As clarinetist and composer alike, Derek Bermel is a product of the contemporary accessibility of, and fascination with, the diverse musics of the world. Gone are the days when the Austro-Hungarian, or even the wider European, traditions could constitute any kind of workable definition of ‘serious’ music. Just as, once upon a time, European literature woke up to – and creatively embraced – literatures far beyond the previously monolithic Latin and Greek tradition, so Western music has widened its horizons enormously.
There is no doubting Bermel’s qualifications as a classical musician in the older, more limited sense of the phrase. He has degrees from Yale and the University of Michigan; he studied composition with, amongst others, William Albright, Henri Dutilleux, William Bolcom and Louis Andriessen, before spending time in Jerusalem studying ethnomusicology and orchestration with André Hajdu. Other formative musical experiences have included six months in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, studying Thracian folk music with Nikola Iliev; four months in Ghana learning the gyil, the Lobi xylophone, with Ngmen Baaru , a period in Dublin studying the uillean pipes and a spell in Brazil with Julio Góes, learning to play the caxixi, As a performer Bermel has played concertos by Bolcom, Copland and John Adams, inter alia, with orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He has also played alongside Wynton Marsalis and with his own band, Peace by Piece, playing keyboards and caxixi, with Bobby Roe on bass, Steve Altenberg on drums, and Ryan Scott on guitar. His musical range, in short, is remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that in his compositions he generally manages to make something cohesive out of this wealth of musical materials and experiences.
The present CD presents four orchestral works. The most striking – and the one which features Bermel as both performer and composer – is Voices, effectively a concerto for clarinet. This was premiered with the American Composers Orchestra (conducted by Tan Dun) in May of 1998 at Carnegie Hall; later performances have included ones with the Albany Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (as on this recording). Its title refers, I take it, both to the presence in the work of several different musical ‘voices’ and also to its exploration of techniques of vocalisation in instrumental playing, the instrumental representation of the human voice . In three movements, it begins, (in a movement entitled “Id”) with allusions to the ‘vocal’ dialogues of Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus on pieces such as “What Love” and “Starting” and, more broadly, to the often richly vocalised playing of Dolphy and others in the jazz tradition. Bermel’s own playing here is stylish, convincing in a range of idioms and wittily humorous. As “Id” develops, all the sections of the orchestra produce vocalic effects, through string portamenti, woodwind glissandi, brass mutes and an electric guitar with a wa-wa pedal. In the second movement, “She Moved Thru the Fair,” which is slower and more lyrical, Berme’’s familiarity with Irish music is evident, with a fairly lavish orchestral background over which Bermel’s clarinet rides, often with a distinctively Celtic ‘keening’ sound. In the final movement, “Jamm on Toast,” the vocalisations of big-band, funk and rock are more to the fore, with growling brass and lots of vibrato, the music driven along by the percussionist’s cymbal. In the solo part Bermel draws extensively, and idiomatically, on a range of Afro-American traditions, from soul and rhythm and blues to Free Jazz. Voices is exciting, physical music, but it is also intelligent and thought-provoking. Like other works on this disc, it has an inner coherence and authority that persuades one that what might seem like merely playful eclecticism is actually the result of a composer being true to his own musical self.
To take the other works chronologically in order of composition (which is also the order in which they are presented here), Dust Dances re-conceives the music of the Ghanaian gyil in terms of a western orchestra, redeploying genuine funeral songs and recreational music, with some busy and rhythmically complex writing and some interesting use of piano and harpsichord as well as woodwinds, strings and percussion. Bermel makes use of a pentatonic scale and some insistently motoric patterns of repetition and in the process we get reminders of minimalism and Stravinsky too. It is Bermel’s familiarity with Bulgarian folk music that informs Thracian Echoes, a piece which responds both to the often melancholic strains of Bulgarian choral song and the insistently energetic rhythms of the instrumental music of the area. The interweaving of melodic fragments, the patterns of echo, of incremental repetition and cross-referencing make for a rich musical dish. As with Dust Dances, one feels that Bermel has understood and reworked things which are at the heart of these non-western traditions rather than merely undertaken a tourist-like act of appropriation.
At the centre of Elixir are the strings, the harp and the theremin. The woodwinds function largely as voices of musical commentary. Some of the writing seems influenced by Bermel’s knowledge of French music, not least that of the spectral music of composers such as Grisey and Murail. But, in a manner characteristic of Bermel, such influences are fused with very different ones – after a haunting opening which slowly grows in volume and phrase length, the theremin becomes a leading voice, in music which more than once reminds one of Messiaen and, indeed, of Takemitsu. Bermel himself speaks of Cassandra Wilson and John Lennon as other influences on the piece, but their presences have so far escaped me.
Not everyone will feel comfortable with such creatively eclectic music-making. But no one who hears this CD will, surely, be left in any doubt as regards either Bermel’s consummate musicianship or the excellence of the work of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the baton of Gil Rose. The recorded sound is top class too.
— Glyn Pursglove
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