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Virtual Virtuoso

Composer Jerry Gerber creates full symphonies with MIDI and sampled sounds

Interview by Frank Moldstad 

When you listen to music, you don't usually think about the composer's writing process. But the fact that Jerry Gerber's new CD of modern orchestral music, "The Art of MIDI Sequencing," was entirely created with samplers, synthesizers and sequencing makes the end result all the more impressive. The crown jewel of "The Art of Midi Sequencing" is Symphony No. 5, a 38-minute piece with four movements. It's a bold sound, with beautiful sweeping passages reminiscent of Copland and Dvorák in places. The themes are skillfully developed, and Gerber shows a sure hand with the full palette of orchestral instruments, virtual or not. He also uses some odd time signatures, harmonies and scales that the old dead composers wouldn't have dreamed of![an error occurred while processing this directive. The new CD is Gerber's seventh featuring his sequenced orchestral compositions. Although he also teaches composition and has created a wide variety of music for film, dance, interactive media, and television (including all of the original music for Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Gumby), composing serious orchestral music remains his first love. 
His "orchestra" includes Roland's XV-3080, and JV-1080 sound modules, Cakewalk's SONAR, Tascam's GigaStudio and EMU E-6400 samplers. In addition to composing, Gerber did the orchestration, MIDI programming, mixing and mastering. He produces everything in his project studio, where he recently upgraded his Mackie Digital 8 Bus console to a 24-bit/96k Yamaha DM2000.
Interestingly, in addition to the standard (sampled) strings, brasses, woodwinds, and percussion, Gerber has no problem using electronic effects or virtual choruses in his orchestras. That's because he regards MIDI composing as a different medium from traditional orchestral composition. "The virtual orchestra is not a substitute for that and will never be, in the same way that photography isn't a substitute for painting or film isn't a substitute for plays," as he explains in the following interview with Digital Media Net's Frank Moldstad.

DMN: How did you get into composing orchestral music with MIDI?
Gerber: I began working with MIDI around 1983, shortly after my graduation from San Francisco State University with a Bachelor of Music in composition/theory.

DMN: What do you like about this process?
Gerber: The ability to interpret my own works without having to depend on 100 people offers many advantages. The ability to make changes, compare orchestrations, cut and paste sections, and tweak on the micro level to create gesture, expression and intention is what holds my attention to this medium.

DMN: Did you begin your career composing the traditional way?
Gerber: Yes. I began composing with paper, pencil, piano and metronome. I worked like this for many years and would have never in my wildest dreams foreseen how I work today. There has always been an intersection between art and science, technology has been responsible for the violin and the flute even though we are so accustomed to these things we don't often think about it in these terms. Composing with
digital technology is an extension of our desire to make tools and make music with those tools.

DMN: Do you think what you do is more difficult or easier than composing for orchestra in the traditional way?
Gerber: In some ways it is both easier and more difficult. It is easier in the sense that I can immediately hear the results of my work and experimentation takes on a whole new meaning when I can hear the results of changes right away. It is also easier in the sense that my studio is available to me at 2 a.m. if need be. But it is difficult as well. Getting a seasoned orchestra with great players to "sound good" is not that difficult and the results, even in the hands of a mediocre composer, can be impressive by the very fact that so many fine musicians are making music together. Getting even a simple chord to sound beautiful in MIDI can be very challenging. Knowledge of orchestration is required of course, but so is knowledge of mixing, mastering, synth and sample editing, and a keen hearing of overtones and their interaction. Working with equalization is also paramount, as many passages can be improved with a little EQ.

DMN: In some ways, it must be harder for a virtual composer to decide a piece is finished, because you have so many options such as key changes or instrument substitutes that can be quickly tried.
Gerber: It is a fairly intuitive process in regard to knowing when a piece has been worked on intensively enough that it is called finished. I always hear things in my recordings that I could have done better or differently, but there is a point of diminishing returns. Perfection is a goal, not a destination. We are such imperfect beings that no matter how many options we have we still cannot achieve artistic perfection. The illusion that we can is most often entertained by those with the lowest artistic standards.

DMN: How do you usually start a composition?
Gerber: Many ideas are born out of my piano improvisations, others develop while I am in meditation, still others result from using a mouse and inputting notes onto the staff view in SONAR. Sometimes a mood or other subjective criteria is the seed, sometimes a tempo or a harmonic progression, and sometimes even a scale can be the initial generator of ideas. Often a melodic theme starts the process.

DMN: Do you ever compose music that would be impossible for live musicians to play, just because it sounds interesting, or do you stay within the limits of human ability?
Gerber: Yes. On my CD "Moon Festival," released in early 2002, I have a piano suite which consists of 12 short pieces. Many of these pieces would require three or four hands to play. There are some wind passages which would require a breath, whereas in MIDI no such limitation exists. I have also written some fast pizzicato passages that might be difficult for some players.

DMN: Do you want your music to sound as if a real orchestra is playing it? Does that matter to you?
Gerber: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I deeply value the multi-timbral experience. Transparency (how well each instrument is heard and has its own space), blend (how well the instruments sound together), orchestral weight (which elements get the emphasis through number of timbres playing that element) and balance (timbres delegated to specific musical elements relative to each other) are unifying principles whether one orchestrates electronically or acoustically. But the techniques one evolves to achieve these principles are very different. The acoustic orchestra is a phenomenon that is unique, particularly when heard in concert. The virtual orchestra is not a substitute for that and will never be, in the same way that photography isn't a substitute for painting or film isn't a substitute for plays. The virtual orchestra is a medium, and like all mediums it has its virtues and limitations. The virtues and limitations are further complicated by the fact that orchestral traditions go back many hundreds of years; digital orchestration is a very young medium by comparison.

DMN: Have you performed your music in public?
Gerber: Yes, but not in a very long time. I have heard ensembles play my work and I've done a little conducting of my own music. I actually played in bands for 10 years or so starting when I was a teenager. But my heart (and talent) is in composition so that is where I've focused for the past 34 years.

DMN: What are the hardest instruments to work with using MIDI?
Gerber: It depends on the sample library. Winds are always a problem to orchestrate. Individually they can sound fine, but getting them to work in an ensemble without having them end up sounding like a big organ is difficult. A lot depends on the orchestration, the register, dynamics and what is going on in the texture with the winds. It takes a lifetime to master this kind of thing.

DMN: What sample software collections do you have?
Gerber: I am currently using the Gary Garritan Orchestral Strings, the Dan Dean Solo Winds and Solo Brass, the Symphony of Voices and various other smaller libraries and synthesizers I'll keep my ear open to any new woodwind libraries. I am also interested in non-western instruments and have used them extensively in my "Five Songs on the Poetry of Tu Fu," released last year.

DMN: Where can people get a copy of your new CD, "The Art of MIDI Sequencing"?
Gerber: I highly recommend CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com/virtualorchestra) for CD purchasing.

DMN: How would you describe it?
Gerber: This new CD contains my 5th symphony for the virtual orchestra, a 38-minute work in four movements, as well as a shorter one-movement piece called "Essay for Virtual Orchestra." I worked on this CD project for about a year. I am very please with the results; the test is how I feel about it five years from now. I think it is my best symphony, but I always think that about my latest piece!
Jerry Gerber's web site is www.jerrygerber.com.
To see his discography go here: www.jerrygerber.com/discs.htm. Commercial credits
are here: www.jerrygerber.com/credits.htm.

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