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The Medium Is Not the Message: An Interview with Jerry Gerber


Composer Jerry Gerber has been interviewed five times in this magazine. In his first Fanfare interview, Robert Schulslaper (issue 45:4, Mar/April 2022) formally introduced Gerber to our reading audience, sketching out the incredible breadth of his work—from works for virtual instruments, to scores for film, television, and video games. In his second interview, for issue 45:5 (May/June 2022), I asked him for some of the technical details of his work, as well as his ideas on confronting the perception of that work. In July/August 2022 (issue 45:6), Colin Clarke discussed the element of “play” that is such an indispensable part of Gerber’s compositional process. In his fourth interview, with Ken Meltzer (issue 46:1, Sept/Oct 2022), Gerber revealed the connections within his choral works and the poetry that inspires his understanding of the Universe. And in issue 46:2, Nov/Dec 2022, Linda Holt wrote about her conversation with Gerber in the form of an essay, intertwining the composer’s own words within the narrative of his artistic and professional development. To our many probing questions about his art, Gerber has given honest, conscientious, and considerate answers in each of these fine interviews. Not only is he emphatically human—kind, empathetic, and creative—he is an artist in the truest sense of the word. He is one who crafts and creates the world for himself.

In the following interview (number six), Gerber is as equally forthcoming as in his previous conversations. Here, we discuss his perspectives on the world’s favorite buzzword: AI, as well as how his lifelong passion for astrophotography inspired his latest album, The Darker Side of Light.

I’m so excited to talk with you more about your latest album, The Darker Side of Light. In the interest of transparency, I should mention to our readers that I wrote the album notes for this album. It was my first opportunity to write album notes and I’m quite honored that you gave me the chance to try and write something to match your compelling work. Although I had the slight advantage of listening to the album before it was released (or reviewed here), we didn’t really talk too much about your direction or intention for this new work, which includes your twelfth symphony for the virtual orchestra and your first quartet for virtual strings. To start, then, I wonder if you would tell me a little about the inspiration for the title. In some ways, at least to me, it seems a bit contradictory. Light is light because it is not dark, but perhaps your title for this album has more to do with a thematic intention or commentary. Is the title related to your passion for astrophotography and the images which accompany the album?

Yes, astrophotography inspired the title. Space is dark, although it’s not really 100% empty. There are atoms, molecules, photons, and cosmic rays. And yet amidst this darkness are awe-inspiring objects of great beauty. Star clusters, nebulae and galaxies are mesmerizing to look at, against the background of stars and much darkness. The title is also a metaphor for how human intelligence can give way to evil when that intelligence isn’t accompanied by wisdom, courage, kindness, and empathy. 

In previous interviews, you’ve given Fanfare readers an in-depth understanding of your process and why you work in the medium of virtual instruments, orchestra, and vocal sounds, as well as other electronic or computerized sounds (and indeed you provide excellent analysis and essays on your work on your website; I encourage readers to learn more at: https://www.jerrygerber.com/articles.htm). And so, instead, I wanted to ask about your work overall as a spectrum, or as a body of work. Do you feel—perhaps as a painter or as a novelist might—that your work conveys a specific message? And if so, what is that message? Or, has the work, in a larger sense, been more about self-expression in different moments of your life? If it is more to the latter, I would follow-up with a secondary question about how you view your past work. Are you like an actor who cannot really watch their old films with a sense of nostalgia or fondness, or on the contrary, do you look back on your earlier symphonies (for example) and still find a sense of satisfaction in the final product?

I’ve never thought of myself as delivering a message, other than saying I am a human being, I am experiencing life and I’d like to share those experiences with others. As far as past works, sometimes I listen to something I wrote 30 years ago and still like it, other times I’ll listen to something I wrote decades ago and think it’s not the way I would compose or produce now. And there are times where I don’t want to listen at all to works I’ve written. I think I’m the best judge of my work while I’m writing and producing it because that’s where the deep listening and the decisions are being made. I definitely see a progression and a clarity growing in my work, which I am very happy about. With the passing of time I tend to let go and hope to feel inspired by new work I haven’t yet made.

