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You Talkin' To Me?

Composer Derek Bermel Speaks His Mind Through A Clarinet

by Mic Holwin

Musicians speak through their instruments. But the most memorable players of any genre are those who truly make their chosen medium talk: a classical cellist's soulful lament or a jazz trumpeter's muted imitation of the company president at a board meeting.

Composer Dermel Bermel considers the ability to mimic the human voice with an instrument a noble goal. Not surprisingly, his clarinet concerto, to be premiered at the American Composers Orchestra's Carnegie Hall season finale concert on Sunday, May 24, is titled Voices. A clarinet soloist in an equal and parallel career, Bermel will make his Carnegie debut with the Orchestra.

Bermel, who also plays sax, lists those musicians who walk a thin line between several genres such as free jazz and klezmer clarinetist Don Byron and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, who fused bebop, classical and Latin, as his influences. First and foremost on the list is Eric Dolphy, the alto sax, clarinet and flute genius who was a major force in evolving jazz from late '50s hard bop to early '60s avant-garde.

Dolphy could make a clarinet sound human. In fact, Bermel cites one specific recording of Dolphy's—a live version from Antibes of "What Love?" with Dolphy "speaking" the role of sulking child in counterpoint to Charles Mingus's "mother" bass—as inspiration for "Id," the first movement of Voices.

Asked to describe the piece, Bermel grabs his clarinet and plays. "It starts like this," he says. Bwah bwah wah waa waa waaaaaah. A woodwind version of Charlie Brown's schoolteacher has suddenly joined us. Yes Ma'am. Bwah bwah ah waaaaa buh buh. No, Ma'am.

"Then the orchestra goes 'bwiiiiiiiiiiiiih?'" His clarinet makes the sound of a large question mark. The orchestra goes on to establish an all-too-human relationship with the clarinet. "They're goading me, or they're bullying me, or they're laughing at me," Bermel explains.

Asking an orchestra to talk is "really good for instruments like the trombone because they know how to do that. They'll look at the music and I think they're gonna say, 'What is this?' But as soon as they hear me play, they'll be like 'Oh! That's just bwah bwah wah!'"

Bermel's ability to stretch boundaries on the clarinet is a talent he credits more to happenstance than determination. "I learned to play wrong," he states matter-of-factly. "I learned to play jazz at the same time as I was learning classical clarinet and I was studying with a very rigorous teacher at the Met Opera. I always played with a very loose embouchure and he never changed that." To his amazement (and horror), his old teacher called him up just this year to tell him that he's now changed all his students to Bermel's "wrong" embouchure.

Composing since the age of ten, Bermel wrote orchestral pieces early on and has always considered composition his main subject. In fact, he quit clarinet for few years in order to concentrate on writing, coming back to the instrument in grad school at the encouragement of his composition teachers William Albright and William Bolcom.

Voices was written at the suggestion of composer and ACO founder Francis Thorne, who Bermel met while performing Bolcom's Clarinet Concerto in North Carolina. "I decided to tie in the idea of voices to my own style of playing the clarinet, which is very vocal," he says about the piece, commissioned by ACO and made possible by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust.

Bermel joins the ranks of composers like Mozart and Rachmaninoff who wrote concerti for themselves. "The concerto is essentially a Romantic notion: the hero versus the world," he says. "But I wanted to rethink that dynamic, take into consideration the legacy of all the clarinetists from different genres I mentioned."

The composer/clarinetist's interests and influences know no country or style borders. Bermel has studied ethnomusicology and orchestration in Jerusalem, Lobi xylophone in Ghana, and has done a good deal of work as both an a capella and accompanied singer, starting with rock bands in high school.

A traditional Irish folk song, "She Moved Through The Fair," is the basis for the second movement. Bermel has a strong affinity for Irish folk music and cites pipes player Mick O'Brian as the inspiration for this section. Again, Bermel grabs his clarinet. He flips grace notes on the clarinet as if the instrument were keening or vocalizing in an Irish singing style.

The third movement, "Jamm on Toast," features the clarinet improvising in a Jamaican rap style called toasting. It has a funky big band feel, the orchestra augmented with electric guitar, electric bass and drum kit.

"I was thinking about James Brown, or Fela, or Earth Wind & Fire, using brass—because ACO has an incredible brass section. ACO is a very progressive orchestra—that's why I'm delighted to have a chance to write for them. I ask for a lot of techniques which are in jazz or big band or funk—falls and slides and glisses—and I just expect that they'll do it."

In keeping with his global persona, Bermel is involved with a multitude of cross-cultural endeavors. He plays clarinet and percussion and sings in TONK, a Dutch/American interdisciplinary group. Founded by himself and Dutch guitarist Wiek Hijmans, whom he met on a Fulbright scholarship in Holland, TONK—a word that doesn't mean anything in either English or Dutch—combines music, theater and poetry.

He sings and writes for an Afro-pop trio, Strange Fire. Bermel is also currently working with a choreographer in England on a piece for electronics and vocals, Epic Messenger, and writing music for two Bertoldt Brecht plays for the Fringe Festival here in New York later this summer.

At home writing pop, jazz, world or orchestral music, Bermel finds any and all of it equally exciting ways of expression. Rather than define a category in which to place himself, Bermel says, "I think of myself more as a musician than anything else." In fact, he'd rather just play it to you than try and describe it at all.Beginning in January, 1999, and continuing though the spring of 2001, Music Director Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra will undertake a special 11-concert project based on American themes, or thematic points of departure, of the past century to commemorate the Millennium. "The programs are based on evocative and provocative ideas," says Davies of the series dubbed 20th Century Snapshots, "that together make up a scatter-gun document, in 11 snapshots, of some of the things that happened in America in this century that could lead the way to the next one."


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