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The Art of MIDI Sequencing with Jerry Gerber

Saturday, February 28th 2004 

In our latest interview, composer Jerry Gerber talks with us about realizing the “virtual symphony”, creating orchestral MIDI works and the challenges involved when working with room full of synthetic players as opposed to working with a live orchestra. His latest CD release “The Art of MIDI Sequencing” attempts to tackle this head on: we begin to explore the task of writing symphonic music specifically for the digital orchestra, utilizing some of the latest tools and sample libraries on the market. Not to be confused with simply being another "midi mockup", Jerry's talks about his development of techniques to make the virtual orchestra an expressive medium in an attempt to squash the perception that MIDI is a poor man's substitute for the "real thing".

RM: Perhaps a question to start from the beginning: What is your musical background?
JG: I began my formal musical studies when I was 10 years old by beginning private lessons on the accordion for several years. I became very interested in guitar after that and began jazz/rock lessons with Eddie Arkin. In high school my interest in music theory began to grow and I began studying piano and flute soon after graduation. When I was 18 I made the decision that composing was to be my life's work and began studying privately with musicians and composers. I graduated with a degree in classical music theory and composition in 1982 (San Francisco State University) and felt I had had enough formal training and began my studies in electronic music. My education includes playing in rock and folk groups, singing in choirs, and studying non-western music, although my attachment and love for the equal temperament system is quite obvious. From 1982 through 1995 I was involved in commercial scoring which included dance, CD-ROM, computer games, film, video and television. For the Gumby television series my duties involved composing and producing over 700 cues for animation. In 1996 I founded Ottava Records and completed my 7th CD project for Ottava in December, 2002. This CD was released around April 1st of this year.

RM: What can you tell us about your latest release “The Art of MIDI Sequencing” and the concept, technology and other ideas behind the project?
JG: "The Art of MIDI Sequencing" is my newest CD release. This disc contains my 5th symphony for the virtual orchestra, a 4-movement 39 minute work, and another shorter piece I titled "Essay for Virtual Orchestra. The concept is this: MIDI is a medium. Many composers view it as a "mock-up" for the acoustic orchestra, but I began to see a problem with this idea because I realized several years ago that in order to discover the artistic potential of this new medium one has to be fully committed to it. This freed me of thinking for the traditional orchestra and allowed me to focus on composing for MIDI and producing the best recordings I can. The technology has now reached a point where musicality and expressiveness are values that can be reckoned with. The virtual orchestra is certainly not a mature medium, and won't be for quite some time. But with 24-bit word lengths, 96khz sampling, and advances in sample libraries which include chromatic sampling, multi-dynamic sampling and other advances, the virtual orchestra can now have depth, expression, phrasing, subtlety and power, which are some of the musical qualities I value. In the 5th symphony my goal was to explore four different approaches to long-form composition. The first movement utilizes samples of traditional instruments mixed in with voices, shouts and electronic synth sounds. The 2nd movement is quite experimental in structure and uses elongated tones and many electronic textures. The third movement is quite traditional in structure and is more or less a presto in A-major. The last movement combines both serial and tonal techniques. The scores for this music can be found on my website at www.jerrygerber.com/artofmidisequencing.htm

RM: How would you say that the process of creating a full length symphonic work for samples differs from the process of creating a full length symphonic work to be played by live performers?
JG: First of all, there are a whole new set of limitations as well as the capacity to transcend the limits of the acoustic orchestra. For example, one can have a bassoon playing 50 measures without a breath! It is possible to extend ranges up and down if that is required. The limits have much to do with phrasing. Much work has to be done with attack and release times, velocities, sample choice and placement of the note relative to the beat (both strong and weak beats) to give the music life and expression. It is not the accuracy of digital sequencers, in my opinion, which necessitates music sounding mechanical or robotic. It is really a problem of aesthetics or simply not understanding what techniques are possible with a good sequencer. What a great player executes in the physical realm, meaning the expressive gestures that result from bowing, blowing, or plucking, is, in the hands of a computer-based musician, entirely conceptual. One must think like a player, but interpret the gesture through midi programming. The idea of strong and weak beats, short and long notes, accents, syncopation, and finding the best timbre to play the part are some of the issues I am speaking about. I have said this before, but I think it is worth repeating: making music with electrons is no less natural than making music with animal gut, bone, metal or wood. The technology is newer and humans haven't nearly as much experience with electronics as we have with designing a good violin or flute. Electricity is a fundamental force in the cosmos, so making music with this force is a natural extension of the knowledge of designing a computer program, a sample library or a high-quality analog to digital converter.
From a socio-psychological standpoint (personal happiness in other words) I work with singers and instrumentalists as well. My previous release was with Janet Campbell, a wonderful mezzo-soprano. I love collaborating so I try to find a balance between "machine music" and "people music". Otherwise I'd be enjoying my solitude a bit too much!