I wanted to also ask about your work with photography and especially astrophotography, which is absolutely stunning. You have a page on your website completely devoted to your photography works and it includes these incredibly beautiful images of star nebula (again, for our readers, please take a look at Jerry’s work here: https://www.jerrygerber.com/photography/gallery.htm). How did you first begin taking images of star nebula?

I studied astronomy when I was a boy and wanted to be an astronomer. My parents got me a telescope when I was 11 and I used to sit out in the backyard drawing pictures of what I saw—the moon and its craters, the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. But I wasn’t particularly drawn to math or physics so I realized that though I hold science in high regard I wasn’t going to make a career of it. I also started earning money in photography in high school, I worked in a color lab for over 3 years learning color printing and studying portrait photography. I got accepted into the Academy of Art in Los Angeles soon after high school but by then I had been playing music in a band and studying music theory and I realized that music was where my deepest passions were so I more or less put photography on hold. Decades passed as I was immersed in music scoring, composition and recording. After I finished my album From Cosmic Dust in 2022 I suddenly found myself wanting a telescope again and feeling this strong desire to learn astrophotography. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was trying to integrate my three life-long interests: Music, photography, and astronomy. I bought a book and began studying 6 hours a day, joining astrophotography clubs and online forums and diving into it in an obsessive kind of way. I started making friends with other astrophotographers and amateur astronomers and going on field trips to places away from city lights and I was hooked. The integration of astronomy, photography and music was realized when I began producing music videos, I call them Astrophotographic Music Videos: www.youtube.com/@astromusicvideo

I’m curious to know more about the connection between this sort of ultra-natural environment—the at times volatile, but completely free-form limitlessness of the universe—and the patterned, controlled specificity of MIDI composition. When you look at these images, or when you make the choice to select certain images for your album covers or for these wonderful music videos that you’ve also posted to your site, what is the most compelling or interesting aspect of these images?

Besides being objects of wonder and great beauty, galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and other deep-space objects are truly mind-expanding to think about. The vast sizes, distances and ages of these objects are mind-boggling. A galaxy I photographed a few weeks ago is estimated to be over 23 million light-years from Earth; a typical galaxy contains hundreds of billions of suns (stars). When the light left that galaxy, mammals had only been on earth for around 27 million years, primates hadn’t even begun to evolve, and humans were nowhere to be found. In the astro music videos I’ve drawn upon pre-existing recordings of music I’ve written that seem to fit the images. In the most recent music video, Cosmic Delights, I composed an original score for it and plan to write new scores for future music videos. 

This leads me to my next question about the scary and yet hopeful (in my opinion) possibilities of AI. When we were corresponding about the album notes, we talked ever so briefly about AI, but I wonder if I could ask you, as an artist who utilizes electronic sounds and computers and other electronic tools to craft his work, how you feel about the possible applications of AI, especially in terms of musical creation. Are you hopeful in the possibilities that AI could bring to the medium of music in general? Do you think humans—in our unceasing need to automatize our world—may become quite lazy and too reliant on AI and machines when it comes to making art? Have you at all experimented with using AI to work on your music?

As most everyone knows, AI is already problematic; it will no doubt produce amazing advances in medicine, surgery, and life-saving situations, as when a robot goes into a burning building to save a human life. But I don’t really see how we can produce AI without also producing a by-product, AS (artificial stupidity). Intelligence, cleverness, logic, memory, reason—these are all well and good, but without wisdom, without emotional, social, and moral maturity, I think AI is also going to cause serious trouble and mischief. Once we learned the secret of how much energy is contained within an atom, what did we do? We made bombs. Bombs so deadly that one 350 kiloton bomb could level an entire medium-sized city and murder hundreds of thousands of people. This is not wisdom, this is species suicide and eco-suicide. As far as AI and the arts, the verdict is still out. For myself, artistic creativity is about making decisions. A composer, poet, filmmaker, painter, or writer makes thousands of decisions when creating an artistic or literary work. The whole point of making art is the pleasure and purpose that the artist experiences in making decisions. Although I use digital tools to produce music, the techniques and aesthetics of music composition are within my mind. The computer makes no decisions, it’s through listening and programming that I instruct the computer how to play a note, how a passage should be phrased, how fast or slowly a note begins and what kind of space between the notes I want. The medium is not the message. True, the medium influences how the message is presented, but if the composer has nothing real to say, the computer can’t say it for him/her. I suppose that with the coming of AI, there will be those gifted and talented individuals who will find a way to integrate AI into their creativity and there will be those lacking in authentic talent who will use AI to disguise the fact that they aren’t good at what they do. Is it really much different from 100 years ago? There were masterful pianists and there were those that struggled to keep a beat or inject any lively expression into what they were playing. In that sense nothing has or will change much. 

