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Wayne Wolfson interviews Jerry Gerber for Art Revolutionaries, November 2006


W 1) What is your earliest artistic memory, the thing which made you want to become an artist. Has it had a lasting effect on both you art and artistic vision. What was the first creation, where afterwards you said to yourself "I am an artist."`

My sister was involved with painting and I remember writing in a third grade report that I thought being an artist was the best profession there was. I have never shown any ability to paint or draw, but from an early age showed musical and technical ability. I didnít formally decide to devote my life to music composition until I was 19. I was into both music and photography, which I studied and worked in while in high school. I quit playing in rock ní roll bands in high school, early enough so that I didnít lose my hearing playing overly-loud music. I understood that individuation and healthy rebellion wasnít just breaking away from my parents and their generation, but that my own generation was just one of thousands, and that we didnít have all the artistic power or answers then and we donít now. To put it simply, I quickly grew out of rock ní roll and pop music. Every generation, should, ideally, be a bit more advanced, evolved, educated and enlightened than the previous one, but this doesnít seem to happen in a linear manner, and every generation seems to carry the self-conscious illusion that it is light-years ahead of the previous one, and that their art is "the best". I didnít really start learning about classical music until I was in my late-teens, early 20s. Before that it was folk music, jazz and rock ní roll.  Growing up with popular music was good because I developed a healthy respect for the common music of my own culture. Studying classical music later was also a benefit, because some of the most magnificent musical works have come from other cultures and to have the opportunity to study them was something I wasnít going to pass up. I knew that becoming a composer was not going to be easy, there was much to learn about composition, music theory, playing music, aesthetics and how to make a living at it, which is another whole game distinct from the art and its demands.

W 2) Do all artists worth their salt have to pay their dues? An equation of wood-shedding it, obscurity and maybe some horrible day jobs thrown into the mix.

A lot depends upon circumstances, family background, inherited wealth, business connections, luck, etc. Some artists are materially comfortable from birth to death, some achieve some level of material stability either through their art or some other way, and some never do. There are complex factors at work here, but I can clearly state that the three biggest occupational hazards for artists are 1) poverty, 2) lack of recognition, and 3) isolation. No artist can mature unless they confront these issues and try to deal with them in a constructive, healthy way. I suggest meditation for artists in particular. Meditation calms and focuses the mind, it opens the awareness up to heart beat, pulse, breathing, thoughts, feelings, ideals, dreams, goals, plans, as well as to anxieties, conscience and relationship. Sometimes in meditation artistic ideas germinate; sometimes awareness itself is all that is needed. Art relates to beauty, and the observation, study and appreciation of beauty requires a calm, open, detached mind. Meditation can greatly help in this pursuit as well as with social and financial pressures.

W 3) Do you have a specific way of working and necessary rituals each time you do your thing? Have you ever tried a different way of working which did not work, and why?

My working methods have changed considerably over the decades. When I first began composing, it was with pencil, piano, paper and metronome. This method continued for many years. In 1985 I got my first MIDI sequencer, and from that day forward my method began to change. Today I sit at the computer screen looking at blank staffs and begin working by placing notes in the staff. I compose entire pieces this way. The great difference from how I used to work, and how more traditionally-based composers work is that I am composing, orchestrating and sequencing at the same time. This of course slows down the process, and getting instant aural feedback is both positive and negative. It is positive in that I can tell quickly whether an idea is working or not, whether it has developmental potential, but the negative is that because music is both abstract idea and real sound, itís possible to get ahead of oneís self and start trying to mix the sound before going deeply into the composition! Beethoven said music is a bridge between the intellectual and the sensual. By hearing oneís music immediately, the temptation is that the sensual nature of sound will overtake the quality of musical ideas, i.e. form, structure, musical content, development and depth. Techniques are always in flux, new approaches to music making is a real part of the human experience.

W 4) A lot of the greatest known works of modern art achieved at least some of their power from the "shock of the new" which greatly decreases with audience familiarity. We live in a time when anyone can be published online, cut a single at home, all regardless of whether they are truly ready. With instant exposure available to even the hobbyists is there too much emphasis now on novelty/concept?

