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Notes on Composing and Producing Electronic Music

Composer Jerry Gerber
A Talk Given at Talking  House Studios on January 20th, 2010

I have no illusion that one musician working with technology can sound identical to a group of musicians playing together. The psychological, social and interpersonal energies that exist in ensemble playing are unique. This is why I think of the computer music studio as a solo instrument. It is not an orchestra, it is a digital multi-timbral musical instrument. Still, understandably, we put much emphasis on acoustic realism. The idea that a virtual orchestra should be as "realistic and lifelike" as possible is a debatable goal. If we are comparing a live performance of a great orchestra in a great hall, it is a futile comparison, because hearing music under these conditions is incomparable, which probably prompted one conductor to once exclaim long ago that listening to a great orchestra over a phonograph is like kissing over the telephone (at the time he said this recording quality wasn’t anything close to what it is today, and I don’t necessarily agree with his viewpoint).

If we are comparing a recording of a live orchestra to an ensemble of computers, this is more useful, but this paradigm still doesn't take into account that computer music is an entirely new medium itself: using computers to interpret composed music. As photography is not considered a mockup for painting, and films are not a mock-up for theater, I don’t see digital instruments as a mockup for their acoustic cousins. A well-sampled violin for example, is one voice (made of thousands of 24-bit samples as in a professional sound library) within a computer-based musical instrument. In one sense it is an illusion because it is not a real violin (which in itself is comprised of wood and animal gut and turns it into something entirely man-made), but on the other hand our violin sample causes air to vibrate, ears to hear, brains to interpret, so it is a real sound creating an illusion. But that illusion is hardly important compared to the artistic illusion that transcends medium as an entire piece might if these instruments are used skillfully. I think of a great acoustic orchestra as an ideal to aspire to in terms of sound values (transparency, clarity, wide dynamic range, beauty of tone, timbral diversity, spaciousness of sound) rather than a medium to imitate. The use of digital samples of acoustic instruments, given the latter’s considerable evolution, inspires musicians to write complex electronic music in the digital domain. If a particular timbre has already been proven useful over several hundred years, I see no reason to not employ it as a digital resource. The computer as musical instrument is capable of almost any sound imaginable, and has made multi-timbral composition practical for the composer in the sense that one can hear their music while still editing both the composition aspects and the performance aspects of the piece. High-quality samples of acoustic instruments, as well as the numerous types of synthesis including FM, analog, physical modeling and the many hybrid varieties available in either software or hardware synthesizers augment the rich timbral resources of the modern composer. It is wise to remember that timbre itself is just one element of music. In my music, melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint and musical structure are equally important elements.

When the ear is listening to any kind of music through two loudspeakers, we have a different aural situation than in a concert hall, so we should take that into account when setting up our sequencing templates. For example with panning, I sometimes prefer to place 1st violins to the left and 2nd violins to the right, unlike some traditional orchestral seating patterns. I do this because when the 1st and 2nd violins are playing counterpoint, it brings out the independence of the lines better than if they are both on the same side. To make my point more clearly, take surround sound. I don't work in it myself, but surround introduces a whole new set of possibilities that certainly are not imitative when compared to listening to an orchestra in a hall. For example, we don't hear the flutes coming from behind us, although we do unconsciously absorb early reflections and reverb from all over the room.

The listener’s interest and openness to new approaches to music-making is important to complete the musical experience. If listener inattentiveness hinders receptivity, the illusion won’t work, and art is, by nature, illusory. This doesn’t mean that art doesn’t suggest truths about how physical reality and the reality of consciousness is organized, far from it. But it does this through illusion. A successful musical illusion is one in which the listener can be open to it and in turn receives aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual meaning and pleasure from that illusion.

Harmony, counterpoint, structure and orchestration are necessary to learn if you are to compose music that is anything longer than two- or three-minute cues or songs, or venture off into sound design, a comparable but different art. Fine tools are not to be underestimated, but tools won’t make a difference without musicianship, craft and heightened sensitivity to sound and harmonics. I’ve had people come to me and say to me they are stuck and need help producing music and then find the real issues are not which tools to get or how to use them, but rather how to learn to listen more deeply to music and how to organize content into its best style and form. Basics first, as it is said. No one is too advanced or too technically sophisticated to gloss over the basics of music: listening, playing, composing, producing, studying. This is equally true in the computer music world. Creativity and artistic expression require imagination and craft. Let your vision of what music is evolve, and don’t be afraid to let go of aspects of your technique and ambition that no longer serve you; it’s far more vital to keep your passion, humility and curiosity for your art alive. What keeps artists motivated and healthy is a positive attitude toward learning and a deep devotion to artistic creativity. I’ve seen people worry about over-intellectualizing music, and in fact when we do over-intellectualize, music loses something essential and mind-expanding. Still, under-intellectualizing music doesn’t help either. I sometimes think of music creation as a conversation between different energies in body, mind and spirit, a left-brain  and a right-brain activity.

