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Derek Bermel Interview

Posted on 24 February 2007. © Copyright 2004-2020 Composition:Today

C:T talks to Derek Bermel, current Composer-in-Residence at the American Composers Orchestra

Derek Bermel. Photo by Azzurra Primavera
You are known for drawing on a wide range of musical styles and influences. Which musics have influenced you the most?

I've been especially influenced by Jazz (Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane) and a capella music (Sweet Honey in the Rock, Take 6, Trio Bulgarka), West African music (Fela Kuti, Kakraba Lobi, Miriam Makeba, Thomas Mapfuma), Bulgarian - especially Thracian - instrumental music (Ivo Papasov, Nikola Iliev, Boris Karlov), Brazilian (Jobim, João Gilberto, Joyce), Afro-Cuban Music (Machito, Beny Moré, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente), Irish traditional music, some pop music (Earth Wind & Fire, the Beatles, the Jackson Five, George Clinton, Prince, Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers, Curtis Mayfield).

As for concert music composers, I'm more influenced by particular compositions, and those are too numerous to mention. Here are a few:

Charles Debussy: La mer
Ludwig van Beethoven: late string quartets
György Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre
Olivier Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles
William Bolcom/Arnold Weinstein: various songs
Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music
John Zorn: Naked City
Louis Andriessen: Hout
Peter Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King
Morton Feldman: String Quartet
Duke Ellington: Far East Suite
Bela Bartok: Mikrokosmos
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Charles Ives: various songs
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes
Conlon Nancarrow: Studies for the Player Piano
John Adams: Shaker Loops
Carlo Gesualdo: various madrigals
Igor Stravinsky: Les Noces
Leos Janacek: Sinfonietta
Benjamin Britten: Winter Words
Steve Reich: Different Trains
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
Wolfgang Mozart: Clarinet Concerto
Claudio Monteverdi: various madrigals
Gerard Grisey: Modulations
Henri Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit
Frank Loesser: Guys and Dolls
Frederic Rzewski: De Profundis
Claude Vivier: Lonely Child
Henry Cowell: piano works
Silvestre Revueltas: Planos
Toru Takemitsu: Twill By Twilight
Alban Berg: Wozzeck
Kurt Weill/Berthold Brecht: Threepenny Opera
George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin/DuBose Heyward: Porgy and Pess

You once said "sometimes inflections can generate whole musical forms and a whole musical sensibility". Could you give us some examples of this?

Much of what we identify as 'style' are actually inflections and gestures within a musical idiom. So if these gestures and inflections form the primary melodic or rhythmic material of a composition, they help to generate its entire structural fabric. It is therefore vital to be clear and consistent in their use; a frivolous approach can trivialize the composer's or interpreter's intentions.

Through gestures and inflections, singers and instrumentalists - and, by extension, composers - invoke distinctive flavors, feelings, and particular places and times, grounding us and establishing a context for hearing the music meaningfully. Vocal techniques such as keening in Irish music, mordents in Thracian music, or turns in African-American Gospel music are not merely surface elements or 'embellishments'. To the contrary, they imbued with cultural and historical meaning which stretches back over hundreds - in some cases, thousands - of years. They are directly related to language and speech, body movement, and other modes of expression; they are linked to the fundamental modes of human communication.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.

I'm a clarinetist and a singer, so I usually begin with a gesture or a melodic idea. Often it's quite simple and I can sing it. Other times I can render it vocally, in speech or by making some kind of other sound. The opening material of a composition must move me deeply, so sometimes it takes weeks just to arrive at the first phrase. I then try to summon the music which suggests the most logical extensions of the initial ideas.

Tell us about your work routine. Do you have a place that's special? A prefered time of day?

My most productive period of the day for creative work is after 4pm. I often make a cup of tea and work late into the night, usually until about 2 or 3am, sometimes stopping for dinner. I work at a desk, occasionally going over to the piano to check pitches. Sometimes I interrupt myself and clear my head by writing letters or playing other music for a while, talking to friends, or doing exercise. I prefer to use mornings for editing or orchestrational work. When I'm traveling, I work on planes, trains or cafés, but rarely in hotel rooms, and never in cars.

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2020

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