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15 Questions to Jerry Gerber

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I am fine, thank you. I am in San Francisco, California, in my studio.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I am currently composing the second piece for a new CD. I am exploring sampled winds, sampled brass, sampled strings, hardware/software synthesisers and percussion, each in separate compositions. I will also include either a clarinet concerto or a piano concerto (for soloist and digital ensemble) on this new (my 10th) CD.

Would you say the music scene is in a state of crisis? How hard (or easy) has it been for you finding performance opportunities and audiences for your music?
I decided over 10 years ago to devote my creative energies to computer-based instruments and recording. Rather than seek performances, I seek audience for my CDs. In the United States, classical music has always been an “alternative” music with limited audiences. Americans are among the world’s most unsophisticated people when it comes to culture, world history and knowledge of other countries, I am ashamed to say. Though we’ve made considerable advances in the sciences and technology, our arts and culture are dominated by a materialistic, pop mentality, which if not so pervasive, wouldn’t be so bad. Nevertheless it cannot be expected that the art music scene will be intensely influential in such a society.

What do you usually start with when composing?
Much of my musical energy begins at the piano as improvisation. From there I move to the MIDI sequencer and begin to compose using a mouse, staff view and my imagination. I build up entire compositions and orchestrations in the sequencer. I often print out the score to study when away from the computer and I give a lot of thought to problems of form and musical development. After I’ve brought the MIDI sequence to “performance-level” (phrases, velocities, attacks and releases, articulation, timbre/patch changes, etc.), I then render the MIDI file into audio and begin working on the macro-dynamics of the piece (the larger shapes and sections using volume envelopes). From there I work on equalisation and other CD mastering techniques.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Composition is ideational and logical; sound is vibrational and material. As Beethoven said, music is a bridge between the intellectual and the sensual. Sound is sensuous, it is vibration and is heard, felt and experienced in the body, emotions and mind. Composing is about relationships between tones; it is about form and development, style, mood and cohesiveness; a study in the age-old problem of unity and variety.  Any person can react to sound, but to respond with sensitivity to harmony, harmonic changes, orchestration, counterpoint and musical form requires a level of interest and receptivity that fewer people possess. There are many musicians who are sensitive to sound, but not to counterpoint, form and other musical subtleties. The overly intellectual academic composer who doesn’t seem to care about how music actually sounds is the one extreme. The other is the casual pop musician who cares everything about sound but nothing about content, originality or musical inventiveness.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Improvisation is the raw musical impulse, free of formal constraints; it is spontaneous, partly a physical response to music and sound, partly an emotional response, but clearly lacking in the intellectual development composition offers.  I think of improvisation as the core experience of making music, a place where ideas are tested, risks are taken and the musician experiences his (her) own musical impulses in their most primary state. A good composer understands how to move those natural, spontaneous musical impulses into composition without introducing cliché, pretence, affectation and other pseudo-intellectual trappings of being a learned musician.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?

Harmony and harmonic theory evolved over many centuries from the combining of melodic lines. The mature musician is aware of and sensitive to both the melodic, contrapuntal motion in their music as well as the harmonic, or vertical movement. I value the sensitivity to harmonic progression and chords and the subtle differences between intervallic tensions, although many modern classical composers seem to dispense with a coherent harmonic language altogether. Harmony, in the broader sense, is simply how well your music actually work as a whole. Dissonance is very important to music because it introduces tension, drama and contrast. Music without dissonance has no real movement; it can induce a relaxed state of mind, but so can meditation or barbiturates, so where is the art? On the other hand, composers who are fearful of using octaves, perfect fifths and fourths and who use an over-abundance of dissonant intervals don’t necessarily understand the overtone series, or choose to ignore it. Without the use of primary intervals, it is difficult to achieve any real level of universality in music. Music can be original, novel, suspenseful and still be ugly. I am not ashamed of the word “beauty”. There is dark beauty, frightening beauty, calm beauty, light beauty, dreamy beauty and a myriad of other shades of beauty. But ugly music is ugly music, often because of the harmony or lack thereof. Complexity without clutter, simplicity without the simplistic; these are the some of the compositional challenges of the 21st century composer.

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: “The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy.” What are your thoughts on this?
I think the 21st century will be remembered for the impact of digital computer technology on all the arts. The ability to design and utilise new sounds is a major innovation of our time. The cross-fertilisation of music from around the planet is also a strong influence for change.  There are some genres, such as the symphony, theatre and opera, that I believe will continue to live and breath in new dimensions, using new techniques and new ideas concerning structure, orchestration and, as Danilevski said, dramaturgy.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?
Interpretation is the final act of presenting music to the listener, either in live performance or as a recording. When I bring in singers or instrumentalists for recording I work very closely with them and I want them to bring their own creativity and imagination into the process. As a music producer who works almost exclusively in the digital medium, I can be both the creator and interpreter of my music. It is not that I am a control-freak; it is that rather that a complete musician is skilled at inventing and interpreting music.  The electronic music studio gives me the opportunity to do both.  The division of labour in the classical music world has become extreme; one musician creates the music while others, in sharply delineated roles, interpret that music.  In earlier times this division of labour didn’t exist, and there are good reasons for rejecting it now, the primary being the musician’s own artistic and musical development.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?