When I listen to your albums, I’m always intrigued and surprised by your work and this album is far from an exception. I truly believe that this is your best album to date because it incorporates so much of what you have explored and crafted in your previous albums and demonstrates how elevated and sophisticated MIDI compositions can sound when composed by the medium’s preeminent composer. Symphony No. 12 seems more completely embracing of the large-scale grandeur and scope of the symphony form with a definite narrative arc, as well as repeating and intertwined themes, that resolve in the fourth movement. I do not feel that the word “cinematic” would be appropriate to describe this symphony because it truly holds a shape beyond a visual allusion to an exterior drama. The dramatic shape of the symphony is completely internalized in this music. In your opinion, what is the sort of kernel that helps you decide whether a piece of music will become a symphony or if it will become a different piece of music? I would think that, especially with the full range of possibilities available in a virtual musical space, any theme or idea could really transform into any type of composition. How do you decide whether or not a piece of music, or compositional work, deserves the full-scale treatment of the symphonic form?

What often informs me as to what I write is what I last wrote. If I just finished a 30-minute symphonic work, I’m probably not going to start another one right away so I write songs, or virtual piano pieces or other short works. When I completed the 12th symphony for virtual instruments late last year I was immersed in astrophotography and so the latest piece I’ve written is music to accompany the visuals. I decide whether a musical idea deserves to be treated as long-form through listening and experimentation; I usually know after writing 20 measures or so if 1) the piece is going to actually become a finished work (about 80% of what I start actually gets completed) and 2) whether the material is suggesting symphonic potential and all the development, variation and repetition that entails. The virtual orchestra also allows me to combine instruments that do not usually play together, i.e. a stringed instrument from China with an Irish harp and perhaps a synth or two. I can mix and match any instruments so long as I hear them complementing each other.  

When we spoke about album notes, you prefaced your Quartet for Virtual Strings as a piece that might be a bit controversial. And while I think some reviewers and listeners may balk at the concept (perhaps), I also think it is a natural expectation for a composer to write in this form. I wonder if you could tell me a bit more about the process of composing this piece. Did you work on each instrument as a separate voice or where you more interested in the overall sound of the four voices together? I wonder if you could also tell me more about the inspirations for the quartet. When I listen to it, I definitely hear references to Debussy and Ravel. What would you like listeners to take away from this quartet for virtual instruments?

Interesting that you mentioned Ravel as his string quartet in F-Major is one of my favorite pieces. I chose to write for four string instrument samples because I wanted to focus on contrapuntal writing and limit it to four voices, more or less. String libraries have come a long way since I began using them in the 1990s and I felt if I work hard on crafting the sound, I can create something that is musically satisfying using four rather exposed (a fairly sparse texture) instruments. One of the great achievements of the string quartet is the intense cooperation and deep listening to one another that contributes to a great performance. With a sample library, I don’t have that luxury. I have to try and make the sound work as music and let go of any pretense that this is supposed to sound like a recording of a live performance. It doesn’t, and it isn’t. One composer working in a studio cannot sound like four people playing music in real time, in the same way that one person can’t carry on a conversation with himself or herself in the same way they can with other human beings. This piece is an attempt to express what I have learned over the decades about the medium I work in—what it’s capable of and what it’s not capable of. I hope the listener can enjoy it for what it is without the need to compare it to a live performance or even a recording of a live performance, essentially just enjoying it as sound and music. 

For a bit of a counterpoint, I’d like to ask your opinion on a comment from my latest interview with composer Klaus Martin Kopitz. During that interview, we spoke briefly about your utilization of the virtual orchestra. Klaus mentioned that he had considered using a virtual orchestra, but ultimately steered away because, to him, “In my opinion they still sound a bit too clean and unnatural—just like an imitation.” I should note that Klaus is also not afraid to incorporate synthesizers and found sounds into his compositions. Despite my dream that I could somehow entice you and Klaus to collaborate one day—which would be incredible—I’m curious how you feel about this comment. In some regards, I hear the cleanliness of virtual instruments, but I think there are ways to mask that completely seamless sound. For example, in the second movement of the quartet, the instruments utilize pizzicato, spiccato, and col legno bow strokes—all of which make the movement feel less “clean” or perfect. What techniques or processes do you use to avoid too much of that clean, imitation sound?

