, and forego the traditional route of trying to get works performed by ensembles. I really love working in the studio, experimenting, trying things out, testing out orchestrations, etc. Several of my composer friends work with live musicians and ensembles and probably think I am a bit odd for creating and producing all of my compositions using music technology.

Workspace and setup

My studio (www.jerrygerber.com/studio.htm) consists of the Yamaha DM2000 mixing board, Adam 3A speakers, and I use Sonar as my DAW. My main sound library is Vienna Instruments Symphonic Cube. I run the library on a fast Windows 7 machine with 24 GB of RAM. The DAW is a separate machine. I also have numerous software synthesizers that I both program and use in my pieces. I also use EMU samplers for choirs and Roland hardware synths.

Describe your creative process

A MIDI sequence is only as effective as it is detailed. The more details in terms of tempo changes, phrase dynamics, sample switching and other parameters that are in the sequence, the better and the more musical will be the results. I often begin writing a piece after spending quite a while improvising at the piano. Free improvisation is the most direct, intuitive, and physical aspect of musicality that I know of, a lot of learning takes place there. When starting to compose a piece, I work in the staff view and the event list in Sonar and begin composing and sequencing. For me, MIDI sequencing and composition/orchestration have merged into one seamless process. I insert notes onto the staff view and build up phrases, sections, movements and entire compositions and albums this way, re-tracing my steps many times along the way making changes and editing and refining what I am hearing. Even though I have an advanced orchestral library, MIDI sequencing is a time-intensive process. Phrasing, gesture and expression is achieved through defining strong and weak beats, note lengths, velocities, attack and release times and articulation—these parameters must be constantly considered, and also be constantly in flux.  After I am done with the composition and orchestration and the sequence is finished, I render it to a stereo wave file (and stems if there are audio tracks) and from there proceed to fine tune dynamics using Sonar’s volume envelopes. This adds another layer of dynamic variation that some pieces require more than others. I do my own mastering and use small amounts of EQ to help bring out the best in the mix. I rarely use any compression, and I use peak limiting only on some pieces. I take my time mastering; I might listen to a piece over several sound systems over a period of months before I finally settle on final mastering decisions. Monitoring a mix too soft or too loud will produce a distorted concept of how the mix sounds due to the way in which the low and high end is thrown out of balance when mixing too loudly or too softly. 83 dB is a good level that avoids these imbalances. I usually strive for transparency and a sound that is clear and open.

What's the most interesting project you've been involved with?

I think every project I am working on at the time is the most interesting to me. If it were not such, I doubt I’d be a good composer. When I am scoring soundtrack music, that is most interesting to me. When I’m composing for CDs, that holds my interest equally. My  soundtrack music is simpler music (in terms of length, style and complexity) than my compositions for my CDs because the purposes of music as an adjunct to story-telling, dialogue, plot, setting, character, and sound effects are different than music as a purely independent language. That would make an interesting discussion of itself, the way in which scoring to story and picture affects form, style, content and texture, really the whole meaning of music is altered, including its more literary function.

You describe your medium of choice as "virtual orchestration", you could tell us what you mean by this?

