by Alan Pierson
"There is another possibility," John Schaefer mused. We had just discussed all of the repertoire I could think of that might fit the 2003 New Sounds Live concert on which he had invited Alarm Will Sound to perform. I always brace myself when a presenter moves obliquely like that, keeping my fingers crossed that the piece being foisted on us won't be dreadful. John explained that New Sounds Live had commissioned a Derek Bermel work a few years before called Three Rivers that had never really been "nailed," and would we be interested in tackling it: I'd known Derek from my undergraduate years at MIT, where I'd premiered his youthfully raucous orchestra piece Lukwanda Sings with the MIT Premiere Orchestra in 1993 (I recently presented Derek with the original tape of that performance as a birthday gift). John brought Derek's piece up cautiously, not wanting to even send us the score unless we thought we might be up to it - "it's a tricky piece and calls for some improvising too," John said. "If you have any doubts, better just to pass."
We didn't pass. And that New Sounds Live concert began what has been one of Alarm Will Sound's longest running and most fruitful composer collaborations. Derek has turned out to be an ideal match for Alarm Will Sound. He shares our wide-ranging and eclectic musical interests: Derek has studied Thracian folk music with Nikola Iliev, Brazilian caxixi with Julio G?es, and Ghanaian gyil with Ngmen Baaru and Bernard Woma; and he's collaborated with artists as diverse as Wynton Marsalis, Paquito D'Rivera, and Mos Def. Derek relishes Alarm Will Sound's love of complexity: he arranged Conlon Nancarrow's ferociously complex Study 3A for Alarm Will Sound's a/rhythmia project in 2007, and many of the works on this album show Derek's fascination with Nancarrow-esque rhythmic layering. And Derek also shares Alarm Will Sound's joy in stylistic eclecticism. As great American composers like Copland, Gershwin, and Ellington have done before him, Derek synthesizes the diverse musical languages of his time into a unique, thoroughly individual American voice.
This album draws together all of Derek's works for Alarm Will Sound's sinfonietta instrumentation, the one-on-a-part chamber orchestra that Derek calls "the orchestra of the 20th century, which developed with the particular needs and preoccupations of composers of our era." This sort of instrumentation has served Derek particularly well, marrying the wild range of instrumental colors that he expertly harnesses with the tight rhythmic ensemble that his music demands.
Three Rivers (2001) is the work that John Schaefer brought to Alarm Will Sound's attention in 2002, and is the piece that introduced us to Derek's music. It remains the piece of his that we've played most. Although Three Rivers was written originally for the Kitchen House Blend band, Derek reworked it significantly for Alarm Will Sound in 2002. The rivers of the title are three different musical streams which are introduced separately but eventually layered on top of one another. The piece's mix of challenges and characters - the laid-back "lugubrious funk" of the opening, the caffeinated high-speed unison passagework, and the two full-ensemble improvisatory passages - made it a great fit for our interests, and set the stage for our long-running collaboration with Derek.
This juxtaposition of vernacular musical ideas with complex rhythmic layering is inspired by Nancarrow's music and is a recurring interest of Derek's. In no piece is his exploration of these ideas as intense or focused as in the oldest work on this album, Continental Divide (1996), which was written when Derek was studying with Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam. Derek writes that the way in which the piece kicks musical ideas abruptly from one tempo to another was inspired by Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth's writings about bursts of expansion in the growth of the universe. There's a methodical single-mindedness about the piece that is distinct from his recent works, though the ground pioneered here is territory that Derek has moved through more fluidly in later works. The mix of extreme rhythmic layering and grooves that need to "feel" right no matter how complex the context makes Continental Divide one of the most challenging pieces in Alarm Will Sound's repertoire (topped only, perhaps, by Derek's own arrangement of Nancarrow's Study 3A).
Derek studied West African music in Ghana in 1992, where he learned to play the gyil, a 14-to-18-key instrument resembling a Western marimba. Ghanian musical ideas have stuck with Derek: he played gyil in his own band, TONK; he brought one of his gyil teachers, Bernard Woma, and Alarm Will Sound together for a unique performance at Carnegie Hall; and he is returning to Ghana yet again in the coming year. Hot Zone (1999) draws on rhythms and melodies Derek learned during his studies in Africa, treating them in ways that emerge from his own highly-skilled approach to harmony and his fascination with juxtaposing layers of differently flowing and apparently unrelated music in ingenious ways. Clashing dissonances (which appear in many of the works on this album) here are used to conjure up the subtle pitch inflections of the gyil. Derek even honors the local tradition of honoring one's teachers in song: in the slower sections of the piece, Alarm Will Sound's violin players (Caleb Burhans and Courtney Orlando) sing Derek's homage to his gyil teachers Ngmen Baaru, Richard Na-Ile, and Bernard Woma in the Dagaba language.
