About this Recording
8.559871 - BERMEL, D.: Migration Series / Mar de Setembro / A Shout, A Whisper, and A Trace (Souza, Nash, Julliard Jazz Orchestra, Albany Symphony, D.A. Miller)

Derek Bermel (b. 1967)


Eclecticism has been an important and popular stylistic movement in 21st-century classical music, and few do eclecticism as well as composer and performer Derek Bermel.

Bermel’s biography is made out of a broad range of stories and experiences. A Bachelor of Arts from Yale led him to studies with William Bolcom and William Albright, two of the brightest and most distinctive voices in American music. Bermel himself has a clearly American quality to his music, one that comes from taking advantage of the American artist’s opportunity for self-invention—he has looked outside of North America to further explorations with the great Dutch minimalist Louis Andriessen and the evocative French composer Henri Dutilleux, and he traveled widely to study various musical traditions, including Thracian folk music, Brazilian caxixi percussion music, and Lobi xylophone playing from Ghana.

Bermel is also a virtuoso clarinetist who grew up playing jazz, funk, and rock. Like so many of his peers and colleagues, his immersion in the popular music of his era includes pop songs and hip hop. He’s made striking and authentic arrangements of songs by Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def), and he’s performed and collaborated with a range of musicians that includes jazz and classical trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, violinist Midori, Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, Paquito D’Rivera and Stephen Sondheim. He also has notable careers as a teacher and administrator—he founded the New York Youth Symphony’s composition program, he has taught young musicians through the Weill Music Institute, has been an artist-in-residence at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, he directs Copland House’s Cultivate Institute, and he currently serves as artistic director for the American Composers Orchestra, an important relationship that began in 2006 with a three-year residency.

The selections on Migrations give a generous view of Bermel the composer. Classical forms and structures, world music, jazz, blues, American folk music and the like come together in a mix that reaches directly into the body and heart. These three pieces show his superb craft: in Bermel’s hands, musical styles that usually seem out of place in a classical setting sound completely natural. Then there’s his expressiveness, the way his ideas are earthy and transparent, and how his music feels like the language of everyday life.

Migration Series (2006) takes its title from Jacob Lawrence’s 60-painting series on the movement of African Americans from the South of the US to the North, where they took factory jobs during the First and Second World Wars. The work came about as a request from Wynton Marsalis (as head of Jazz at Lincoln Center), for a piece combining the ensembles of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra.

Bermel describes his musical thinking here as realized in the form of a mosaic; he uses various motifs that reappear in each movement, like the repeated use of tiles to create different combinations of patterns with the same source material. This is a visual quality that Bermel identifies in Lawrence’s work, but that’s secondary to the physical pleasure of the music.

Bermel says that “because I’m a clarinetist, my music tends toward the lyrical and the contrapuntal … I’ve always been a tactile composer, who likes to get my hands on the music, so I’ve gravitated toward learning traditions and styles that I love from the performers who play them.” That feel of music coming through the hands is plain and strong in the swing and swagger of Migration Series, the rocking sensations of music that was once meant for dancing and never completely parted from those roots.

Writing jazz for a classical ensemble is tricky, but Migration Series is seamless and never less than idiomatic. “I taught myself to play piano by imitating Thelonious Monk,” Bermel explains, “so he might be the single biggest harmonic influence on my work.” The rhythms bite, the orchestration sounds like a city coming to life, the sections like songs within a larger musical narrative, and everything is stitched together with impeccable counterpoint.

Mar de Setembro (2011) is Bermel’s collaboration with the bell-toned Luciana Souza: “I love her voice,” Bermel says. It began as a commission from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and gave Bermel the opportunity to dig deep into his ethnographic studies in music. “I had found these gorgeous texts by the great Portuguese poet Eugénio de Andrade,” he explains. “I feel his work vividly evokes saudade.”

Saudade is a Portuguese word dating back to the Middle Ages—difficult to translate directly into English, it is meant to evoke the deep intensity of melancholy and longing for people and things that have been irreplaceably lost, or that have poignantly existed only in the imagination. Musically, saudade is expressed through the traditional Portuguese style of fado, and as Bermel points out, de Andrade “also wrote many fados.”

Like Migration Series, Mar de Setembro is clear and upfront about its non-classical qualities, including the rhythms, harmonies, and the graceful, bossa nova-tinged vocal melodies. The emotions run deep and reach high—the song Canção begins with a light, floating feeling, brightened by the chattering wooden xylophone (reminiscent of the gyil, the Lobi instrument Bermel learned to play), then the last few bars take a darker harmonic turn, fading away into an unresolved and inexplicable feeling. Bermel uses haunting combinations of instruments and phantasmagorical gestures to build a unique, uncanny experience in the third song, Ocultas Águas. Something of a cultural travelogue, Mar de Setembro opens the door to more possibilities: “The one place I’ve always wanted to go and have not yet been is Cuba,” Bermel muses, the country is “still on my list.”

In the three-movement orchestral work A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace (2009), a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Bermel brings together rich strands of music history and his own artistic life. The composition honors Béla Bartók, and Bermel used Bartók’s perspective on New York (where Bartók lived the last five years of his life) to see his own hometown anew. Bartók had difficulty adjusting to life in New York, and had not only temporarily stopped composing, but was ill from what would eventually be diagnosed as leukemia, the disease that took his life in 1945. Serge Koussevitzky, the great conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra in 1943, one of Bartók’s late masterpieces, along with the Sonata for Solo Violin and the Piano Concerto No. 3.

Bermel loves Bartók, whose music was deeply informed by his study of folk music. A Shout mixes Bermel’s urban and jazz colors with Balkan rhythms and atmospheres from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The lush harmonies under the lonely trumpeter and woodwinds in the second movement tease the ear with Bermel’s appreciation for the vast, pan-cultural colors of French composer Olivier Messiaen. In the final, haunting movement, Bartók’s ghost floats along the streets of Bermel’s native New York, mingling with the other residents, past and present. As only music can, the piece collapses the distance of time into the immediate present of the listening experience.

George Grella

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