"Composer Derek Bermel may not be a household name yet, but if there is any justice in the music world, he soon will be. His Natural Selection, a song cycle based on poetry of Wendy S. Walters and Naomi Shihab Nye, is a group of animal portraits that achieves a dramatic complexity that belies its commonplace subject. Baritone Timothy Jones was extraordinary. He connected so completely with the text that it was easy to overlook the challenges of the score."
-- Michael Cameron, Chicago Tribune
"Bermel's music is intricate, witty, clear-spoken, tender and extraordinarily beautiful. It also covers an amazing amount of ground, from the West African rhythms of "Dust Dances" to the Bulgarian folk strains of "Thracian Echoes" to the shimmering harmonic splendor of "Elixir." And as a sumptuous finale, there's "Voices," an elaborate clarinet concerto mixing free jazz, Irish folk melody and funk. In the hands of a composer less assured, all that globe-trotting would seem like affectation; Bermel makes it an artistic imperative."
--Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, on the CD Voices
"This is one sonic knockout I'd love to hear again."
-- John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, on Three Rivers.
"It's exciting original music, and eighth blackbird gave it an exciting and original performance." -- Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, on Tied Shifts
“A Short History of the Universe” proved to be a surprisingly playful work, from the rubbery glissandos of the opening ‘multiverse’ to the songlike ‘heart of space’ (imagine a Schubert-inflected Middle Eastern bluesy dirge) and the jaunty dance and hymn-like close of ‘twistor scattering,’ in which ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ seemed to echo faintly through a slightly demented cosmos. All that freewheeling postmodernism made for an engaging, extremely enjoyable listen — an intriguing new work from a very 21st-century composer."
--Stephen Brookes, The Washington Post, Jan. 2013
Described by the Toronto Star as an "eclectic with wide open ears,” Grammy-nominated composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel has been widely hailed for his creativity, theatricality, and virtuosity. Bermel's works draw from a rich variety of musical genres, including classical, jazz, pop, rock, blues, folk, and gospel. His direct experience with music of cultures around the world has become part of the fabric and force of his compositional language.
Bermel is jsut ending a four-year stint as Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study, and has just been named Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and composer-in-residence with the Mannes College the New School for Music. His awards include the Alpert Award in the Arts, the Rome Prize, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, and the American Music Center’s Trailblazer Award.
Recent premieres include Canzonas Americanas, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Migration Series, commissioned by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and ACO; The Good Life for chorus and orchestra, commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin; and A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace, a Koussevitzky Commission for ACO. “Voices,” the 2009 CD of his orchestral works on BMOP/Sound, was nominated for a 2010 Grammy. Forthcoming on CD is "Canzonas Americanas," six works recorded by Alarm Will Sound conducted by Alan Pierson on Cantaloupe Records.
Bermel holds B.A. and D.M.A. degrees from Yale University and the University of Michigan. His main composition teachers were William Albright, Louis Andriessen, William Bolcom, Henri Dutilleux, André Hajdu, and Michael Tenzer. He studied ethnomusicology with André Hajdu, Thracian folk style with Nikola Iliev, caxixi with Julio Góes, and Lobi xylophone with Ngmen Baaru. His music is published by Peermusic Classical, represented by Faber Music in Europe and Australia.
For Derek Bermel, the human voice – or, more generally, language and the yearning to communicate – is the doorway to composition. His music is filled with vocal inflection. Choruses of wah-wahing trombones are everywhere and it’s easy to hear the gospel and soul influences in the works of this very singular composer, surely the only one on the contemporary scene who has spent time transcribing Stevie Wonder’s crazily melismatic vocal on “Village Ghetto Land.”
But as much as Bermel’s music mimics the voice, at times in wildly humorous ways, he also goes beyond that to communicate in a much broader sense. Drawing on the most unlikely source materials – the sighs and moans of jazz or soul, or the ornamental inflections that pepper Bulgarian folk songs – he lifts them up, turns and inspects them, answers them from a distance, varies them, and builds up thickening textures, line upon line, echoing and transforming all of it, before reducing the storm to a spare, iridescent haze. And there’s another thing: unlike many contemporary composers, Bermel recognizes a good tune and knows how to write one.