Some works of art did not necessarily start out with "shock-value", but they were just such beautiful, exalted works of music they could not be ignored. Symphonies by Brahms, Mozart and Haydn come to mind. It is well know that Bach was considered not a revolutionary at all, but rather the type of artist who integrated, expanded and brought to a higher level much of what came before him. Not only did his work not have "shock-value" but his own sons considered his work old-fashioned! Little did they know that their fatherís music would be revered, played and studied for centuries. Stravinskyís ballets are an example of where shock-value certainly was part of the early performances, but as you say, this greatly decreased over time with familiarity. I remember going to hear an opera by Frank Zappa in which the actors came out on stage dressed as genitalia, pure shock-value if anything. The problem of course is that five minutes into the piece the shock-value has worn off and we are left with just the music, which I thought pedantic and without direction. It is said that the origins of art are in human vanity and narcissism, but the destiny of art is the superb expression of reality and all the mystery and beauty that entails. My opinion is that shock-value by itself is worth very little. Those artists who choose to emphasize shock-value probably have little technique and craft, maybe even less ability. That being said, sometimes a great work really can be shocking, but I doubt whether the creator really set out to make it so. I think shock-value is usually a very small part of artís power, the far greater power of art is its long-term influence slowly over time. That which is new is not necessarily beautiful or profound. If "newness" is the chief value the artist is striving for, what happens decades after the art is produced? We donít throw away CDs, books, friends or lovers simply because they are not "new" so we should likewise understand that if artís claim to fame is only that it is new it probably isnít very good art. Everything new becomes old. There are people in the electronic music world, usually academics of one sort or another, who shout loudly about how new their art is, how radically different it is from anything done in the past. I find this attitude quite pompous, shallow and lacking real understanding of what art is about. 

W 5) Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) a voracious reader, pretty much stopped reading other authorís works by the time he was twenty five. I myself still have plenty of artistic heroes, but have long shed direct influences. Do you still carry influences as a recognizable component in your works? Who in your medium are some of your heroes/influences?

Making music without performers, without acoustic instruments, without an orchestra, band or ensemble yet having thousands of sounds to draw upon, changes the approach to composition, technical practices and aesthetics. The "virtual orchestra" or "digital orchestra" is not an accurate enough label, it assumes too many associations that are not relevant. The medium I work in is very young. I donít have any particular musical heroes in the electronic music field. Like all composers living in the early twenty-first century, I have many influences, from Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and twentieth Century art music to Blues, Jazz, American folk music and music from the Middle East.

W 6) Has any artistís life/struggle inspired you.

I am more inspired by the work of various artists than I am by any personal strength or handicap. If weíre referring to actual artists I personally know, that in itself is an inspiration, to know that others around me are dedicated to expressing their creativity in artistic and productive ways.

W 7) Is there any project you have yet to do which you have always wanted to do?

I want to write more large-form multi-movement works and I would like to do a theater-piece with singers/actors. Also want to write another concerto for one acoustic instrument with digital instruments. Iíve written violin and flute concertos in this medium. I would like to score computer-based animation for DVD. I love scoring animation and would like to do more of it. That would be challenging.

W 8) Realistically, must an artist also be one part business man to make it in the Ďworld today? To me this is an often unsaid reality. The lack of discussion on this aspect seems to have given us a generation who consider professionalism an anathema, a dirty thing to be avoided.

In our war-mongering ruthlessly competitive, materialistic economy in many ways professionalism is a questionable word, it is a word that has lost its original meaning. We now have professional nuclear weapons designers, professional crack cocaine dealers and professional Wall Street CEO types who will knowingly sell you stock in failing businesses or lie and cheat to puff up their companyís earnings. There are professional politicians who are actually a blend of the political and criminal classes who sell us war by deception and lying. And there are professional artists who will do any project for money. But "professional" in the noble, ancient sense of the word? Someone who is dedicated, loyal, constant, serious, teachable, talented, disciplined? Someone with knowledge, mastery, ideals? Thatís different. The word "professionalism" has its origins in the middle-ages and originally had religious connotations, then later came to mean someone with mastery of a subject. The word has now degenerated into meaning little more than a person makes money at what they do. Art serves commerce, as the Russians say, "it is nice to sing songs once you have eaten". But the truth is also that art far transcends commerce, and converses in languages that concern itself with issues far beyond mere exchange value toward the contemplation of intrinsic value. Weíre presently stuck in an age where the majority view commerce as the final aim and end of culture, which makes being a culture-maker, a myth-maker, more complex. The profit motive has clearly become the dominant paradigm. Mediocrity in all the arts drive dominant media and the Internet is both offsetting and contributing to this low level of artistic activity. The artist as sole proprietor, craftsman, poet, mystic, myth maker to the world, has to pay the rent or the mortgage so compromises are made. Each artist has to make choices as to how best navigate the demands of survival with the longings and aspiration of the inner life. The more approval and acceptance the artist craves, the more vulnerable the artist is to the fickleness of public opinion and professional status.

