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An interview with Composer & SONAR Pro User Jerry Gerber

By Hans Van Even

Hans : Thanks, Jerry, for joining us for this new interview. Can you give us a description of your musical course, when did you start writing music and why did you choose the Virtual Orchestra as your main expression tool ?

Jerry : I began composing when I was 10, while studying accordion. I didn't know that I wanted to be a composer until I was 19, as I had other interests including astronomy and photography. But music won out. I began playing lead guitar in bands when I was 13 and continued this until I was in my early 20s. At around this time I began to lose interest in popular music and was strongly drawn to classical music, both traditional and modern. After much self-study and private teachers in composition, I obtained my Bachelor of Music in Composition from San Francisco State University in 1982. This is when my interest in electronic music started and I began to learn all I could about synthesis and audio recording. My goals at that time were not clear, other than to learn what I was interested in. Financial concerns led me to begin scoring to picture for money and I found it to be increasingly lucrative. But I also began to see the many compromises that film composers make and felt conflicted as to whether I really wanted to continue making those artistic compromises.

I slowly began to view the virtual orchestra as a medium in its own right, albeit a bit under developed because of its newness. Though by talent and training I am a composer, my temperament is more like a painter or a writer; I enjoy being the interpreter of my own work. Depending on large numbers of people has never really appealed to me, so the virtual orchestra fits me like a glove. It is also very difficult to get a really good orchestra to play new music. We composers are not only competing with each other but with 300 years of dead composers as well! So, again, the virtual orchestra allows me to bypass the politics, expense and difficulties of getting a top-notch performance and instead focus on getting the best possible digital recording.

Hans : You recorded 5 CD's (4 solo) with your Virtual Orchestra . I listened to your last CD "Rebel Planet" and was impressed by the rich orchestral textures and rhythms. We know you use Cakewalk SONAR as your main sequencer, but can you give us an idea of how you compose and how you record your music ? Do you use other software besides SONAR to realise your Virtual Orchestra sound ?

Jerry : Thank you. I began composing with paper, pencil, piano and metronome, and proceeded in this manner for many years. But now I compose at the computer, using Sonar. The music develops, orchestration is done, and then I begin the written score. My scores are fairly complete, but I do not include string bowing (as there are no physical gestures that require execution) and I also do not add phrase markings (phrasing is done while sequencing by controlling note lengths, attack and release times, velocity and tempo). I find that those composers who think of midi and the virtual orchestra as a "sketch pad" are the ones who do not realize its full artistic potential. Because I view the virtual orchestra as a medium in its own right, I go to great pains to sequence as much detail (tempo variations, articulation, patch changes, sample-switching, attack and release variations, dynamics) as I can to make the music sound as expressive as possible, given the limits of the technology. These limits, as we all know, are being expanded yearly. Electronic music is a natural form of expression for me. After all, electro-magnetism is a fundamental force in the universe, along with gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Animal gut, bone, metal and wood are also natural choices for music-making, but man is a tool maker and humans will always find a way to make music with new tools. Making music with electrons may be relatively new now,but in due time high art will be made in this way as the musicians drawn to this medium will be of higher caliber, at least this is what I like to think. I use Sonar for sequencing and tracking audio, Gigastudio for Sampling, Wavelab for mastering and CD burning, and Sibelius for notation.

Hans : Did you record the whole Rebel Planet CD at home on PC or did you also use a studio for mixing and mastering ?

Jerry : I composed, produced, recorded and mastered the entire CD on PCs in my home studio.

Hans : What was your source of inspiration for Rebel Planet ?

Jerry : Rebel Planet consists of a new piece, Symphony #4, and some older works written at a different stage of both my craft and my aesthetic development. The inspiration for the symphony comes from ideas in the Urantia Book, which speaks of our planet being only partially civilized (as we have recently witnessed by the horrific evil perpetrated on innocent people in the United States) and that because we are not fully civilized we are isolated from other civilizations on other worlds. I know, it sounds rather fictitious, but I find many of the ideas presented in the Urantia Book to be thought-provoking, even if metaphorical.

Hans : Can you give us a description of your hardware you use in your home studio ?

Jerry : I use two Emulators (E6400s), the Roland XV-3080 and JV-1080, and Gigastudio. I use the Mackie D8B digital console, the HR-824 monitors and a host of outboard signal processing.

Hans : You also composed the music of the film "Gumby", how did you proceed to make the scores of this film,
did you already use Cakewalk at that time ?

Jerry : When I did the music for the Gumby television series and the feature film I was using the Yamaha QX-3 for my sequencer. I had not moved to a PC-based sequencer until around 1993 at which time I began using Cakewalk for DOS.

Hans : Which Sound library do you use for your orchestral sound ? Miroslav, Prosonus, ... ?

Jerry : My libraries include the Miroslav Vitous string ensemble, the Peter Siedlaczek Advanced Orchestra, the Symphony of Voices and Dan Dean Solo Strings. Today I heard the new Garritan string library. It is excellent, but I was disappointed to find the last octave is missing on all the short-bow patches. I will pass on it for now.