While many of Derek's works for chamber orchestra have included vocalization in some form, Natural Selection (2000) is the one in which that use is most involved, with the texts (by Derek's long-time collaborator Wendy S. Walters and Naomi Shihab Nye) summoning up the myriad moods and characters that guide and shape the instrumental writing. The menagerie of song titles - One Fly, Spider Love, Got My Bag of Brown Shoes, and Dog - belie the very human stories they tell: of frustrated and predatory love in the first two songs, of urban blight in the third (Poet Wendy Walters is from Detroit, and the song could refer to the decay of her home town). The result is one of Derek's richest and most humorous scores, which summons and draws from a kaleidoscope of styles: cabaret and singspiel in the first two songs; spoken word, recitative, gospel, and scat in the third; and Native American song in the beautiful and simple final lyric. Natural Selection was drawn together from separate songs originally written for smaller ensembles, and three of the four were composed for baritone Timothy Jones, who sings them on this recording.
At the End of the World (2002) is the most straightforward and compact piece of the group. It sets an early, short poem by novelist Nicole Krauss which imagines a genesis that tries to improve on the world as we know it, but arrives at the conclusion that everything could only be as it is.
"I generally like to begin a piece from a place of simplicity," Derek writes, and all of the works on the album begin simply, though maybe none more than the most recent work on the disc, Canzonas Americanas (2010), which was commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series. The first movement starts with a plain, pentatonic tune that seems to have been dug up from an old American folk song or maybe a forgotten Aaron Copland Ballet. But Gustavo Dudamel had asked Derek to examine connections between North and South American musical traditions, and this fragment of apparent Americana becomes a virtual exhibit of such connections, as it becomes transformed through encounters with myriad styles: Latin rhythms, blues, jazz, rock, and funk. (Copland, like Derek, spent much time in Latin America and incorporated Latin influences into his music.) To prepare for writing the piece, Derek returned to Brazil for a month.
"I spent days re-familiarizing my fingers with choros, bossa nova, and samba standards," Derek recalled, "and nights jamming with friends in clubs." Dudamel's assignment was perfect for a composer with Derek's musical roots, and the piece moves fluidly between diverse styles in a way only possible for a composer with Derek's fluency in so many musical languages.
Derek continues to explore many interests from his earliest works - the first and third movements involve the same sort of Nancarrow-inspired rhythmic layering as Derek's early Continental Divide - but the single-minded focus of those younger works is replaced by an assured and mature openness and subtlety. Like Natural Selection, Canzonas Americanas ends in a fourth movement which is a contemplative song, in this case one inspired by the "gentle seductiveness" of the island of Itaparica in Bahia. The song was written for Luciana Souza, who sings it on this recording, and the four movements of Canzonas Americanas are dedicated to some of the many friends and colleagues Derek has cultivated in his wide-ranging musical career: the first to John Adams, the second to the late architect Silvio Robatto's family, the third to Gustavo Dudamel, and the fourth to John Corigliano for his 70th birthday. Canzonas Americanas establishes Derek as a composer firmly in an American tradition; like Copland, Ives, Gershwin, and Ellington before him, Derek draws together numerous contemporary influences and stylistic roots into a unique voice that is tuneful and rich, engaging and sophisticated.
Canzonas Americanas marries two postmodern forces - American composer/clarinetist Derek Bermel and the contemporary chamber band Alarm Will Sound. Sharing a joy for stylistic eclecticism and complexity, they form a remarkable recording that combines Bermel's wide range of instrumental colors with the virtuosic rhythmic ensemble that his music demands. This marks Bermel?s follow-up CD to the Grammy-nominated Derek Bermel: Voices (BMOP/sound) album of large orchestral works.
"Derek Bermel synthesizes the diverse musical languages of his time into a unique, thoroughly individual American voice that is tuneful and rich, engaging and sophisticated," says Alan Pierson, artistic director and conductor of Alarm Will Sound and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. "Canzonas Americanas establishes Derek as a composer firmly in an American tradition like Copland, Ives, Gershwin, and Ellington before him."
The versatile Bermel has been widely hailed for his creativity and theatricality. He re-imagines the sounds of indigenous world music, jazz, and rock in his uniquely virtuosic and dynamic compositions. Canzonas Americanas takes listeners on a rhythmic and sonic journey - from the yearning, pulsating choros at a club in Rio di Janeiro to the intricate, colorful xylophone music of a West African village. As Bermel himself aptly puts it: "Music is a prism through which I see and reflect the world."