Fanfare Interview with Ken Meltzer (2022)
Your previous Fanfare interviews have focused in great detail upon your employment of computer-generated instruments and voices as the basis for creating your music, and sharing it with the public. From Cosmic Dust uses those same techniques for two compositions; the choral work Nine Hymns on Spiritual Life, and the Virtual Concerto for Oboe and Digital Ensemble. I enjoy your music a great deal, and with your permission, I’d like to focus on that music, rather than the modality of its publication. What was the genesis of Nine Hymns on Spiritual Life?
I’ve been practicing daily meditation for all of my adult life. One evening in meditation the poem Hymn to the Divine came to me spontaneously. I wrote it down, edited it and decided to set it to music. I have a choral sample library in my studio that allows me to type in the words I want the choir to sing. I hadn’t used this software before and decided to try working with it so I set Hymn to the Divine to music and programmed the choir to sing the words. I was fairly happy with the results so I wrote more lyrics and also found some short poems by other poets that would express the idea that the cosmos is permeated with intelligence, consciousness and divine will, however we conceive that to be. The Nine Hymns on Spiritual Life are the result.
Did you always envision this Nine Hymns as a collection of choral works?
No, the collection began with one poem and gradually became a collection.
The texts for Nine Hymns on Spiritual Life are by you, Rumi, and Paramahansa Yogananda. What was the process for creating and selecting the featured poetry?
The underlying theme is spiritual faith; faith that the universe is friendly to consciousness, to intelligence, to personhood. That theme runs throughout the nine hymns. As we know well, the natural world is utterly indifferent to human happiness--earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis, viruses, disease, old age and death make that clear. Nature can do without us, but we cannot do without nature. The idea that there is a creative, infinite intelligence within or beyond what we know as the natural world, a source that science is unable to prove or disprove the existence of, has long been of interest to me. If this idea is false, I will never know because after I die there will be nothing but endless, dreamless sleep, and there will be no “I” to experience anything. But if a larger cosmic truth is well beyond our ability to understand, and the universe recycles all matter and energy, including consciousness and unique personal identity, than not only is the universe far more mysterious than we know, but the purpose of life itself takes on a deeper, richer meaning than one short lifetime on a confused world like ours can offer. That’s why we use the term “a leap of faith”, because when it comes to all things material and terrestrial, we need fact, evidence and proof, otherwise we can hardly call it knowledge. But in regards to spiritual life, faith and imagination are all we have, so we choose to employ these faculties or we choose to reject them.
Nine Hymns features varied and compelling musical settings of the various texts. Those settings range from a cappella declamation by the chorus, to a divided chorus with one part singing the text and the other providing vocalise accompaniment, to a chorus with instrumental accompaniment. How did you choose the specific type of settings for the nine poems?
It’s really an intuitive process. I read each poem to myself many times and recite them out loud to get a sense of the meaning, tone, phrasing, rhythm and pacing of the text. I also consider textural variety; which is why some of the hymns are a capella, some have multiple choruses and some utilize sampled orchestral instruments.
Is there a narrative progression/message in your sequencing of the poems and your musical settings of them?
Yes, the two hymns which reflect the strongest faith in the divine are the first and last of the group. Others, such as Greed and It’s Always Worse at Night give expression to the doubts that often accompany spiritual faith. An unyielding, rigid faith is not the approach that appeals to me, a more gentle, questioning and curious, wondering faith that allows for sincere doubt is more realistic and interesting to me.
I wanted to take a moment to thank you for making the scores of your works available on your website (jerrygerber.com) for viewing! I see from those scores that the various hymns were completed in the spring and early summer of 2021. Did the pandemic serve as any impetus for the creation for Nine Hymns on Spiritual Life?
You’re welcome! Yes, the pandemic has had a major impact on me and pretty much everyone else. At the beginning I didn’t think there would be much of a consequence because I’ve worked at home since 1985, and I believed that the pandemic would not change my daily routine very much. But I was wrong because as time went on and the pandemic continued, I stopped teaching in person in my studio, and I stopped bringing singers in to my studio to record. The first album I produced during the pandemic involved two vocalists, one lives in Vancouver, Canada and the other in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m based in San Francisco so that project involved remote recording and then mixing the final recordings in my studio.
Regarding the hymns, I gave up on the idea of seeking a choir to sing them as concerts were being cancelled and postponed constantly and there was much uncertainty as to when people would feel comfortable enough to attend indoor live performances. So I decided to produce the hymns using computer technology, which involves a sample library of a choir. This particular library has what’s called a “word builder” that allows me to type in the text I want the choir to sing. It works pretty well, although I am hoping this technology continues to evolve to get an even more accurate word-builder that’s a bit easier to use.
One of the primary motivations for me to work in the digital medium as a composer is that I don’t have to depend upon lots of musicians to produce a large-scale work. If getting professional-level ensemble and orchestra performances were easier (less time-consuming and less political) I might feel differently but, on the other hand, I love working in the studio and get a lot of satisfaction doing so. A great orchestra can make even a mediocre piece of music sound impressive; the challenge of working in the computer music studio is that it takes much effort to get even a well-written piece to sound musically satisfying. There are many techniques involved in creating phrasing, nuance, dynamics, subtlety, articulation and gesture that traditionally are the performer’s responsibility. But in producing a solo work using computers, the composer is not only inventing the music but is also inventing the “performance”. It would take me considerably less time to mark my scores with all of the breathing, phrasing, dynamics and articulation markings than it does to program the computer accordingly. If I didn’t enjoy it so much I’d probably write more for live musicians.
Let’s turn to your Virtual Concerto for Oboe and Digital Ensemble. I realize that we are dealing with virtual performers on this recording. But I’m curious as to whether you have any oboists, past or present, who are favorites of yours, and what you most admire about their artistry.