I think it’s fantastic that we’re unique individuals and every artist has their own struggle and defines their own evolution and path. My friend Mike Hewer, a superb English composer, and I have discussed our differing views on the virtual orchestra. Though he is very skilled at MIDI orchestration and sequencing, he sets his hopes on getting live performances of his works. And his works are no doubt deserving of being played by the finest musicians. He believes that the virtual orchestra hasn’t quite “arrived” and though he produces his works as electronic versions, he treats these recordings more as demos. It sounds like Mr. Kopitz holds a similar view. Where I disagree is that I don’t think of the virtual orchestra as an “imitation” of anything. Is a photograph an imitation of a painting? Is a film an imitation of a live play? Photographs and film make use of many of the same elements that occur in painting and plays; in photography, color, line, shape, contrast, hue, and subject matter all play a role, as in painting. In film, character, plot, relationship, drama, costume and setting all contribute—as in live plays. Though samples are recordings of acoustic instruments, they are sounds in and of themselves. I tend to view samples not as imitations but rather as interpretations, or translations, of one medium into another. Synthesizers are their own class of instruments with no equivalent in the acoustic world, one can hardly call them imitative albeit they can and have been used that way. One could argue this is what sample libraries do—imitate acoustic instruments. Technically there’s some truth in that, but technically an airplane’s wings imitate a bird’s physiology yet that doesn’t stop us from flying!

As far as techniques to introduce randomness and a sense of intention into computer music, (calling it too clean suggests a lack of chaos, randomness and intention) there are many. I can detune instruments to make them slightly out of tune. I can move notes slightly ahead of or behind the beat to create a sense of delay or moving forward. The programming of many tempo changes, some very slight, also brings a sense that the music is slowing down a bit, or speeding up a little, as a human musician would breathe into the phrase. Phrase-shaping is a term I use to describe what must happen when programming music—there must be strong and weak beats, the volume of notes must be shifting, the attack and release of notes must be fluid and even the space between the notes must have variation. These are some of the ways intention, nuance, controlled-chaos, and expression are brought into the process. And then there is the composition itself—is it well-organized? Are the rhythms natural and the harmonies pleasing? Is the orchestration balanced and transparent? These values contribute to whether sound—acoustic or electronic—makes the creative transformation into being real music.  

At the end of interviews, I usually ask what’s next, but instead, I’d like to ask: what is coming next in terms of the further iterations of your chosen medium—music for virtual instruments and virtual orchestras? After watching Dune 2, and even recent movies that have won Oscars for film scores (Dune, Oppenheimer), I’ve been thinking about the development of film scores and how it seems like there is an emerging trend toward the sort of synthetic or computerized sounds of MIDI compositions. Am I bit off in my assessment or do you also think more mainstream orchestral music—such as the music heard on films—is heading in this direction?

Yes and no. If a film budget allows the composer to retain an ensemble and the story seems to suggest it (a film taking place in 17th century France will scream out for acoustic instruments) then acoustic instruments will be used. But many films and TV shows may not have budgets to hire 75 musicians and many films use digital instruments because they are aesthetically the best choice for the subject matter of the film. Sample libraries are used frequently in both film and TV not only because of budgetary concerns but because in the right hands they are fully capable of achieving what the music is trying to achieve for the film. But who knows what’s coming? If I could invite Mozart into my studio and play a piece for him, he’d probably be shocked. He didn’t know what loudspeakers were, or headphones, or computers, electricity, or sample libraries. He’d recognize my keyboard instrument, but the dials, lights and screen would be perplexing to him. Perhaps if someone from our world were transported to the distant future to experience their art, an invention, discovery, or technology might exist that we can’t imagine today. Change and uncertainty are essential properties in the life of the individual and the life of a civilization. We hope that the best traditions and highest ideals will endure, yet even these will be subject to reinterpretation by each succeeding generation.

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