RM: What kind of techniques do you use for different instrument groups (for example, strings compared to winds, or brass) when it comes to sequencing and programming for obtaining the maximum amount of realism in a performance?
JG: String attacks and releases are critical. I hear many student works that sound blocky and choppy because the musician isn't conscious enough of how ADSR and phrasing are inseparable issues. Choosing the right string patch for the passage is important; in fact a given passage may switch samples numerous times, as the rhythmic flow of the music quickens or becomes more relaxed. For winds, I remember the words of Joseph Haydn, who, when in his 80s, wrote "I have just learned how to write for the woodwinds". It is tricky to get the woodwinds not to sound like a big organ. Spacing and dynamics are very important, as well as how they are orchestrated and mixed. Though I have been composing steadily and regularly now for 34 years, I often feel like a beginner because there is so much to learn and the craft and art of what I am doing is so complex and deep. As far as brass, I am most pleased with the brass writing and orchestrating in the 3rd movement of the 5th symphony. Realism is a very elusive goal. The virtual orchestra will simply never sound like a great orchestra playing live in a great hall. It is a different medium. When one can respect that, the idea of realism becomes secondary, and the idea of musicality becomes paramount. As I said earlier, if you treat the virtual orchestra as a medium in its own right, with its own potentials and limitations, I think this is a better approach, will lead to better music, and will lead to happier creative experiences.

RM: When it comes to mixing your orchestral sequences, what kinds of Techniques do you generally rely on?
JG: With the advent of digital technologies, the line between mixing, orchestrating and even mastering has blurred somewhat. Also, mixing is the electronic version of conducting, because in essence, that is what mixing is about. For myself, orchestrating is such an integral part of the creative process that I insist on doing it myself. In film music it is often that the orchestrator is a different musician. This is usually because of time constraints, but I shudder to think that it may also sometimes be because the composer is not competent in orchestration. With the virtual orchestra, orchestration techniques are founded upon the traditional principles of orchestral weight, balance, blend and transparency. The complexity of orchestral (layered) sound is enormous, every element interacts with every other element, and their harmonics interact as well. Making something louder via octave doublings is always possible, but not necessarily always going to make a better orchestration. If an instrument doesn't add to the effect you want, or if it simply cannot be heard or felt in the mix, dump it. There are so many orchestration styles that it is very different to talk about technique. As Stravinsky said, the technique is the man.
RM: What was the most challenging aspect of putting together this project?
JG: Finding the motivation, energy, time, and will to do it.. Writing an extended instrumental work is exponentially more demanding than writing a two or three minute song. After a composer has studied and mastered harmony and counterpoint, the real work is just beginning. The problem of long-form structural development is a life-long concern, and is probably the most challenging aspect of composition. Not to belittle music producers, but production issues are easier to solve than compositional ones. With production, you begin with something tangible, a piece of music. But with composition we begin with nothing, zilch, nada, zero. Making a piece of music work successfully over a 10 or 12 minute period is quite challenging and demands the gift of imagination like nothing else I've ever done.

RM: Do you find that building sampled renditions of your symphonic music backs you into a corner?
JG: Of course it does. To quote Stravinsky again, limitation is freedom. Without limits creativity is impossible. By working within the limits of sample-based technology, the challenge is to make expressive music. This means variety of texture, harmony, orchestration, tempi, and many other elements. Without variety one can sustain a short film or TV cue, but nothing longer. By constantly varying which samples are used when we can do a lot to overcome the static nature of sampling. Again, I go back to ADSR and phrase-shaping. What the acoustic ensemble does through gesture the electronic ensemble must achieve through intelligent, creative and detailed midi programming.

RM: What kind of gear do you use in your studio, from samplers and synths, to samples and sample libraries?
JG: Currently I am using the Gary Garritan Orchestral Strings library, and the Dan Dean Solo Brass and Solo Winds libraries. I use these with two Gigastudio machines, one being dedicated to strings, the other to winds and brass. I also use two Emu E6400s, a Roland XP-30, XV-3080 and JV-1080. My mixing board has been the Mackie D8B but I am about to order the Yamaha DM2000.

RM: What music related projects are you currently working on?
JG: I am remodeling my studio so everything is coming apart in a week or so. After that I start a song-cycle with the two vocalists I mentioned earlier. I plan either a 6th symphony or a piano concerto after that.

RM: Do you have any ultimate advice that you think fellow digital composers should keep in mind while creating orchestral music?
I would advise musicians to pay as much attention to content, ideas, musical development and structural autonomy as one does other concerns. We've all been seduced by innovative technologies, but musicality is about an inner sensitivity to sound, harmonics, melody, harmony, texture and form as well as the evolution of your aesthetic values. A musical craft begins in the mind, not in your motherboard. A computer, for that matter any piece of audio hardware or software will not make one a great musician. Imagination and craft is at the heart of excellent music.
For more information on The Art of MIDI Sequencing and Jerry's music, check out his site at http://www.jerrygerber.com/ 

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