home | recordings | compositions | press | services | instruction | articles | studio | biography | credits | links

Interview with Gary Garritan

Usually the format of these interviews is for the guests to answer questions from forum members. This time I decided to try something different and offer a traditional interview. I recently caught up with Jerry recently in San Francisco and had a long chat with him. He has a rare perspective on MIDI Orchestration. What Jerry has to say is insightful and wanted to share it with the forum members. We will continue with the usual member-based format in the future.

Jerry Gerber is a San Francisco-based electronic music composer and music producer. Music has been Jerry's life's work for 32 years.  He has composed music for chamber groups, singers, instrumental soloists, orchestra, film, television, dance and multimedia. Jerry was doing music for games in the early days of gaming. He is credited on Loom -Lucasfilm Games, Carmen Sandiego Broderbund promotional, Championship Pool - Nintendo, Club Drive (1994) -Atari, NCAA Final Four, Bermuda Syndrome (1995) and others.  He also composed the music for 'Gumby -The Movie', and 33 episodes of  "The Adventures of Gumby'.

Jerry was featured in Electronic Musician, Dec 1, 2002 and also in the SONAR website. He teaches composition, music theory and electronic music production from his electronic music studio in San Francisco. For the past 15 years Jerry has been actively involved in virtual orchestration as his medium of choice.


Thanks Jerry for giving so freely of your time and sharing your knowledge and expertise with members of Northern Sounds.

JG: It's always a pleasure to converse with you Gary.


GG: Can you tell us a little bit of your background and how you started to get into Virtual Orchestration. Who were your influences and what are your sources of inspiration?

JG: I began composing when I was 10, but didn't get serious until I was around 18. After graduating from college with a degree in music theory and composition I bought my first synthesizer although I had been playing with tape records since I was a young boy. My deepest musical influences were and still are the composers who have taken music to new boundaries of beauty and power. I could care less that most of these composers happen to be dead, white, male and European. If you actually take the time to confront the music directly one begins to form an opinion on the greatness of the music itself rather than on the time, place or society that the composer happened to be born into. Multiculturalism may be great for democracy, but I am not sure how well it serves artistic discrimination and dealing with works of art on their own terms regardless of the class or identity of the person who created the art. My sources of inspiration are my family, friendship, meditation, the redwood forest, and, of course, great music.


GG: Could you tell us about your setup. What sequence, samplers, libraries, hardware and other gear do you use? Could you tell us how you use these tools to compose and create your music?

JG: I am currently using two Gigastudio computers, one of which is dedicated to your excellent and useful string library. The other is for winds and brass and is running the Dan Dean solo winds and solo brass libraries. I also use two Emu 6400s for percussion and voices, and a Roland XV-3080, JV-1080 and XP-30 for synth effects and other exotic sounds and I recently started using a software synthesizer emulating Yamaha's FM synthesis. I mix using a Yamaha DM2000 and have a variety of outboard gear, a whisper room for recording equipped with an AT4033 condenser microphone for vocals and acoustic instruments. For scores and parts I use Sibelius.


GG: Most composers tend to think of sampling and virtual orchestration as an emulation of real instruments or for mock-ups of the real thing. You tend to think of it as an art form in and of itself. Can you tell me your thoughts about sampling as an art form.

JG: It isn't so much that I think of sampling as an art form (although it is) as I've done but little of my own sampling. It is that the virtual orchestra  as a medium became an artistic reality for me. Over the past 20 years I've spent countless hours in the studio composing, orchestrating, recording, and editing music. And yet the "classical composer complex" kept me thinking I should be just using MIDI as a "mock-up" and that "real" composers get their works performed by musicians.

A conflict brewed in me over what I thought I should be doing and what I really want to be doing, which is to continue working in the electronic music studio environment. I made peace with myself and decided that the virtual orchestra is a medium which requires a specific commitment and have come to realize that those musicians who consider MIDI a substitute for an acoustic orchestra can't possibly get the most musically interesting results with these new tools as they are deficient in a certain attitude toward the tools which is not compatible with the making of fine art through the use of those tools. This is true in any art I would imagine. And yet a flute is technology, so is a pencil and a violin.

We no longer consider these things "technology" because they are so integrated into our daily experience and culture that we forget that so many things we take for granted are a product of human technological insight and capability. It seems most natural to be interested in using modern tools to make modern music.

Every artist has a love affair with new ideas, which in turn can spawn new theories, art, mediums, styles or genres. I'm responding to the creativity of engineers, software programmers and audio designers with my own creativity and love of art, and knowing what I do is an interdependent collaborative effort helps me to appreciate the solitude required to do my work.


GG: Do you have any virtual orchestration tips or secrets you could share? Any thoughts about phrasing and expression? Variation?

JG: In the virtual orchestra the composer must see to it that gesture and intention come through in the work. A sampled choir or string passage for example, requires the utmost care in the adjustment of amplitude attack, note-length and release times. The electronic composer programs the sequence, mixes the music, and often masters the recording, so in essence the creator of the art also becomes the interpreter, as in painting or writing. This is a lot of responsibility. Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, strong and weak beats--all these must be input or the music won't have gesture, intention and articulation, in other words expression.

