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Following a recent release of Derek Bermel’s music for full orchestra (the excellent album Voices on the BMOP Sounds label), this new collection focuses on Bermel’s work for that quintessential contemporary sinfonietta, Alarm Will Sound. Led by artistic director and conductor Alan Pierson, AWS’s one-on-a-part instrumentation has provided a proving ground for a generation of eclectic and beat-friendly composers, to whom Bermel has become something of a (youthful) elder statesman. While Bermel’s music shares many characteristics with that of the 30-something Brooklyn scene, it’s undeniable that his distinct style in many ways harkens back to Copland and Bernstein’s generation and that era’s fascination with American folk and jazz sources. This collection of Bermel’s music provides a helpful point of entry for those curious to know just what has made this composer so consistently stand out: his music’s fusion of quasi-minimalist beat-based sensibilities with a dizzying diversity of popular and/or indigenous sound sources from across the globe.
AWS’s instrumentation would seem to provide ideal expression for Bermel’s musical ideas. While I have always enjoyed his works for standard chamber ensembles and full orchestra, it’s in these compositions for a large confederation of soloists that his knack for utilizing extended techniques and vividly complex textures really comes to the fore. Pierson and AWS turn in performances that throb with crisp intensity when called for, while also displaying sensitivity to the many timbral colors that make Bermel’s music pulse, zing, and shimmer. The title selection, Canzonas Americanas, pairs the ensemble with Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, who conjures up an intimate sound that is the ideal fit for Bermel’s genre-hopping music. Originally commissioned by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Canzonas blossoms from its opening solo violin figure into a bustling, Andriessen-esque passage without skipping a beat. Bermel’s facility in fusing the simple lyricism of folk sources to more hard-edged and propulsive textures is one of his music’s most attractive qualities, and he illuminates a vast expanse rarely traversed by composers today—making him an eclectic in the most meaningful sense.
Three Rivers first struck me as being akin to Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs and other works from the mid-century “Third Stream.” But whereas many of Bernstein’s compositions in this genre seem almost too neatly contained within their assumed jazz-inflected style, Bermel assumes the guise of jazzy gestures in order to go way beyond anything resembling the Paul Whiteman variety of safe (if charming) pops fare. The three rivers of Bermel’s title refer to three streams of music, initially introduced in succession but eventually piling up in a gloriously raucous climax. Wild drum solos and off-kilter wind licks let us know we’re listening to something that sounds a bit like jazz, yet the familiar gestures of jazz have been transformed and transfigured into something entirely Bermel’s, in way that pays homage to the sound of Mingus and Gil Evans while creating something wholly independent of their influence. At his best, Derek Bermel is a composer who is always reaching beyond himself, pushing past stylistic limitations rather than simply confirming them. Three Rivers is one of the album’s best calling cards, and the members of AWS swing with a surprising lightness rarely heard in their heavier rhythmic playing—a capability that I do hope more composers will exploit.
Natural Selection features baritone Timothy Jones in the album’s most significant foray into vocal writing. Utilizing everything from speech to slides to gospel inflections, Bermel’s vocal writing makes use of the full expressive range of the male voice, especially some vulnerable falsetto moments that Jones pulls off perfectly, giving a performance that almost doubles as a dramatic reading in its subtle characterizations. The texts by Wendy S. Walters and Naomi Shihab Nye are nothing if not moody, and Bermel exploits this to maximum effect, with a cinematic or even noir-like sound that has tinges of the grotesqueness of cabaret—all resolving in the beautifully simple final song, “Dog,” with its Native American inflections both tender and unexpected.
Hot Zone begins with an affable and funky riff, inspired by Bermel’s study of the West African gyil—a small marimba-like instrument that Bermel studied in Ghana (and whose at times jarring pitchiness colors the sound of the piece). Meanwhile Continental Divide ventures into an almost spectralist, klangfarben-y territory not elsewhere explored on the album, the piece’s offhand jazzy licks subsumed into ominous crescendi. The oldest work recorded here (1996), it hails from Bermel’s days of study with Louis Andriessen and features abrupt transitions along with a more driving motoric sense. The work is colorful, bracingly dissonant, and quirkily toe-tapping—yet at the same time, I’m glad that Bermel eventually progressed from this approach to a style that is markedly tolerant of lyricism and more delicate gestures. It’s the tension and points of contact between Bermel’s affection for beats and grooves and the simplicity of folk-like song that often make his music so persuasive.
This recording is a sonic safari at its core: our chance to follow Derek Bermel’s contact with other peoples and traditions, and the impact of these lived experiences as they play out in music. As an album that shows a composer always reaching outside of his own culture and experiences for inspiration, it’s remarkable that Bermel’s offerings feel so distinctly personal and homemade. Despite their myriad sources and origins, each work on this disc reveals a composer totally in touch with his own social and artistic goals. It’s the most impressive release of Bermel compositions to date, performed by some of the most committed advocates of the composer’s artistic vision.