This is a complex and interesting question.  I work in isolation a lot, as do many artists, and there are times when I feel I am writing solely to satisfy my own artistic urges and cravings. Yet when I release a new CD I believe I am making an authentic contribution to the culture in which I live. I think art begins as a deeply inward individual impulse to express and create; from there it moves outward, affecting culture and commerce, social mores, ideals and values. When I was doing commercial scoring none of these philosophical issues arose. In that world, money is the arbiter of all things. I think art’s impact on political/social realities is both profound and slow. There are those who put a great deal of value on the newness and shock that an original work of art sometimes creates, but that newness is always short-lived and the shock wears off.  In a market-driven, materially-obsessed society, the short-term impact of everything, including music, is considered paramount.  But to my way of thinking, a Bach fugue, written over 250 years ago, still has a lasting and deep impact on culture.  New artistic innovations can be a threat to any form of fascism, totalitarianism or materialism because art speaks to our psyches and our love of justice, freedom and peace. It speaks to us as multi-dimensional (dare I use the word spiritual) beings, something that many forms of tyranny dismiss. Does music make for better societies or better individuals? Is beauty connected to moral or ethical goodness?  These are unanswerable questions really, but it is essential to ask questions that have answers and questions that do not.  There have been countless anti-war songs composed, yet still we have war. There have been perhaps billions of love-songs written, yet still we have divorce and betrayal.  I know that music can change a person inwardly, particularly a person who is fortunate enough to be able to be involved with music on a daily basis for much of their life.  The best art, in my opinion, has a profound social/political impact not because the artist self-consciously tried for that effect, but because art both transcends and encompasses the worldviews, metaphors and ideologies of any particular era and reveals deeper aspects of the human psyche and the human condition.

Would you say that a lack of education is standing in the way of audiences in their appreciation of contemporary composition?
For some, maybe. Others are by nature more sensitive and more curious and will find themselves appreciating art even if they don’t understand it consciously. There is good pop music and bad pop music, there is good classical music and bad classical music, there are good listeners and bad listeners.  Education often merely deepens people’s prejudices and reinforces the limited values of others; it can also truly liberate, instil genuine curiosity and inspire. Much depends on who is doing the educating.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without sacrificing their soul?
Composers grow and evolve, listeners of music grow and evolve. Perhaps in many centuries the majority of the human race will be conscious, authentically educated, open, curious, enlightened and blessed with a stable standard of living. All these things are part of the equation in regards to people’s ability to appreciate art. Today’s world is so largely primitive, ignorant, violent and grossly unfair that many do not have the time and energy to learn about art.  I have a lot of hope in the long-term for humanity, but very little in the short-term. The Russians have a saying, “It is nice to sing songs once you have eaten.” But in America, there are millions of over-fed, over-weight brainwashed consumers who still lack the cultural awareness to enjoy sophisticated forms of music, so a lot depends on what kind of society the composer is working in.  

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
In the U.S. there’s been controversy regarding who the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) funds and who it doesn’t. Many American social conservatives do not like public money going to funding any artistic projects, whether those projects challenge conventional thinking or not.  I personally don’t ask my government for anything other than to stop making wars, killing innocent people in other countries and wasting our people and resources. As most people in the world now understand, the U.S. government is horrifically squandering the world’s resources through aggression, warfare and global theft and has little interest in music and culture.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?

A generous amount of variety and excellence.  I would transcend the petty, fear-based artistic idiocy that currently is so prevalent and try my best to include a wide spectrum of what I consider to be excellence in music. I would take risks and be willing to offend some people’s tastes. I would challenge the audience, but not to the point where they get up and leave. Striking the balance between innovation and communication is key. I would program works that are not all of the same stylistic ideology; for example for electronic pieces I would include tonal works, sound design, non-tonal works and works based on many new technologies.  I would not be captive to any one new music aesthetic, technology or approach but take each piece on its own merit.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Every artist, including me, strives to produce the best and most original work possible. I try to make compositions and recordings that have lasting value. Whether I succeed or fail is less important than the fact that I am doing it over a long period of time.  To do one’s best work and to do one’s own work is a complicated and difficult thing, particularly to sustain over many decades.  Health issues, relationship issues and money issues all impact an artist’s ability to create and produce.  Luck helps. I don’t depend on it, but I won’t reject it if it comes my way.

Ottava (1997)
Kairotic Offerings (1997)
The Golden Mean (1999)
Regeneration (2000)
Rebel Planet (2001)
Moon Festival (2002)
The Art of MIDI Sequencing (2003)
In Praise of Poets (2004)
Time Shadows (2007)

Jerry Gerber

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