I love listening to Francois Leleux play. I was listening and watching him play a Mozart oboe concerto the other day and he makes it look so easy. He’s a very relaxed performer and his joy in playing for a live audience is obvious.
What are the unique qualities of the oboe you highlight in this Concerto?
The oboe’s tonal qualities make it fairly easy to orchestrate because it’s hard for the timbre to get lost in even a dense orchestration. It has a way of cutting through other timbres and making itself present.
Are there any special considerations for scoring a concerto for solo oboe and orchestra, even when the instruments are computer generated?
Always. Though there are many similarities in scoring for acoustic vs. digital instruments, there are also many differences. When musicians see mp, ff, or ppp on the page, they’ll intuitively adjust these relative dynamic markings to the actual playing conditions—the size of the ensemble, the acoustics and size of the room, the relative loudness of the other instruments playing. In the studio, these markings become even more subjective. For example, I can program a flute to play in its lower registers softly by having the computer call up samples of a flute playing pp. In an acoustic situation, the orchestration must be delicate and quiet enough to allow the flute to sound. But in the studio I can use mixing faders and various other tools called MIDI controllers to get the soft-sounding flute to sound loud enough even with a full orchestration. Of course this may not sound “natural” (native to the live ensemble) but my point is that dynamics and the balancing of timbres requires a different approach when working with virtual instruments.
I also note that you include synthesizers (Zebra 2, Dune 3) as part of the instrumental complement.
Yes, I have long been fascinated with synthesizers in contrast to samples of acoustic instruments. Contemporary softsynths (synthesizers that work as software programs under the control of a DAW (digital audio workstation) are powerful and incredibly flexible musical instruments. The very wide spectrum of timbres that are possible with software synthesizers is astonishing. A timbre can be simple, perhaps fitting for a solo melody. Another timbre may be incredibly complex with shifting harmonics, evolving rhythmic patterns, the sound moving across the stereo field, and employing echo, delay and other signal processing. One of my long-time interests is the orchestration of softsynths with orchestral samples, as done in the Virtual Concerto for Oboe & Digital Ensemble.
In one of your Fanfare interviews, you commented that the opportunity to engage in thematic creation and development is an element that attracts you to composing symphonies. It seems that much the same dynamic is at play in this Oboe Concerto.
Yes, this is true. As students of composition we study the many codified forms--rondo, theme and variations, sonata form, fugue, arch form, ABA form, etc. The study of form is certainly of value, but this knowledge is of little help when constructing an original piece of music because form itself grows from content. The material I begin a piece with determines everything else that’s going to happen; the boundaries and structure of the piece are based on the ideas I compose rather than attempting to fill a pre-existing “container” with music. A composer uses numerous functions of mind, including sense experience, imagination, memory, musical logic and knowledge of harmony, counterpoint and instrumentation to create a piece of music. If a piece is to possess real autonomy, authenticity and integrated structures, form must proceed directly from content, not the other way around.
I know that I opened this interview by stating I wanted to focus on your music, rather than the technology used to present it. But I do want to ask you this question: Both the scores for the Nine Hymns on Spiritual Life and the Oboe Concerto contain specific directives for the application of rubato. How is flexibility of phrasing achieved in the context of computer-generated music?
A modern digital sequencer allows composers to vary the tempo and meter as often as desired. I can insert a tempo change at any measure, at any beat, or any fraction of a beat. I can also insert a series of tempo changes to create an accelerando or a ritard that can span over many measures. Even the shape of that graduated slowing or speeding up of the music can be adjusted, so that, for example, the tempo changes get faster toward the end, or at the beginning, or the middle of a series of tempos. Inserting slight tempo changes contributes to phrasing, a slight ritard or a more pronounced fermata, a very subtle quickening of the tempo or a sudden jump in tempo; whatever the musical context calls for. In live performance, if the composer marks a passage to be played quarter note = 84, the tempo will often fluctuate by small amounts, perhaps one measure is 82, the next 85, the next 83 and so on. The same effect can be programmed digitally, creating the sense that the phrase is expanding and contracting, hence giving the music space to breath.
Whether music is played in real time by acoustic instruments or whether it is programmed digitally via a computer, mechanicalness is the demise of expression. It is up to the composer/producer to understand how to inject a quality of energy and momentum into the music so that we get the impression there’s a sentient mind behind the notes, there’s a discerning musician who is listening acutely and perceptively to what is happening in not only the inner voices but to the piece as a whole. MIDI sequencing is about detail. The more detail that is programmed, the more likely the piece will begin to sound like real music. If the listener brings negative judgment and rigid ideas about how music is “supposed to be made” that listener won’t hear, or care to hear, what the composer working in the computer music studio is expressing. The musical experience is always a two-way street, the process is successful when the listener is as receptive to the music as the composer is dedicated to expressing meaning through musicality.
For centuries we’ve employed wood, metal, bone and other natural materials to create musical instruments. Now we’re employing another natural force—electricity—to make music; after all, our brains and hearts work because of electrical signals. Electromagnetism is as natural as is bone, metal or wood. Computer science and technology are giving us increasingly more ways to use and control electricity, including making music. Perhaps 300 years from now humans will discover a new type of material or energy that will spawn new musical instruments that we can’t even imagine. It’s good to embrace the best of the past without the need to condemn or belittle the practices of the present. The invention, insight and innovation of today may well become the traditions of tomorrow.
What new projects are on the horizon?
I’ve begun work on my 17th album and the 1st movement of a 12th symphony and hope to write more vocal music in the near future. I am also looking forward to this miserable pandemic coming to an end so I can renew personal collaborations with singers, soloists and students coming into my studio. I miss that a lot.