Orchestration: Composers Reveal Tricks of the Trade Jerry Gerber



Self-portrait by Jerry Gerber

A looming debate in the electronic music community has been, for some time now, whether one should stick to timbres that can only be produced by computers, software, and synthesizers or whether all sounds are fair game, particularly digital samples of acoustic instruments. The answer for me is quite clear: Both approaches are legitimate uses of technology, and once again, as in all mediums, it boils down to the aesthetic, talent, and skills of the musician using the technology.

The advances in digital sampling of acoustic instruments has leaped forward with such amazing speed that whatever doubts lingered around five years ago regarding the digital orchestra can now be put to rest: 24-bit recording, higher sampling rates, better analog-to-digital conversion, multi-dynamic sampling, chromatic sampling, and the capacity to do away with looping because memory constraints are no longer an issue have all contributed to the ever-increasing musical usefulness of sampled sounds.

A few months back I was sent a CD from SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic

Music in the United States) and was blown away at the amazing creativity and innovation of some of the pieces on the CD (some were also terrible I must admit). The ones that worked are obviously composed by musicians who ascribe to the side of the debate that believe all (or most) sounds must be created in the studio and that acoustic-based samples have no place in this approach. That is all well and good, and I see the value in what that aesthetic puts forth, but it isn’t my way. I myself am a “harmony addict.” I require harmony and melody in my music and am unwilling to abandon it to the art of sound design, which, for the most part, uses sounds of indefinite pitch and non-whole integer harmonics. Though I appreciate work coming from this perspective, my approach to using the technology involves not abandoning the aesthetic principles that I value, which include melodic and harmonic interest.

Does the virtual orchestra simply imitate the acoustic one? Yes and no is my answer. Yes, in the sense that the principles of orchestral balance, blend, weight and transparency still apply. This is a function of orchestration, but also is a function of engineering and mastering. Whereas in the acoustic orchestra the conductor must interpret the composer’s intentions with faithfulness and precision, in the virtual orchestra this becomes the job of the mixing engineer and the mastering engineer. In my music I often use electronic non-acoustic based sounds mixed with digital samples of acoustic sounds. In some movements or works I don’t make much use of the non-acoustic sounds because I am focused on other elements. The piece I am sending is in this category although other movements of this work make liberal use of non-acoustically based timbres. But the answer is also no in the sense that the acoustic orchestra is more of a “jumping-off point” in which the concept of instrument families (winds, brass, strings, percussion, voice, electronics) is useful, but the actual orchestration techniques vary greatly because of the strengths and weaknesses of this new medium. In other words, digital orchestration involves a very different approach to texture, dynamics, gesture, phrasing, and expression. What can be expressed physically in the traditional orchestra is now entirely conceptual.