Art Maker: Michael William Gilbert, electronic music composer

  • Michael William Gilbert, a composer, producer and teacher of electronic music. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael William Gilbert, a composer, producer and teacher of electronic music, at a keyboard in his Amherst studio. A Eurorack modular synthesizer and an Aries M synthesizer rest atop the keyboard GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael William Gilbert works a Midi pad controller, a device used to trigger sounds, in his home studio in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael William Gilbert, a composer, producer and teacher of electronic music, in his Amherst studio. A Eurorack modular synthesizer and an Aries M synthesizer rest atop the keyboard, GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 5/25/2018 8:50:06 AM

Michael William Gilbert has a long background in electronic music as a player, composer, producer and teacher, having taught electronic music at Hampshire College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Holyoke Community College. As a composer, his work dates back to 1979, when his first album, based on his student senior project at Hampshire, came out, and he recently released his ninth album, “Radio Omnibus.”

Gilbert, of Amherst, says he works to create “a fusion of electronic, instrumental, and natural sounds, and orchestrate each piece not just into a composition, but into the soundscape in which the composition exists. The music is like the score for a virtual film, and the listener creates the own visuals in his or her head.”

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you’re doing.

Michael Gilbert: The term “electronic music” has turned from a descriptor of sound creation like acoustic music into a de facto genre. Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is what many people under 30 or 40 think when they hear electronic music. I like to think I’m creating electroacoustic music; the goal isn’t any particular genre, and the means of creating sound is not limited. 

HL: What do you draw inspiration from? Do you ever have any “Eureka!” moments?

MG: I grew up listening to rock, jazz, classical, experimental, all sorts of music, and my dad collected music from all over the world: opera, Buddhist chanting, African drumming, Eastern European folk songs. All of that became my mental stew of music influences.

I tend to have various pieces in progress in my head, and I work in my studio experimenting with sounds; if I find something I like, I record it to have it available for when pieces are actually put together. The “eureka” is when somehow the stuff in my head is all of a sudden ready to come out, at which point I go back into the studio. 

HL: Have you ever had a “mistake” — a project that seemed to be going south — turn into a wonderful discovery instead?

MG: On my most recent album, I really got stuck on how to proceed. Then I thought someone whose music I admire might be willing to collaborate. I reached out to Adam Holzman, an amazing player, musician, and producer (Miles Davis’ music director and keyboardist in the ’80s, for one thing) and asked him if he’d work with me. He said yes, we worked together really well, and he ended up on three of the pieces on the new album as a performer and collaborator.

HL: Name two artists you admire or who have influenced your work. What about their art appeals to you?

MG: J.S. Bach and Miles Davis. Bach was able to create wonderfully intricate structures of music in which the elements, melodies, rhythms, and voicings are never overly constrained by the structure but dance within and around it. Miles was able to create wonderfully immediate music in which the elements, melodies, rhythms, and voicings grew out of the moment and his carefully chosen players, and which fit together in a way that always exemplified the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. 

I have to mention two more artists: Suzanne Ciani, an electronic composer/performer who gave a concert in New York City in 1976 in which she performed a solo show using only a large modular synthesizer, and Wendy Carlos, who created “Switched-On Bach,” an album that wrote the book on how to sensitively interpret classical (in this case Baroque) music using synthesizers.

HL: If you weren’t an artist, what do you think you’d be?

MG: When you compose music that does not neatly fit into a genre, you are unlikely to find good or consistent ways to make a functional living with it. So, I spent almost 30 years as a technologist, working in information technology at UMass Amherst. This alter ego/career enabled me to compose music almost continuously throughout. I somehow found/created a path that didn’t enable me to work on music full time but gave me the freedom to compose whatever I was called or driven to do, whether commercial or not!

— Steve Pfarrer 

Michael Gilbert’s website is



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