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Imagining the Future

img  Tobias
Dodecaphony and traditional harmony? Complexity and immediate emotionality? Serialism and freedom? Great! For the past month or so, I have been playing Jerry Gerber’s music to lots of different people, some of them supposedly “educated”, others “theoretical amateurs” and their reaction has almost unanimously been one of astonishment and curiosity: What is the secret behind these mysterious pieces? And: Who is this composer designing grand-scale scores for virtual orchestras in his San Francisco studio?

Audiences for CDs
“I try to make compositions and recordings that have lasting value”, Gerber sums up his artistic aspirations, “Whether I succeed or fail is less important than the fact that I am doing it over a long period of time.” There are several reasons why his music will indeed have a lasting impact on anyone exposed to it.

For one, the unique combination of classical string arrangements and up-to-date sound synthesis creates both plentiful and powerful associations, while coming free of cliched references. In times of instant satisfaction and one-finger-solutions, it is a breath of fresh air to see someone write a symphony for an entire orchestra on his computer, controling every single parameter in the process.

Unfortunately, this kind of radical singularity will always lead to suspicions as to the reasons of not doing things the “normal” way – i.e. having your work performed by “real” musicians. So let’s get them out of the way while we still can: To Gerber, using the computer is not a method of masking his compositional deficits by blindly pasting dots and bars on his screen (“Much of my musical energy begins at the piano as improvisation”, Jerry explains, “From there I move to the MIDI sequencer and begin to compose using a mouse, staff view and my imagination.”), neither is it exclusively intended to emulate an acoustic ensemble.

Rather, the virtual orchestra allows Gerber complete control over factors such as articulation, dynamics, phrasing and tempi, as well as over when and where his work will be performed. “Rather than seek performances, I seek audience for my CDs”, he freely explains, positioning this statement not as an excuse, but with true conviction of its many benefits.

Much of this certainly has to do with his disappointment and distrust into whether American society (including concert organisors, audiences, critics, so-called benefactors) currently has the whit, courage and foresight to embrace a music as aware of tradition and as open to real progress as his. And, of course, he enjoys being both the interpretor of his own compositions: “The electronic music studio inspires the integrated act of creation/interpretation, without having to depend on dozens or even hundreds of musicians. In this sense I am more, in temperament, like a painter or a poet -- I want my art to be the finished product, to be contemplated and enjoyed without further interpretation.”

What matters, too, however, is that Gerber wants to challenge listening habits at root level. Maybe the concert hall is no longer the right place to enjoy his symphonies - epic, romantically driven works of grand themes and confounding spatiality: Sometimes, a single brushstroke will be as loud as a wall of strings. On other occasions, technoid rhythms or warm sequencer runs pierce the fabric of quiet laments. Maybe the spaces capable of doing justice to the multidimensionality of this music will still need to be built.

Harmonising various elements
At the heart of all of his long-form works, however, is a remarkably down-to-earth symbiosis of various 20th century styles. Jerry started composing at a time when Schönberg’s principles were considered a holy grail. What he discovered, however, was not only that he enjoyed studio time more than rehearsing with other musicians, but that twelve-tone music could never be regarded as a panacea. Nor could it be separated from its own development – didn’t Schönberg himself need decades to arrive at his postulations and shouldn’t it therefore be considered rather as one possible goal among many and as a future reference point instead of a set of dogmas?

At the same time, just like some of his colleagues and compatriots such as John Adams and Philip Glass, he still believes classical forms to be relevant and - possibly – ideally equipped for the next century: “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 dramaturgy.” Symphonies (a total of six until now) and songs (including the most recent collection “In Praise of Poets”) have therefore been at the heart of his oeuvre.

Quite obviously, these terms come with slightly different  connotations than what one has come accustomed to: “I've come to understand the term ‘symphonic’ more in light of the following: Complex, long-form composition orchestrated in a multi-timbral setting”, Gerber expounds, “The symphony, like the novel, gives the composer the maximum amount of musical space and time to explore and develop ideas. If we start by looking at the 15 minute symphonies by Mozart and Haydn, and move forward in time to the much later (and often much longer) works of Mahler, Prokofieff and Copland, we see certain common features: abstract composition, multi-timbral realization and the continual exploration/evolution of form and structure. We also see that composers are usually very musically economical when it comes to making a lot out of a little; often a large symphonic movement consists of two or three primary ideas that are expanded and developed within a given period of time. In this sense, I am continuing to work in a form that that still allows much creativity and innovation, hence the term ‘symphony’. I think the closest dictionary definition that applies to what I am doing is the following: harmonious composition or arrangement: something that is harmoniously composed of various elements.”