Born in 1967 and raised in Manhattan and nearby New Rochelle, Bermel, who now lives in Brooklyn, has assimilated a range of influences, from Monk to Messiaen; from Dolphy to Debussy; from the Beatles to Bartók; and from Richard Rodgers to the rapper Rakim. He has served as artistic director of the Dutch-American arts group TONK as well as singer-keyboard player in the New York-based rock band Peace by Piece. He has studied the Lobi gyil xylophone in Ghana with master player Ngmen Baaru, and clarinet in Bulgaria with Nikola Iliev, a legendary virtuoso in the Thracian tradition. On the classical side, his teachers include Henri Dutilleux and Louis Andriessen, as well as Andre Hajdu (who helped fuel his interest in Jewish and Arabic folk music) and William Bolcom (with whom he shares a love of jazz). If that isn’t enough, Bermel the composer has a parallel career as a clarinet recitalist and soloist. His many performances of his clarinet concerto “Voices” include appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by John Adams, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and at the Beijing Modern Music Festival.
“Turning Variations” for Piano and Orchestra, composed in 2006 and dedicated to Dutilleux and pianist Christopher Taylor, provides an ideal introduction to Bermel’s world. He begins with a simple hymn-like tune (Randy Newman should set words to it), which becomes the subject of a set of variations and the springboard for all sorts of orchestral imaginings. Asian gongs enter the landscape, then vanish, as do traces of gospel and a Gottschalk-like rag. Sound fields stretch and deflate or rub against each other, while Bermel plays with hazy firefly effects or introduces an über-Romantic (and entirely diatonic) outburst or turns the orchestra into a giant pentatonic xylophone, of the sort he studied in a village in northwest Ghana. Inspired by a lifetime of unorthodox listening and study (at least for a “classical” composer), he is, in this piece and many others, able to find points of intersection among musical traditions and influences, reconciling them through his own voice, creating music that is at once challenging and accessible.
Let's focus on that voice, literally. I attended a concert of Bermel’s music by San Francisco’s Adorno Ensemble that took an interesting turn. During a Q&A session with the audience, Bermel sat down at a piano and, in a soft falsetto, sang the gorgeous melody that runs through “Soul Garden,” his gospel-influenced work for solo viola and string quintet, composed in 2000 on a commission from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In that rendering lies a key to Bermel’s music: he has internalized his source material, understands it on a basic level as song. In “Soul Garden,” that melody, ringing with Gershwin and played by the viola, is answered by a riffing cello: gospel counterpoint. And then the sounds grow elastic, melting into the glossolalia of a black church on Sunday morning, the strings ranging through quarter-toned vocal effects via the composer’s precise and varied use of glissandi. There are flashes of Romanticism here, too, and the music travels to some far-out abstracted places, but it keeps coming home to the church, with a pleasure-filled sashay.
In “Slides,” Bermel strips back his interest in African-American vocal expression to rudiments. Commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony, which premiered the 16-minute piece in 2003, it is an orchestral working out of his fascination with vocal gestures – the swoop, the glide, the groan, the jazz singer’s “fall off” from a melodic phrase.
“Resignation to Alarm,” the first movement, creates conversation and ever denser argumentation, often hilariously, between the instruments and sections. “Bridge of Sighs,” the second movement, isolates several of those Sarah Vaughan-like melismas, set like jewels in the muted, midnight-jazz mood created here. Bermel writes that “Saw/See,” the third movement, is based on the flow of rap lyrics. I hear the virtuoso metric manipulations of a big band, filtered through the vocalized avant-angularity of Eric Dolphy.
“Voices,” a concerto for clarinet and orchestra (composed in 1997), begins in similar territory: “Id” references the improvised “conversations” that Dolphy recorded with bassist Charles Mingus in the early ‘60s. With this foundation, Bermel conjures a world from sliding pitches – a street-corner conversation with voice-like squawks, murmurs, shouts, growls and guffaws. It segues to “She Moved through the Fair,” inspired by the traditional Irish song of that name, and here we enter a gentler world, lyrical and softly ululating, like a set of uilleann pipes (yet another instrument which Bermel has studied). Finally, there is “Jamm on Toast,” which finds the drummer’s ride cymbal leading the orchestra through a funk jam-out. The score asks the musicians to play “Phat and juicy,” which must be a first in the classical repertory.
