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Sunday, January 23, 2005
In Praise of Poets: Jerry Gerber, Composer
 height=With vocals by: Katy Stephan, Janet Campbell and Dale Tracy.

Composer Jerry Gerber takes the works of 12 poets-- ranging in period from Sophocles to Wendell Berry and in style from Rainer Maria Rilke's mysticism to a whimsical yet solemn "Karma, Dharma, Pudding and Pie" by Philip Appleman--and sets them to music in a 12 part song cycle. The stirring poems, turned into songs, speak to the deeper human connections we have with other people and with ourselves. The CD is overall conceptually interesting and is a good effort by the accomplished Gerber. However, my main complaint is the synthesized orchestra which Gerber has used to realize the works. I didn't listen to and judge it against the sound of a real orchestra (although in this context that may not have been so unfair) but I did listen for depth of field, creativity and harmonic and timbral structure in the context of the whole of what's out there. The technology is getting better and there are plenty of Broadway producers longing for the day that the digital orchestra replaces a pit full of paid musicians. (Pop music producers have long since dismissed the live string section and live drummers in lieu of synthesizers and drum machines). One question is, are computers and synthesis ascetically going to work as substitutes for real instruments, now or in the future? How high do we want to set the bar? What are our standards going to be if we have or feel that we need any at all? This is not a debate for this article nor is it intended as an ambush of Gerber and this CD.

So, all this being said, again, Gerber's digital forces, to my ears, lack timbral depth and harmonic nuance much of the time. In the tender love duet "Prayer for a Marriage", for instance, the instruments lack a realism and conviction and are not seductive. They do not pull me in. But, in the sparse and stirring "Echo", the orchestration works and the sounds are convincing. The string quartet in the song works as does the whole composition because of its focus and clarity.

It also must be said that Gerber interjects a kind of Wagnerian chromaticism at odd times as in "This World is not Conclusion" that is a little muddled and unsupported musically. In the vein of less being sometimes more, at times Gerber tries things that are musically questionable and can lose the listener. On a bright note, Karma, Dharma, Pudding and Pie is a genre bending jazzy production number that could easily be in a musical. It's energetic and changes on a dime. You can imagine the singers, Stephan and Tracy's choreography and dramatic gesticulations. This to me is where this CD really is; more or less as oratorio or pop opera.

Ultimately it depends on what you are looking for and listening for. In my overall opinion these pieces have merit as stylized vocal compositions and are interesting for what Gerber has been able to create with a computer and synth based systems. But my reservations come from the fact that I have to look and listen within the context of what he and it, the form, are trying to accomplish. For instance, say in the genre of a theatrical cast album or a work of dramatic intent, which a friend thought that it might be, it can work rather well (same reservations about orchestration apply but to lesser degree). In that context I would have a different mind set as far as critiquing it, I think. But I listen to it in the context and range of "serious" composition; (acoustic, acoustic electronic, etc).

Gerber's effort is well-intentioned and impressive especially from a tech savvy viewpoint but it could have stood further sonic development and dug a bit deeper into the increasingly popular world of synthesis. I'm thinking here of the work of Lyle Mays, Anne Dudley, William Orbit, even Bjork. Again, a good concept and effort by Gerber. He might follow his own lead and go deeper.
-- Duane Harper Grant


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