The symphony, as musical composition rather than as cultural institution, is a living musical form, though many electronic composers attempt to borrow techniques from symphonic composition in order to showcase music for film. Instrumental music and film music share the common element of creative orchestration, but there are differences also: film music is part of a drama, while a symphony is the drama. The symphony can also be artistically abstract, in which dramatic/emotional elements are only part of the story. The other part is musical development based on several motives and themes that form the core of the composition and generate its unfolding in time (form). I would describe this as "the beauty of musical logic", in contrast to sensuous beauty, which is more about sound, the former type of beauty being more about ideas and their development and variation. The symphony seeks completion through its own artistic reality, this is one reason why the form has appealed to musicians for close to four hundred years. Creating an extended instrumental musical work or movement is not so easy, it requires effective transitions between sections of the form, and requires cohesive connectivity throughout the many sections. An animated and energetic unity must permeate the work, regardless of tempi.

Musical ideas cannot be good if they are not consciously put there. There are no accidents, only choices. If you make a mistake and you avoid repeating that mistake, that is a choice. If you make a mistake and you learn from the mistake, that is a choice. If you make a mistake and like what you did (a spontaneous "accident") and then you go with it—that too is a choice. There are no accidents, at least not in this particular sense of the word. This will sound paradoxical because it is: There is an element of unconscious and spontaneous decision making that goes into constructing a piece of music, but it is a controlled spontaneity and, on some level at least, the composer knows he worked with unconscious intuition and through craft, brought it to consciousness. The orchestration of music interpreted by MIDI requires an generous abundance of MIDI control changes, patch changes and changes in terms of velocity, envelope, articulation and note length with regard to every musical passage in the composition. MIDI sequencing is like composition in that it is recording musical events, but it is also like performance in the sense that the musician realizes music as sound with same sequencing. The computer music studio is a medium in which the musician moves fluently and directly from concept to composition to sequencing to orchestrating to mixing and producing--from creating the music to interpreting what's being created. This process can help support musical growth because the musician has to think musically like a composer and feel music like a player. While composing and sequencing, the composer is focused on rhythm, tempo, meter, harmony, melodic lines, counterpoint, phrasing, motives, themes, sections and style, one could say being "in the zone" or in a kind of transcendent space. When mixing and producing, the composer becomes a sound sculptor and a conductor--to get the music to sound. It is a commonly understood that the mastering engineer's job is not as evasive or intensive when the mix is excellent in the first place. Likewise, for the musician working with digital instruments, the better the orchestration and the more detail is considered in the sound and instrumentation that makes up that orchestration, the fewer problems will exist when mixing. Transparency is a core principle of orchestration, at varying levels of opacity. Transparency is defined as being able to hear individual musical line clearly, where even thick textures have a kind of strand-like subtlety. Walter Piston’s seven types of orchestral texture is a good starting point to understand this concept. With the advent of computer synthesis and new timbres capable of modulating the amplitude and/or frequency of harmonics to tempo and using steppers to create rhythmic and melodic ostinatos, these seven types of texture need to be expanded.

Art cannot be moral or amoral, only human personality motivation or behavior can be moral, immoral or amoral. There is no musical style or genre that is morally better or worse than any other style or genre. But this does not mean that there is not a more skillful, imaginative and artistic way to do what you do or that some styles are inherently more musical than others. Artistic creativity may have its origins in childish vanity and narcissism, but the true musician has found deeper and more mature motivations to be involved with music.

Theoretical understanding or explanations can be very useful, but theories and explanations exist because of inspiration, the lure of beauty, and the passion to create music. Mozart remarked that ambition, as a motivation for making music, simply pales in comparison to being motivated by the love of music. I cannot see how the purpose of education is to become a corporate drone or bureaucrat without conscience or continue to pretend that personal security doesn’t come at the cost of a deeper individuality and, by extension, a deeper artistic insight. We develop our capacity to communicate so that we don’t remain primitive human beings with fancy gadgets and sophisticated tools who have nothing real, intelligent or beautiful to say to one another. More so than in any other society, we’re persistently harassed and besieged with propaganda, marketing, and a celebrity culture which twists and distorts the image of human personality into a tool for profit, and where the purpose of illusion has been reduced to serving materialism, money and commerce without regard to the human spirit or our place in the cosmos. The arts help us to become fully human and can either suffer under such limitation and repression or they can become useful and inspire compassion, a deeper sensitivity to life, and a counterbalance to a world lacking in the expression of the better aspects of our nature.

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