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Why Do I Compose for Electronic Instruments?

By Jerry Gerber

Thirty years ago, when I was 18 years of age, I decided to devote my life to music composition and so began my commitment to this sublime art. The tools of my trade were paper, pencil, piano, metronome and, of course, my imagination.

Today, however, my music studio hosts a 24 channel mixing board, several synthesizers, two digital samplers with numerous orchestral libraries on CD-ROM, and a computer with software for a number of capabilities: Sequencing music, digital audio recording, music education and CD mastering. There is also a compact disc recorder, several signal processors, a sound booth and microphone and my illegible hieroglyphics are obsolete as I produce my scores with music notation software. Though imagination is still the essence of what I do, there are undeniably profound changes in the way I approach my art. What has happened? Why am I doing it this way?

In the past, the orchestral composer, unlike the painter, poet or novelist, could not be the sole interpreter of his own work. A score was labored over, sometimes for years, with the result being a symbolic representation of music, not the musical experience itself. To transform this score into living music the composer would have had to organize many musicians, sometimes up to 100 people or more.

Like many composers, I find it difficult to get orchestras to take the time to learn, rehearse and perform music written for today’s general public. Approximately 85% of the music programmed by American orchestras is composed by dead European composers. Where does that leave the orchestra in regard to a living, creative musical culture? There are economic, social and aesthetic reasons for this clinging to the artistic past, and, frankly, at the risk of sounding like I am betraying the "champions" of new music, I think many of the works of dead European composers continue to deserve to be heard—simply because they are that good and that beautiful. But this advocacy of the best of tradition should not be at the expense of the music of living composers who belong to the culture in which these orchestras exist. The composer cannot compose for long in a cultural vacuum, the appreciation of the audience, whether large or small, is always the final and necessary link in the complete artistic cycle. It is my opinion that the music of many living "serious" composers of the last 50 years has left large numbers of intelligent music lovers indifferent and unhappy, and there is a lack of enthusiasm about hearing new music. This contributes to the "orchestra as museum" syndrome and has unfortunately been a factor in why I have chosen to spend the majority of my time in the studio and not on the phone or in the post office attempting to get ensembles and orchestras to play my works.

In considering myself a "classical" composer I don’t mean that I write music in the style of Mozart or Schubert, or that I don’t evolve new techniques to suit my expressive purpose or utilize new approaches to tonality, harmony and orchestration. What I do mean is that I believe in music as a classical art; one in which artistic ideals have a place, and the personal desire to discover and create meaning in my life often overrules the commercial, academic and popular notions of what music is about. I believe music is more than just a career, especially if we define career as concern with the approval of corporate culture; those who control mass media through power, capital and influence. Music composition is, by its very essence, a path that embraces the intellectual and the spiritual, it involves the entire personality. It is inappropriate to equate it with the fickle expectations of commercialism or the old-boy’s network in academia.

I choose to realize my musical intentions with digital technology because I am excited by the new instruments. I compose for sampled instruments because I can edit and re-work my compositions until I get exactly what I want without regard to anybody’s time but my own. I love the challenge of working with the new tools and I don’t have much tolerance for the frustration of hearing my work played badly, or, more often, not played at all. But even more important is the ability to experiment and try out new orchestration, cut and paste phrases and passages, and do many other things that are usually prohibitive with a live ensemble.

Making music with electricity, like making music with animal gut, bone, metal or wood, is the process of creating sound by using a natural energy of the universe. I remember a singer once exclaimed to me that electronic music was "unnatural". I tried to point out that her heart was beating because of electrical impulses in the brain and that electro-magnetism is one of the fundamental forces in the cosmos. Digital instruments are thousands of years younger than their acoustic cousins but this is no reason to be deaf to their possibilities. Today’s audio, computer and music technology is much more complex and sophisticated than two carved pieces of wood beaten together in rhythm, but the principle is the same: Humans make tools and we make music with those tools. Whether or not fine art will be produced with these tools is still dependent upon the talent, skill, imagination, idealism and commitment of the musician as it is on the quality of the tools. Whether others are sensitive to the efforts of what electronic musicians are doing is another issue, as we all have our pre-existing ideas as to what music is and should be. I find discussing musical taste, for many people, evokes as much passion and emotion as discussing politics or religion. Some people identify very strongly with the kind of music they enjoy and, sadly, in many ways their mindset and hearing is quite limited when faced with something new or different.

Even if a miracle happened, and suddenly orchestras began playing as much contemporary music as old, there is little doubt I would continue working in this new medium. The orchestra is a wonderful cultural institution, and the beauty of tone that can be achieved by many excellent musicians playing together can never be dismissed or underestimated. But loving the old does not mean rejecting the possibilities of the new, and that is what I am most interested in exploring.

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