Jerry Gerber: Making sense of the universe through music
By Linda Holt
Jerry Gerber is that rare musical beast: a classical composer wedded to traditional aesthetic values, using the most revolutionary technologies of the digital age. We chatted over Zoom recently—Jerry in his synthesizer suite in San Francisco, I in my Beethoven-oriented personal library on the East Coast. That very morning, Jerry had just put the final touches on his 12th symphony, which he told me with a youthful glee that belied his silver hair, avuncular red-flannel shirt, and laugh lines. This follows a slew of recordings with titles such as Earth Music, Cosmic Consciousness, and, at this writing, the most recent, Virtual Harmonics, which is also reviewed in this issue of Fanfare. Jerry has been at the heart of electronic music in virtually all its forms for more than half a century. His career has included gigs such as classical performance, rock bands, folk music, jazz, composing one of the first entirely MIDI-based music score for a TV series in the 1980s (The Adventures of Gumby, the little green guy with amazing stretchability). Our conversation touched on everything from what makes a sample library to writing electronically for films and documentaries to what the future holds for electronic music.
Music grabbed Jerry at an early age. “I wrote my first piece when I was 10,” he reflected, “then started playing guitar with bands. When I was 18 and began studying piano, I realized music was something I wanted to do the rest of my life.” Like so many creative people at the time, Jerry dropped out of school, studied privately, but ultimately completed a degree in music theory and composition from San Francisco State University. Jerry has only good things to say about his classical education, which included studying with Wayne Peterson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. Soon, Jerry was scoring for industrial films and dance companies and was asked by a music library to synthesize all of Bach’s two- and three-part inventions. The Gumby gig followed as the world turned on to a new technology client in need of innovative musical backgrounds: the computer gaming industry. “I was settled in San Francisco so it was natural I’d want to stay in Silicon Valley, not relocate to L.A. where the film industry was located,” he said. “I did work for Atari, Lucasfilm Games, Bitmasters for a few years. Then I guess I reached the point where I didn’t want to do soundtracks anymore.” The money was good, but “the thrill wasn’t there,” Jerry noted. “I found I wasn’t expressing myself musically. I was expressing what the director wanted me to express.” In Jerry’s view, when you combine music with any other art—dance, opera, ballet—music isa 50/50 component of the final product, which is fine when it can be collaborative. “But with film and television,” he said, “it’s an entirely different story. The composer comes in last, after the film is edited and pretty much everything is done. It just fills in the spaces. If you’re a serious composer you begin to see that film scoring is limited in terms of what you can do musically. It puts limits on your creativity in terms of your abstract thinking ability. So, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to write symphonies.”
This is not to denigrate film music, which is experiencing a rebirth of interest and appreciation thanks to blockbuster sci-fi and adventure epics scored by the boundlessly productive John Williams and lesser film score giants. “There are some very talented film music composers,” Jerry mused, “but the genre puts limits on music that no other medium does. I wanted to write music that wasn't tied to a more materialistic and less abstract medium."
And with good reason. “Your thinking is freer, you’re able to go where the music wants to go, not where the director wants to go. For me, I had just had enough. I did like, a hundred soundtracks for animation and then I worked on computer games. It just got to the point where I’ve ‘been there, done that.’ I wanted to do something more challenging. So, I started writing symphonies.”
Symphonies without orchestras
Jerry was entering uncharted waters as he began composing art music created entirely out of electronic elements. But was this really so? My mind drifted back to the 1970s with Isao Tomita (Snowflakes are Dancing) and Wendy (Walter) Carlos (Switched on Bach) on Moog synthesizers. But these groundbreaking works were settings of compositions by established classical composers (Debussy and Bach respectively), not original work, least of all new compositions in the classical tradition using MIDI sequencing. “I know of a few other composers who are doing something similar, but we are definitely in the minority among composers practicing today,” Jerry said. He went on to explain some of the differences between writing for a traditional orchestra and writing with digital tools.
“With MIDI sequencing, you have to work hard to make it sound good,” he noted, his voice rising with enthusiasm as he grew engaged in the topic. “Here’s an example of what I mean. If you give the New York Philharmonic a mediocre piece of music, it’s going to sound great, because the Philharmonic can make it sound great. But with electronics, you can have an excellent piece of music, and you have to work really hard to get it to sound good. You have to do a lot of programming, you have to tell the computer exactly how to play almost every note, every phrase has to be sculpted. You must tell the computer how to start this note and how to end this note and how loud the note should play and where on the beat. So, it can be very tedious, detail-oriented work. But if you do it well, and you put enough time into it, you can get some really good results.
“Is it an orchestra? No. I don’t pretend for one second that what I’m doing is an orchestra,” he continued. “You can’t expect one person to be an orchestra. But it’s a new medium, and it allows a composer to express orchestral ideas in a new way. I can use 40 instruments and have control over all 40 instruments and produce a recording that would otherwise take 100 people to produce.”