The capability of a computer to play a part "perfectly" (as accurately as are the clocks and synchronization) is neither a blessing or a curse. When I hear electronic music sounding mechanical and repetitive I don't blame the rock-solid timing capability of the computer. The computer simply reveals how ordinary of a composition we've created because it refuses to mask it with a sexy performance, fancy costumes or consummate musicians interpreting it with great skill and dedication. If the voice-leading, counterpoint or harmony isn't working, the sequence reveals that quite clearly. If the form and structure is not solid, the computer reveals that. Shortening notes, lengthening notes, using program changes generously, particularly with strings, and programming strong and weak beats using velocity; all these things will refine the sequence and help deepen musicality. Viewing tempo as a parameter in which interesting rhythms interact with a dynamically changing metric pulse is important.

With modern sample libraries using chromatic, multi-dynamic samples recorded in 24 bit audio there is little excuse nowadays for the virtual orchestra to sound unmusical. Every detail matters but so does the flow of the whole, the sonorous image is important but so are the musical ideas, the development and variation of those ideas, and the meaning behind it. Production is important, but the ideas themselves must be worthy of being produced or what is the point?


GG: I would like to know your thoughts about fine art music and technology. What is "fine art" music and how does it differ from "pop", commercial and other forms of music? Are the distinctions real and do they overlap?

JG: First of all, there is good pop music and bad pop music, as there is good classical music and bad classical music. But in general, I think pop music is about immediacy and sensuality. It is about creating a "sound", and things like originality of harmony, musical development, and interesting contrapuntal textures are of little concern. Art is about contradiction, as we humans are paradoxical in our nature and true art reveals truth. Good art has depth, complexity and well-developed structural cohesiveness, and yet, who could possibly argue, for example, that Beethoven's allegretto of his 7th symphony isn't as sensuous and gorgeous as music can get? Most pop music is a vehicle for lyrics. So we want immediacy, sensuality, gratification, and yet people educated in the arts want more. They want depth, substance, they want art to reveal the "big picture", give us food for thought and stir us to contemplate the profundity and mystery of our lives.
Should music merely "express the times", or should it not also speak of transcendence of the times? This is particularly important in a time like ours where insanity seems to be the dominant ideology governing geopolitical affairs. We'd never assume that because a 16 year-old person has 20-20 vision that they'd be able to read, understand and appreciate Shakespeare without an education, yet in the world of pop culture the idea of needing some education to appreciate a piece of music is often either dismissed or held in contempt. It is though teen-agers and people in their 20s decide what is the newest and greatest music (with their dollars) and older people with much more experience just sort of go along with it and that's how our musical culture defines what's popular, what's "good" or what is relevant.

People so often judge a piece of music by how familiar it sounds, or judge it by their own reaction to it, rather than confront the music as an objective thing that contains meaning independent of the purely emotional or physical reaction one might have to that music. Pop music certainly has its place in the world. But it is the domination of an unexamined pop culture tied in to capitalism, materialism, consumerism and obsessive sensuality that often drowns out the fine arts as people are either indifferent or hostile to more advanced forms of music.

If you're getting paid to compose, this is still an issue, as you are providing a service and must give the customer what he wants and expects yet do so in a way that satisfies some creative urge to engage in artistic deliberation. If you're writing because you're a true composer and need to compose regardless of whether it is a vocation or avocation, then what is your creative purpose?
A work of art can certainly be enjoyable and "entertaining", but if it is art, and you listen to it a half-dozen times, you will hear more revealed  than meets the ear, you'll begin to detect the structural and developmental ideas that gives the piece a sense of autonomy, individuality and inevitability. On the other hand, a piece of music on first hearing, can sound odd, and even frightening and difficult to comprehend. If it is really good, on second or third hearing it will begin to make sense, and a new appreciation based on more objective principles can develop. Isn't it strange how, at least to my ears, a Bach fugue still sounds new? Perhaps "newness" isn't a function of time at all, not a function of what is cool, hip or in style, but rather a function of some intrinsic quality of the music itself that speaks to people over long spans of time and different generations. Perhaps the market-driven ideas about "newness" are the most deceptive of all, and that newness is a value more connected to intrinsic human ingenuity and quality rather than simply how current the object happens to be. We are multi-dimensional beings, having our origins in the animal world but our minds and souls endowed with the ability to transcend our lowly physical origins and build complex societies, customs, arts and sciences. Some types of art gives expression to this aspect of our nature intentionally. I believe classical music does this far better than pop music not for any reason but that the music itself is designed to do this, or at least much of it is. I also believe that other than both the pop artist and the fine art artist both wanting to communicate and express ideas, the similarity becomes less so as the fine art composer seeks for a more abstract and developed type of music and seeks to experiment and explore new musical thought.


GG: Art tends to reflect society and we have been advancing towards a technological society. How do musical advances occur relative to technological advances?