W 9) Maybe it is my medium, but I have found the existence of an artist insular. We no longer seem to have artistic movements, but genres. Gone is most of the cross pollination which often led to compelling multi-medium things. Do you interact with your peers or artists in other mediums?

Yes, as much as I can. And yet, itís easy to imagine itís all happening "out there" and that weíre "missing" some experience, that others, we imagine, are having. There is a certain responsibility, and that is developing an ever-deepening comfort-zone with solitude. I converse with musicians, photographers, painters both online and in person. Artists need to be having conversations with each other, through their respective arts primarily, because that is how art changes, evolves and invents itself. Art is both a conversation with other artists as well as a communication with laypersons.

W 10) Does location come into play at all with the creative process for you?

I do all my creative work in my electronic music studio. I get much inspiration from nature so I balance the indoor work surrounded by technology with walks in Golden Gate Park, which is close to my studio. Because I work in music and sound, I can't just take a laptop or music sketch pad into the neighborhood coffee shop because there's always music being piped in at these places. I need a quiet place to work!

W 11) Does art need to have a social conscience? Some would say that art need not be our moral compass, but art should enrich and enlighten not through out right dogmatic rhetoric, but through adding to each personís soul as they experience it, making them think of things other than themselves and consumerism.

Only a sentient being can have a conscience, art cannot have a conscience although of course the artist can project their human conscience into a work. Art itself can awaken in people the sense of the good, of compassion, the sacred, the eternal, and the infinite. Once again, here is that relationship between beauty (art) and goodness (conscience). Art is powerful over the long-term because it induces new ways of perception, thought or feeling in people. This is why some conservative and reactionary people often fear art. They know its capacity to interfere with dominate paradigms, social control, repression, social injustice, etc. Often, artistic profundity is not in the subject matter, but in the way the subject is revealed, for example the novel Gertrude, by Hermann Hesse, is a story about ordinary musicians told in a profound way. If art reminds us that we are part of something far bigger than our own individual lives than perhaps it is serving other purposes as well.

W 12) Do you have any one specific work which you feel is indicative of your art? If so, why is that?

I can think of several works that best represent my musical vision. I strive to express myself as musically, honestly and effectively as possible. I try to avoid clichť, academic conformity, commercial conformity and habitual repetition.. The first movement of symphony #6 I think is a good example of what my music is about because it reveals my strong interest in the "economics of composition", meaning developing cohesive form out of a small amount of musical material.

W 13) Ultimately, what is your main goal as an artist? What would you like to be remembered for?

My main goal as an artist is to learn how to make better art through practice, study and experimentation. This goal is in service to the ideal of sharing meaning with others, it is satisfying to complete the artistic cycle from conception, composition, production to appreciation. I cannot predict the "shelf-life" of products from my own imagination. I am fortunate, grateful and privileged to be able to spend my time composing and recording music. I will leave all the history and posterity issues to others to sort out. Whatever has lasting value has lasting value. Whatever does not, does not. I try to make things that have lasting value. If I succeed or fail, or a mixture of both, I nevertheless have learned many important lessons in the process.

W 14) Have you any last thoughts or wisdom to share? I thank you for your time, first round will be on me.

Each artistís career is a bit different, it seems that the more unique the artwork, the more problematic it is to integrate into the social/economic system. Maintaining trust, and a deep conviction about the contribution of art to the world is necessary, even if that contribution is difficult to measure. The pleasure I get from working in music and sound sustains me, and keeps me coming back to the joys, struggles and mysteries of creative work. There are countless lawyers, doctors and engineers who want to be artists and writers. There are few artists that want to do anything but art. Artists usually have another word for retirement. It is called death.

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