The truth about sample libraries
Some of the digital media resources are simply mind-blowing. Take “sample libraries,” for example, which are listed on Jerry’s albums. These libraries are totally different than anything I imagined. Jerry explains: “Let’s say, you and I wanted to make a sample library. We would hire musicians to go into a recording studio and play just one note on their instrument. And they would play it all different ways. Let’s say you bring a violinist. That musician will play a single note in every possible way: different volumes, texture, staccato. A sample library builds up an entire collection of hundreds of thousands of samples of instruments just playing one note. As a composer, I can call up any one of those instruments—for example, a violin playing legato—and use that to create phrases in a composition that is entirely my own.” One library Jerry uses consists of about 764,000 samples of orchestral instruments playing one note.
Moving the desired note from the library to the computer is a simple download, but there’s nothing simple about what happens after that. Composers call up the notes they need from the samples, then write for the instrument just as though they would compose for a live player, along with considerable tweaking at the console. The scores of Jerry’s major works, written in traditional Western music notation, as well as information about his recordings appear on his websitewww.jerrygerber.com .
Form over content
But in the end, Jerry’s work is about content, not form. Just like the classical masters of years gone by.
“In the 17th and 18th centuries, composers weren’t filling pages with music based on form,” Jerry observed. “What happened was that the content was creating the form! The music is saying, ‘Come along, analyze to your heart’s content. This is song form. This is sonata form. Here we have a theme and variations.’ But when you are creating, what you are doing is writing music, not form. And what you write at one moment determines what will be written next. Form grows in response to the content, there’s no other way to do it. You can’t fill a preexisting form and expect it to be authentic. Your music will lack individuality and truth.” I added that I’d observed this in other arts, in novel-writing, for example, where as the author writes, the novel seems to take over and determine its outcomes which may never had occurred to the writer at the onset.
Attracting an audience
So far, it’s clear that electronic and MIDI sequenced music has a place in the pantheon of the arts. “Years ago, I told a fellow student I was a composer of electronic music. ‘Ew,’ the student exclaimed, ‘That’s so cold.’ But is it? Our bodies, our hearts are charged with electricity. Electricity exists in nature, it’s a fact of science.” Less obvious, however, is a path to finding an audience—a paying audience—for the music, full of beauty and meaning, that Jerry and a few of his peers compose. “I was trained in music, not marketing,” Jerry noted. His music isn’t played in Severance Hall or the Academy of Music, and though it is original music that is played in real time, it isn’t exactly like performed music where an artist plays a composer’s work before a live audience. On the other hand, electronic music may lack the imperfection that makes traditional music so human and vulnerable, as it seemed to the student who said, “Ew!”. Today, electronic composers of classical music eager to publicize their work are faced with the sometimes baffling challenges of social media (Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk), maintaining their own websites, and participating in various online forums to get out the word. But Jerry knows where his own allegiance lies. “In the end, the true measure for the success of my day is the quality of my relationships and the quality of my work. No one can take that away from me. No one has to approve of me, for me to have that feeling of accomplishment. So, I’ve just tried to make peace with the craziness of this world.”
A spiritual note
Any listener to Jerry’s work will notice a thread of spirituality running through it. Works with titles such as Song to the Universe, Hymn to the Divine, and Nine Hymns on Spiritual Life suggest that electronic music, like other forms, may be part of the music of the spheres, perhaps the elusive “content” that creates form. The composer has meditated since he was 21 and swapped guitar lessons for meditation lessons by a practitioner who lived next door. “Meditation taught me the value of silence in music,” he said. “It can be very powerful.” Another spiritual influence on Jerry has been a 20th century book of unknown origin called The Urantia Book. While not representing a specific religion, the 2,000-page book addresses life’s big questions (why are we here, are we the only sentient beings in the universe, etc.) and provides other food for thought. “You can prove the Earth is a sphere, that the sun is a star, but you can’t prove that God exists or whether there is an afterlife. You either have faith and trust, or you don’t. I think music can express things that are cosmic in nature. And I’ve tried to do that as much as I can. Without taking myself too seriously,” he added.
After all, the composer told me, “I know that my music means a lot, but I have no idea what it means. It’s quicksilver, something you can’t take hold of.” He looked beyond the sound equipment in his blue-paneled studio as though seeking a solution to an unanswerable dilemma. “For any artist, their art is how they express their life experiences. With all the contradictions of being a human being, all the ideas, all the successes and failures, all the frustrations and joys. I just want to figure out how to express that in music. But in the end, we can’t be responsible for how people understand or misinterpret what we do. I know there’s nothing like listening to music that gives me a sense that the universe means something. And that keeps me going, with my next symphony, into the years ahead.”