JG: We all know of Bach's interest in writing the Well-Tempered Clavier in part as a response to the new equal-temperament tuning system. And the invention of valves on the trumpet certainly advanced the melodic possibilities for that instrument. Likewise, I know I owe a debt of gratitude to the countless people who have advanced computer science and engineering to the point where we have access to these wonderful creation tools. However, though contemporary music technology is incredibly useful, people should not forget that the art of music has been evolving over some 10,000 years. To not come to this technology with a knowledge of music, a knowledge separate from MIDI, recording, sampling or computers, is to me an invitation to mediocrity.

I once had a student come to me who had an advanced degree in engineering. He "wrote" his first "symphony". Yet he couldn't read the music that his sequencer converted from MIDI data to standard music notation hence the music could not benefit from the understanding gained from contemplating music as a written language. He didn't know what a chord inversion was. He didn't know tonal harmony. And his piece had no cohesiveness, no musically logical form and this person didn't have a clue as to how to develop his material. When I suggested that he learn the basics before attempting to write a symphony, he looked at me like I was crazy. He didn't seem to get that music is a right-brain AND a left-brain activity, and that craft and imagination are is inseparable as two new lovers on a warm summer day. No one would dream of pursuing physics or genetic engineering without the necessary education, but because music is perceived as "self-expression", it is often assumed that ignorance is bliss.

Mastering the techniques of the production of music has nothing at all to do with mastering the techniques of the composition of music. This is where technology is only of limited help. The evolution of an artistic aesthetic is something uniquely human, and no amount of hardware or software can alleviate musical ignorance or insensitivity. When intelligent musicality is applied to new technologies we have the kind of intersection of art and science which interests me.


GG: What are your thoughts about the unknown nature of music. Are there hidden functions that music plays that may not seem apparent?

JG: Yes. Music is vibration, music is form, it gives expression to the beautiful, it is connected to the cosmos and mirrors it in some mysterious way. The ordering of tones and rhythm in a composition relies on some profound inner intuition. I believe there is a deep connection between truth as discovered in the mind, beauty, which comes through our senses, and goodness, which governs our interpersonal relations and ethical development. I cannot but believe these three values are different expressions of the same unified energy. Even when composing dodecaphonic music, there are right notes and wrong notes, in fact the ordering of the tone-row is a poetic process from the get-go. What makes this note or rhythm wrong and this one right? It is the sensitivity of the composer to levels of tension that seem to determine this, and this aesthetic sensitivity has its roots in individual talent, intuition and cultural awareness. Why would nature evolve a species that could make these distinctions when there seems to be no apparent survival value in being able to do so? So with music, a profound respect for, and love of, the art is paramount. I will forever consider myself a student of music because it is a world far bigger than my own mind and is intrinsically linked to the ultimate mysteries of existence.

GG: Where do you think the future of music is heading.

JG: If the current level of funding for music in the public schools in the United States is any indicator, I shudder to think where it is headed. Probably not somewhere I want it to go. Music education must walk a fine balance between being relevant to our times and yet not a tool for the market-driven "values" which have unfortunately permeated every aspect of our lives. Not to inform the young of the great classics that have been composed over the past 500 years is cultural suicide. Since music provides so much self-identity, particularly for the young, it is of great importance that people are exposed to music of other cultures, other times and other aesthetics. Otherwise a narrow, culturally myopic arrogance can set in and the capacity to experience music as something other than a pleasure-producer or group-identification tool can be lost. The "elitist" reputation of classical music is a complex phenomena but in the equation is the inability or unwillingness to confront the music directly instead of focusing on the stereotypes of people who listen to it and enjoy it. I hope more young people become as discerning about musical values as they are about software. Our new tools certainly have an influence over our music but they should never be the arbiter of our aesthetic. Sometimes I hear Electronica that says to me the technology has taken over and is in the driver's seat, and the real creativity is in the making of the software and hardware, while the musician is sitting in the back seat going along for ride believing he is "composing" music. Art making for me is about ideas, and yet the paradox is that while mastering the tools is required, there is always the urge to not allow the technology to overly-influence what I say and how I say it. The medium is not the message, but the medium does influence technique.  The musical imagination is the most vital partner to the virtual orchestra. I hope more people develop the attitudes of contemplation, humility and receptivity which is required to appreciate and understand certain types of music.


GG: What advice would you have for young composers just getting into the business?

JG: The world of business is a very tricky place. If we lived in the kind of world I'd want, business and commerce would serve the fine arts faithfully because the fine arts look toward the Big Picture, to Reality with a capital R. Capitalism and pop culture all too often would have us reduce our images, tunes and metaphors to entirely human purposes and activities, rather than have our art pointing toward the cosmos, the greater whole, both inwardly and outwardly. Business and commerce seem to have become too narrow and too self-serving to support the evolution of art so what we have is art serving commerce, when it ought to be the other way around. But since we have to deal with what we have, I'd say to any serious young composer to diversify: teach, conduct, compose and, if you need it to be your profession, only work on those projects that you really believe in. If you don't really believe in the project, try to get out of it and do a different one. There are ethical concerns in the arts, which might sound prudish, but just as we know that there is junk food for the body, there is also junk food for the mind. I don't fault composers for writing music for television commercials and yet I am grateful I've never had to because for me it trivializes the thing I love so deeply.

home | recordings | compositions | press | services | instruction | articles | studio | biography | credits | links