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Gerber in Lugo, Italy for the world premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's (Photo by Alain Taquet)

Maker’s Dozen: Percussionist Stuart Gerber sparks new music scene with performances, teaching

Gerber in Lugo, Italy for the world premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's (Photo by Alain Taquet)
Gerber in Lugo, Italy, for the world premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Heaven’s Door” (“Himmels-Tür”). (Photo by Alain Taquet)

Percussionist Stuart Gerber is one of Atlanta’s most skilled and influential musicians. One of the original cofounders of new music ensemble Bent Frequency, Gerber is an associate professor at Georgia State University. He also has performed extensively throughout North America, Europe and Australia as a soloist and chamber musician, often premiering new compositions, including works by icons of contemporary music such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. 

MakersDozenThe New York Times has praised Gerber as a musician of “consummate virtuosity.” ArtsATL recently spoke with Gerber about his career as a percussionist.

ArtsATL: Where are you from originally, and how did you get started on your musical path?

Stuart Gerber: Wisconsin. A small town just about 30 minutes north of Milwaukee called Grafton. I grew up and even went to school there [at University of Wisconsin] before transferring to Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

I started playing drums in fifth grade. The band director asked what I wanted to play, and of course I said drums. He said, “Well, what about the saxophone?” and my father said, “No, he needs to play the drums.” So I almost became a saxophone player but it’s probably better I didn’t. I played drums in rock bands and jazz band in high school, then I got interested in [other] percussion. For a while, I thought I would become a timpanist for an orchestra [like] Milwaukee Symphony.

I continued my orchestral studies at Oberlin, but Oberlin has such a rich tradition of chamber and contemporary music, I got really interested in playing music where the percussion was more of a focus. Then I went to Cincinnati to study with Percussion Group Cincinnati, a fantastic percussion trio [at the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati].

Gerber moved to Atlanta in 2001 to teach at Georgia State. (Photo by Alain Taquet)
Gerber moved to Atlanta in 2001 to teach at Georgia State. (Photo by Alain Taquet)

ArtsATL: How and when did you begin working with the eminent German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007)?

Gerber: While doing graduate studies in Cincinnati, I went to the Stockhausen Festival [in Germany] for the first time, just as a performer. I was able to work with him closely, but it wasn’t until after coming to Atlanta that I really solidified my relationship with Stockhausen.

Stockhausen (to the left of W.C. Fields) as immortalized on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Stockhausen (to the left of W. C. Fields) as immortalized on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I completed my doctoral work, “Stockhausen: Solo Percussion Music,” and I sent my thesis to him after it was done. I will never forget: I was on MARTA coming home from the airport when I got a message from him saying, “I read your thesis and every percussionist should read this.” That was around Christmas in 2003. He asked me to come back to the 2004 festival as a faculty percussion teacher. That was when I really started working with him seriously, and did a number of premieres with him before he passed away.

ArtsATL: He wrote some significant music for you.

Gerber: One in particular, his last solo percussion piece called “Heaven’s Door” (“Himmels-Tür”). I premiered it in 2006 and it was dedicated to me. It’s written for a giant wooden door. That was the culmination of our work. Having his massive work, both in scope and also the instrument itself, written for me by him, is important.

ArtsATL: I know there are actually two specially built doors for “Himmels-Tür,” the one in Europe that you played in the world premiere, but also one that you had built for the North American premiere in June 2007 at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. That was also the door you were supposed to play in the White Light Festival, at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, back in October 2012, but the concert got canceled due to Hurricane Sandy.

Gerber: I was actually in New York. I took an earlier flight and made it up there. The people who were transporting the door moved it up early because I didn’t want [the festival] to cancel the concert just because I couldn’t get there. We were there, stranded, and couldn’t do the show. The piece hasn’t been done yet in New York, which is a shame.

Stuart Gerber
Stuart Gerber

ArtsATL: Backing up a bit, when did you move in Atlanta?

Gerber: September of 2001, during the week after September 11. I was in Australia when September 11 happened. I’d won the job as percussion professor at Georgia State [and] found out about it in August, but I was already scheduled to be in Australia through the second week of September. We got waylaid about two extra days because of 9/11. I flew home, went to Cincinnati and got my stuff, then drove down to Atlanta about the third week of September. Pretty quickly, I realized what a great scene it was musically.

ArtsATL: You”re the sole remaining original founding codirector of contemporary music ensemble Bent Frequency. I remember being at the group’s first concert.

Bent Frequency
Bent Frequency

Gerber: When I came to town, I thought, well, what I do is contemporary music, and I wanted an avenue in which to do that. I met Alexander Micklethwaite who was, back then, assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and we talked about how there should really be a really vibrant new music ensemble in Atlanta. That was part of the initial discussions when I started having coffee with Alexander in the fall of 2002.

At the same time, there were discussions with colleagues of mine, Nick Demos and Robert Ambrose, about starting a new music group. Rather than competing we just decided to pool our resources. So the first concert was the following May 2003 with a pretty diverse program.

ArtsATL: Aside from what Robert Spano was beginning to do at the ASO, how did you view the state of the new music scene at that time?

Gerber: Bent Frequency was by itself for a couple of years. But since then, Sonic Generator, Chamber Cartel, Terminus Ensemble — all these groups are also doing contemporary chamber music as their primary focus. So there’s quite a lot of it now in the city.

ArtsATL: You’ve directly influenced some of the newer groups through your example and through teaching. It was one of your former students, Caleb Herron, who started Chamber Cartel. Another, Olivia Kieffer, created the Clibber Jones Ensemble — more of a kind of rock-influenced minimalist fusion group.

Gerber: That’s pretty great, though, and it definitely adds to the scene. The other thing that is amazing to me, too, is the kind of “underground” scene — I don’t like that term — [Atlanta has] as well: improv, rock-based, free improv. Not just pop music but more a real deeper kind of rock music that embraces art music, and contemporary music. I’m thinking Faun and a Pan Flute and some of these other groups.

Gerber improvising with Klimchak. (Photo by Mark Gresham)
Gerber improvising with Klimchak. (Photo by Mark Gresham)

ArtsATL: Klimchak, with whom you have done some local performances, has noted that you’re really great at improv, but the public still doesn’t know you for improvisation the way they know you for taking a written score and doing really incisive performances of it. What’s your relationship to improvisation as a part of your own professional aesthetics?

Gerber: I was trained to be [a] “classical percussionist” — which means you get a score, you learn the notes, you interpret it, you bring your personality to it, but the music is pretty much a set thing. I still do that quite a bit.

I’d actually done some improvisation prior to moving to Atlanta, but after getting here and seeing how a lot of wonderful players in town do the sort of thing primarily, I was drawn to it, so started exploring that more deeply. I fell in love with it because I feel like it’s a real one-on-one connection with the other players and the audience and what I want to express at that moment. It really helps me as an artist. It’s a different dimension of my art.

Maker’s Dozen is an annual series that spotlights a dozen creatives whom we think you ought to know or know more about. The profiles will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 16.