Composers belong to one of the few groups of people who are competing with dead people! The politics and economics of getting large numbers of musicians together is complicated and expensive, and the larger the ensemble the harder it is to get performed. Composers belong to one of the few groups of people who are competing (when it comes to hearing their works) with dead people!  Last time I checked, about 15% of music performed in the United States by symphonic orchestras is written by living, American composers. As computer and audio technology advances rapidly, a new musical medium is maturing, and composers and orchestrators can now be responsible for interpreting their own works. Since interpreting music has different challenges than composing music, the computer-based ensemble offers the musician the opportunity to evolve both the creation and the interpretation of their work, which contributes to a well-rounded musician. There are advantages and disadvantages to every medium, no medium is perfect. One cannot compare the sound of a live orchestra to a MIDI recording, it’s a pointless comparison. But comparing a recording of a live orchestra to a MIDI-realized recording, now that is fair game and I think the differences are growing smaller every decade. Using high quality synthesizers and sample libraries and bringing to that technology knowledge of composition and orchestration, etc., can definitely produce highly musical and expressive results. I once gave a talk to an electronic music class and a student of conducting remarked that he thought what I was doing was “anti-social”. I believe he might have felt a bit threatened that his dream career might not be available to him if too many composers turn away from live performances. But his fear, if that is what prompted the remark, is unfounded, that will not happen, electronic music and the virtual orchestra are not replacements for traditional means of music-making, they are additions, they’re options. This experience reminds me of when Bob Dylan came on stage with an electric guitar in the 60s and the folk musicians at the time were appalled and resentful, as though Dylan had betrayed them. Likewise, I am sure that when photographers were beginning to photograph people and nature in the 19th century, painters were aghast and fearful that photography would encroach upon, or even ruin, painting as an art. Such thinking is all too commonplace perhaps because as a species we’re so paranoid.

You've been around for the early days of sampled/virtual instruments. How have the developments in this area affected your compositional workflow? 

My first sampler, the Roland S-50, had the capability of loading one floppy disc’s (1.44 MB) worth of data into its memory. That’s only one or two samples! Consider the Vienna Symphonic Library Vienna Instruments Symphonic Cube—which consists of over 760,000 samples, about 550 GB of data. When a solo violin consists of over 22,000 samples, and with every note sampled in up to 4 velocities in every conceivable playing style, it becomes possible to phrase shape in a way that early samplers simply did not allow. With 24 bit well-recorded samples, the sounds are smoother than in earlier libraries, but that’s also because of better converters and better clocking. In terms of MIDI sequencing, this means that the musician can now realize musical ideas with a level of detail comparable to what fine players can achieve. This does not make sequencing any less labor intensive, in fact it does the opposite: With so many samples to choose from, it becomes even more important that the best sample for the phrase is used and that note velocities, envelopes and note lengths are set at the best values for that particular sample and phrase. Having access to a large and well-recorded library no more guarantees a good composition anymore than having the best word processor determines the value of the story and the skill by which is it written. When using earlier libraries, I had to simulate crescendos and decrescendos using MIDI controllers, usually control 7 or 11, or with an audio fade after rendering. This worked OK, but the new libraries contain dynamics recorded into the sample itself, so this means less MIDI programming in regard to certain passages, and it’s musically much more flexible to have the dynamics already existing in the sample when needed.

For the all the up and coming composers out there, if you could share one tip, what would it be?

Write your own music and write your best music and keep your passion for your work alive. Have fun, enjoy the opportunities you’re given and when opportunities are sparse, create your own. Your faith in your music and yourself will be tested over and over, it won’t stop till you die. Music is a sublime art, many musicians understand the healing potential of music, and its capacity to help awaken in people a sense of beauty, order, balance, proportion and mystery; of music’s capacity to help us remember our common humanity and to inspire a sense of interconnectedness with all of life. But like all things we humans do, it can be trivialized and reduced to a commodity in the minds of the more materialistic among us or it can fail because it is bad music. Every composer thinks that their music is different from other music, and potentially this is true because each one of us is unique in some small but significant way. Yet attaining a craft that brings an expressive reality and authenticity to this uniqueness only comes from many years of thought, effort and work. Is composition what you really want to do, or would you prefer to score films and express yourself that way? Are both important to you? The more ambitious the work, the more craft it requires. A successful career in music is based on numerous things: talent, imagination, knowledge, luck, hard work, confidence, attitude and patience. But even with all these things, a career is always based just as much on who you know as what you know. A composer has to have strong networking skills, must be able to work well with others, and must be creative in solitude. If you have these qualities, and you have musical talent, become a composer. If there’s really nothing you want to do more than write music, become a composer. Perhaps the real joy and satisfaction comes because composition is difficult and only those who really want it, and do not give up, get to write music and develop their craft.

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