To count up the musical influences in the works on Derek Bermel’s new album, Voices, featuring the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, would prove impossible. He is a composer as comfortable mixing jazzy trombone riffs with plunky, Asian harp-piano duets, as with combining eerie portamento violins and Stravinsky-like primitive rhythms. To say that Bermel’s music is adventurous would be an understatement.
The disc opens with Dust Dances, which Bermel says is based on his four months spent in Northwest Ghana where he learned to play the traditional instrument, the gyil. The instrument, similar to the modern marimba, has fourteen keys and is based on a pentatonic scale. Often accompanied by a gourd drum called a kuor, the instrument is an important part of the Dargara people’s traditions. In Dust Dances, Bermel attempts to capture the sounds and rhythms of Ghana in this 9.5-minute work. It is a lofty goal and one that would have been better realized in a longer work. However, Bermel has a gift for developing interesting rhythms throughout the orchestra in surprising ways. Beginning with a heavy, primitive rhythm, forcefully repeated, the composer moves through tribal celebrations, excitement, and desperation, sometimes allowing the syncopated rhythms to permeate slowly, sometimes bringing them on suddenly like the rains.
Dust Dances is followed by Thracian Echoes, which is influenced by Bermel’s time in Bulgaria. In this work, he seems obsessed with the space between notes on the Western scale. The tension is palpable as the strings glide in a slow portamento through an eerie melody, punctuated by melodies in the high woodwinds. This develops into a klezmer-like solo by the clarinet, and rolling slides in the trombones. The piece is simultaneously humorous, introspective and daring. Bermel does not shy away from what he describes as “the manic aspects of the Bulgarian spirit,” but also provides a solid home-base for his adventures that the listener can return to without fear of having drifted too far.
Elixir, the 3rd work on the disc, could be easily overlooked. With African and Bulgarian-inspired works roaring out before it and a jazzy/Irish/funk clarinet concerto after, the subtle nature of this La Mer-like interlude could be easily forgotten. However, for me, this was the most surprising work on the disc. Where the rest of the album screamed and danced for my attention, this work was intriguing in its mystery. Like an unlabeled elixir bought from an apothecary, it is enchantingly tempting. The piece builds from a soft blowing in the ears, to magical birdsong, into intense polytonal melodies, and then fades back into nothingness when, as I imagine, the effects of the elixir wear off.
Then Bermel picks up his clarinet and nothing is the same again. Beyond the shear difficulty of Voices, Bermel’s control, extended technique and improvisational skills, the orchestration of the accompaniment is masterful - sparse when I wanted sparse, full when I wanted full.
One of the reasons Mozart fell in love with the clarinet when he heard clarinetist Anton Stadler play was that it sounded so much like a human voice. Bermel capitalizes on that more than any composer I’ve ever heard. Using techniques like removing the mouthpiece and blowing into the barrel like a brass instrument, Bermel shows the versatility of the clarinet. During the 2nd movement, which is based on the traditional Irish song “She Moved Thru the Fair,” the clarinet sounds like a cross between a tin whistle and a Gaelic singer, a most unusual and wonderful combination.
Then there is the last movement, which is downright funny. “Jamm on Toast” takes the orchestra through a funk jam session, moving into an improvisational interlude, then growling blues. Conductor Gil Rose leads the orchestra through the sudden transitions and wild, gritty, bluesy, funky melodies, through the cowbell moments, the loud brass, the big-band, with such grace he must have been conducting with his hips.
Voices is fun in a way classical music often is not. I laughed out loud and did not feel the least bit sorry for it.