Quasi-extended techniques
To hear this philosphy in action, some of Gerber’s most recent releases make for a perfect introduction. His Symphony #6, for example, is a work of furious dynamics, of great plasticity and dramatic effects. In its cinematic opening movement, springing forth from a swelling string chord, the music charges between pastoral beauty and nightly sensuality, held together by a recurring motive of quickly ascending lines and pointed beats. A hymnical theme, already presented in a nascent state at the very beginning, returns at a later stage, yet always in a state of promise rather than fulfillment.

Thanks to its seamless integration of different sound worlds, the sixth Symphony can well be described as a temporary culmination of Gerber’s aesthetics. The first bars of the piece’s finale, “I saw the silver Cord” places gossamer electronic textures next to pure acoustic action, playing with previously introduced material and creating scenes of pristine solitude. Quite clearly, the classic symphonic form serves as a means to create particular dramaturgical effects, rather than merely representing a cheap template.

The fifth Symphony, on the other hand, offers listeners a remarkable stab at accessible and even whistleable dodecaphony (deemed impossible for much too long), as well as the inclusion of human voices. Culled from samples, they bring the desired amount of intimacy to a composition aiming for a unified, coherent and dense sound right from the start. The upbeat energy of “Joy of Cannabis” could be interpreted as a tribute to Mahler (whom Gerber greatly admires), but other than that, many passages of this work are slow moving textures of almost static or rhythmically perturbed chords – associative breaths rather than cemented structures. This is especially true in the symphony’s plaintively crawling centerpiece, a dark and secluded “Lament”, but it shines through as well in the concluding stream of consciousness “Gravity/Zero-Gravity”, astutely characterised as a “coloristic chronicle” in the liner notes.

What one can learn from listening to both pieces side by side is that our perception of what is “real” and “natural” depends on various factors and mostly on the layering of sounds. The fifth Symphony may at first appear more organic than the sixth, which openly flirts with synthesised and processed material. But underneath its “traditional” surface, it is probably even more experimental, presenting some heavily deformed performances as quasi-“extended techniques”, which the mind gladly accepts.

Approximating a human ensemble
While the use of vocal samples already infused his style with a human frailness, his work with singers may present Jerry Gerber at his most private and personal. On “In Praise of Poets”, he teams up with singers Dale Tracy (an extremely versatile tenor mainly active in California), Katy Stephan (who gained relative fame thanks to her contribution to some blockbuster soundtracks) and Janet Campbell (also known for her work as an artist representative). Gerber has admitted that scoring a children’s series was perfect in terms of working on the most diverse forms of music and his skill in the short-form department are rich and eclectic.

Some of these pieces have a demonstrative lyrical and melodic touch to them, a forward propulsion and a radiating warmth, while others are marked more by onomatopoetic underlining of texts by poets and thinkers from Sophocles to Walt Whitman (“Echo”, for example, uses a delayed bass tone to get its message across). The orientally tinged “Unending Love” spirals towards heaven thanks to its mantra-like repeated themes, while “A Prayer for a Marriage” counterpoints the delicate and dreamy opening with a joyous coda full of expecations and exultation.

Of the three discs featured in this article, “In Praise of Poets” comes closest to a human ensemble and maybe, with some noteable exceptions of course, could have been realised using acoustic instruments instead of a PC. Still, Gerber would not want to miss the double joy of finalising his music just the way he wants it:

“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”, he says and, returning to the theme of being his work’s own interpretor, “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.”

Faith in the gifted musician
Interestingly, Gerber, whose oeuvre mirrors technological progress and who is ready to jump Surround Sound if his interest grows stronger, still believes in the most fundamental creative source: “My ultimate faith rests more with the musical imagination and skills of the gifted musician rather than on the technology. Though digital tools will definitely continue to evolve, there is no digital or mechanical substitute for musical sensitivity, spiritual insight into the nature of harmony, a gift for melodic lines and the purely subjective human element that goes into good composition. I have no doubt that when the next Bach or Mozart appears on the scene within this century, he or she will be well-versed in computer-based music in the same way that Bach himself was passionately curious about the latest organ technology of his day.”

One thing’s for sure: The unification of composer and orchestra in addition to still more advanced technology will make his music even more compelling and accessible. Prepare yourself for more shouts of happiness as the future of very real music played by virtual musicians takes shape.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Jerry Gerber

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