Hans : You don't hesitate to use complex rhythms like in Garden Dance (11/8) and modern sounds as in "Serving two Masters" but the overall sound gives me the feeling you're inspired by impressionism composers (Symphony #4) like Claude Debussy (quatuor op 10), Ravel (quatuor), ... and oriental music "Fugue" and "Sonata for Virtual cello & Piano, 2nd movement" am I wrong ? What are your favorite composers ?

Jerry : There are many composers whose music I admire. I love William Byrd's music (16th-17th century), Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Copland, Barber, Bartok, Prokofieff and Nielsen. I cannot stomach most avante-garde music. I also enjoy Northern Indian classical music, the blues, bluegrass and songs. I enjoy
some 60s pop music, especially the Beatles. I never thought of myself as particularly influenced by impressionism, although I suppose I am if you hear it that way! I do love Ravel's string quartet in F-major.

Hans : You're currently finishing a new CD, which should be out begin next year (2002), can you give us an idea of what we can expect on that project ?

Jerry : This new recording, entitled "Moonlight in the Forest" has all newly composed pieces including a virtual orchestra piece entitled Patterns, 5 songs on the poetry of Tu-Fu (8th century Chinese poet) with Janet Campbell, mezzo-soprano. There are also 12 new piano pieces (virtual piano) composed for each month of the year.

Hans : As a teacher, what would be your advice to younger composers ?

Jerry : I would say don't be seduced by the technology, because if you don't have a musical craft, a language, the technology won't do you a bit of good. I would say study classical music theory for at least five years. Study counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, structure and listen to lots of different kinds of music from other cultures as well as your own. Understand that film music, which attracts so many, has profound musical limitations. After all, when an art with 30,000 years of tradition is subservient to a craft that is less than 100 years old there are bound to be limitations on the older art. Some composers don't care about this, but I do. Music is a language of pattern, metaphor, emotion and ideas. It is not just about evoking emotion or feeling, although this is a very serious and important part of music which all too often degenerates into sentimentality and pseudo-emotion. I advise my students that music is both a left-brain and a right-brain activity. There is a definite craft and technique involved and yet it is highly subjective, expresses the mystical and the intuitive aspects of our experience and should be accorded its place in our culture which leads to the appreciation of the deeper aspects of music and musical creativity. Most people react primitively to music when there is so much to appreciate regarding texture, form, harmonics, and tone color. The more music education the better. Youth often believes that their generation's music is the "best", but this kind of thinking is immature and greatly limits appreciation. Originality has become something of an obsession in the past 60 years or so. My feeling is that if you are really talented in music, if you are well-trained, and if you are sincere, originality will take care of itself and there is no need to be self-conscious about it. After all, we have probably all heard music that is original, but pointless and empty.

Hans : Thanks . Referring to what you said about the limitations of Film music, something we hear often from other composers, isn't this changing lately ? I mean, I hear that on recent films, film makers tend to use the finished music to place their images, so composers don't have to cut their music on some critical passages, is this true ?

I wish it were, but it doesn't seem to be in Hollywood. There really is no artistic or technical reason why music and film (or video, computer imaging, etc) cannot be on equal footing, a true collaborative effort, but it is rarely done. I can think of very few films in the past 25 years (Chronos comes to mind) where the structural logic of music
inspires images in an abstract style.

To my mind, it is more the economic pressures and greed of the large film companies in Hollywood which dictate the assembly-line mentality in which music's primary role is to exaggerate emotional association. I think all intelligent movie-goers probably are sick of this mechanical sentimentality in some way or another. One musician said to me the other day that he thought film music was one of the only ways unsophisticated listeners are being introduced to orchestral music. He is probably correct, and he sees this as a good thing because ambitious listeners may be motivated to discover the great orchestral literature of the past 300 years. Yet this doesn't speak very highly in regard to the contribution of film music to culture if all it is doing is to point the way to better music composed for its own sake. I hope this will change, and with the availability of new technologies that can help to de-centralize who gets to make and distribute visual media, as musicians can now do with compact discs, perhaps it will improve. A lot depends on the musicality and artistic vision of the directors, and what they are really trying to accomplish.

Hans : Besides Virtual Orchestra and Gumby , what are your other projects (past/present) ?

Jerry : I am currently planning a 5th symphony, and recently finished a one movement virtual orchestra piece. I have written music for computer games (Loom, among others) and have produced both a violin concerto and a flute concerto for acoustic soloist and virtual orchestra.

Hans : Do you have any suggestions, on what you would like to be improved in the future of software based recording ?

Jerry : I would like to see the sample libraries continue to improve, I would like to see hardware-based samplers with a gigabyte or so of memory, I would like to see version 1 software without serious bugs and I would like to see civilization work so that more and more people can become educated, skilled at something and contributing
to making the world a more peaceful and joyous place. It is desperately needed.

Hans : Many thanks for this interview Jerry !

My pleasure. Thank you for allowing me to express my thoughts.

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