This music carries the freshness of improvisation, while “Three Rivers” (commissioned by WNYC Radio and composed in 2001) integrates Bermel’s vernacular compositional talents with actual improvisation. Three rhythmic streams operate, at times flowing separately, at other times concurrently. The playful, jazzy toying with pulse is coupled with Bermel’s layering of themes. The “lugubrious funk” that opens the piece – more “talking” instruments, played in subterranean registers – saunters about like a drunken dinosaur, then gets pitted against whirling, mechanical outbursts of piccolo and vibraphone. Improvisational interludes open up the textures in a loft-jazzy way, and, bit by bit, through systematic accretion, Bermel builds a daffy-yet-serious sound world that, for me, tips its hat to composer and reed player Anthony Braxton, one of Dolphy’s heirs.
Another sort of idiomatic authority flows through “Migration Series” for jazz ensemble and orchestra, commissioned for the American Composers Orchestra and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra through a Music Alive residency grant and premiered at Lincoln Center in 2006. Inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s set of 60 paintings about the Great Migration of African-Americans from rural south to urban north, it unfolds in five movements with three connecting interludes and is dedicated to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and a soloist at the premiere.
This deeply evocative work opens with a four-note ostinato, over which a trumpet sings a wistful song. We soon encounter those wah-wahing trombones, the movement of a train, gathering steam amid call-and-response conversations, and then a memorable gospel ballad, sweetened by strings to recall the sunshine-soul songs on old Marvin Gaye and Archie Shepp LPs. There are jubilant clashing voices; warm echoes of Mingus and Ellington; stretched out tempos, reminiscent of dub or hip-hop; and mad bebop figures alternating with quiet, gleaming memories of the south as the migration nears its end.
During one of the interludes Bermel even throws in some Thracian breakouts for the clarinet. Then again, his “Thracian Echoes,” a 20-minute orchestral work from 2002, includes “talking” strings more commonly found in his jazz-inspired works. His language echoes from work to work, in other words; the landscape changes, but that quality of the human voice, swooping and sighing, remains.
In “Thracian Echoes,” Bermel seizes on the way in which Thracian folk music often comments upon itself; there are repeating elements in songs, tails on the ends of phrases, bits of melody that seem to look back at what came before. The work monumentalizes this phenomenon, so that various types of “echoes” emerge through counterpoint and harmony. There is a duality in the piece, too, as it captures the near-manic quality of Bulgarian dance music along with the melancholy of those famed Bulgarian women’s choirs with their close harmonies.
“Tied Shifts,” commissioned for eighth blackbird in 2004 with funds from the Greenwall Foundation, builds on another element of Thracian music: its way of tying melodic notes, even lightning-fast embellishments, across bar lines. The result is a blurring of the meter, which, to Western ears, seems to shift from measure to measure.
The work’s first movement is madly motoric and quasi-minimalist: those embellishments, obsessively repeated, become melodic cells from which new embellishments keep growing. The second movement revolves around a great hymn, derived from the opening material, but slowed down. There is a “rubbing” of opposed harmonic fields, so the hymn takes on an in-between-ness, the feeling of the blues. But it’s the majesty of the song that stays with you once “Tied Shifts” has ended.
For “Golden Motors,” his collaboration with poet Wendy S. Walters, Bermel has composed some three dozen songs to tell the story of workers at an imaginary Detroit auto plant during the early 1980s. Love breaks out. A murder happens. The economy fails. And Bermel captures it all in tunes that draw on his love of gospel, Motown, country, pop, and Broadway. Scored for 12-piece orchestra, “Golden Motors” has developed under the auspices of New York's Music-Theatre Group. As of this writing, it awaits a full production – it will be fascinating to see how Bermel extends his reach here and in future works that bring together the many facets of his musical soul.
Richard Scheinin is classical music and jazz writer for the San Jose Mercury News, California.