Derek Bermel interview

Canzonas Americanas artworkOur latest album, Canzonas Americanas, is of music by Derek Bermel, who is a long-time collaborator of ours. Our conversation about the album covered a lot of ground, which is no surprise given Derek’s eclectic approach to composing: we talked about Nancarrow, Latin music, Ives, African music, Messiaen, blues, Brahms, and the European avant-garde. Even astrophysics worked its way in: I don’t know if I’ve gotten to talk about different types of equilibria since my undergrad days.

Alan Pierson: Derek, this album is the combination of a bunch of collaborations that Alarm Will Sound and you have done together. Why this project and why this project with Alarm Will Sound?

Derek Bermel: In writing for this this type of large ensemble—I think of it as the orchestra of the 20th century, and maybe the 21st century too—I had many ideas that emerged from my engagement with vernacular music, sometimes pop music, sometimes jazz, sometimes Latin music, or music from Africa. The big difficulty I had was how to address the classical tradition (which I’m from) while working with very disparate styles. I think Alarm Will Sound is the group for this task because your players have experiences with so many different types of music and they can address so many different stylistic details. That really makes or breaks what I compose.

AP: Do you find you do things differently for an orchestra versus this kind of large chamber ensemble?

DB: The orchestra is an incredible instrument in itself, but it is slow. At times it feels like dragging an elephant behind you. The orchestra makes grand statements beautifully, and there have been many composers who have dealt with the orchestra in a way that is sophisticated and relevant to the 20th and 21st centuries. A large ensemble like Alarm Will Sound—which consists of many strings and one of each wind—is light, flexible, more agile. But it is also more transparent. It has both advantages and disadvantages depending on how you use it. It’s tricky to write for and it took many years to figure out how to do it effectively.

AP: The oldest piece of the album, Continental Divide, was your first attempt writing for this instrumentation, right?

DB: Yes, I wrote Continental Divide in 1996. I was working on it while traveling back and forth frequently between New York and Amsterdam. I think the piece is as “Euro” as it is “American”. But the reason I feel so comfortable about our new recording is that your players can walk that line between such diverse traditions, and that’s a very American problem. I felt the same way when I made an orchestral recording with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project; I really wanted a fine American orchestra to make that disc. And you guys are a quintessentially American group. On the other hand, you play a lot of music by composers from the European avant-garde too, and I think there are pieces on the album—including Continental Divide—which address that kind of double-sensibility as well.

AP: Continental Divide goes in so many different stylistic directions. I am curious: what in Continental Divide feels European to you?

DB: Good question. Maybe it’s the abstract quality of the main idea. The piece starts from a point and roams in all directions in terms of register, instrumental color, levels of rhythm, timbre, harmonic rhythm—many parameters. The title comes from the abrupt shifts which took place during the early formation of the universe. I got the inspiration from these bursts, each of which would bring a new dimension to the piece. It’s very tricky to play.

AP: Yeah, it is a really hard piece!

DB: Isn’t it?

AP: Did you realize how challenging a piece you’d written when you wrote it?

DB: There are things that I have learned since, little tricks that would have made it easier—ways more friendly to players that I learned as I came to more deeply understand orchestration. When I wrote this piece I was inspired by concepts, which is great—it is important to try and communicate an idea—but then one has to square the conceptual framework with the reality of technique. This was a piece in which I really stretched the limits of technique.

AP: The first time we played Continental Divide, you could just feel people in the room being like, “What is this? What’s going on here?!” Then once we got it into focus, and once we had really rehearsed it and figured out how to make it work, then it made sense to everybody. But on a first reading, it doesn’t make sense. This really contrasts with the experience of playing a piece like Canzonas Americanas, which is the most recent piece on the album. The first time you play Canzonas, it’s just completely clear—not that we played it perfectly for the first time. But you immediately grasp what the music is doing and what you need to do to get it. It reminds me a little of the difference in astrophysics between stable equilibria and unstable equilibria: stable equilibria are places in space where, if a body gets nudged slightly out of place, it’s drawn back into place; and unstable equilibria are places where if it’s slightly out of place, it’s pushed even further away. There is something about Canzonas Americanas which is like a stable equilibrium: it is so well-written and so natural that if something is not quite right, even in the first reading, we’re pulled back into the right place because it is very clear immediately what the piece is doing. Whereas, a piece like Continental Divide, at first, is much harder to make sense of and more initially confusing. And minor ensemble problems can very quickly lead to the group falling apart.

DB: When writing Continental Divide I was heavily influenced by Nancarrow, who was interested in different fields of tempo moving simultaneously. Continental Divide speaks to that issue, which happens to be related to what Einstein was studying. I often consider relativity, how it can manifest in music.

AP: That’s a really interesting connection. That’s part of what makes the piece so challenging, but also so rewarding. There is something very satisfying when we do Continental Divide, and feel like we do it well. There is a real sense of  achievement, a sense that “Wow! Okay. This is a really hard piece and we got it!”

DB: You know, what’s so interesting is that I’ve been attending rehearsals of the student ensemble at Mannes, who is performing it soon. It’s crazy; that piece started out so challenging, as you know. But every generation has a group like Alarm Will Sound, on the fringe, tackling music at the limits of technique. And then the next generation comes along, and the students just play it. I would say that Three Rivers is another piece that has very challenging licks in it, but you guys nailed it.

AP: That piece is the third oldest piece on the album. That started as a project for a very different kind of band, right?

DB: Right. It was a band called House Blend at the Kitchen. John Schaefer of radio fame masterminded the idea of having us come together, and WNYC also commissioned the piece. It was an interesting rag-tag group of musicians, half classical players and half people from jazz and rock. Then later John approached you about collaborating with me, and I rewrote it for Alarm Will Sound. I feel like this newer version really works, and it’s the one that gets performed most often.

AP: How did the unique kind of group you were writing for initially shape the piece that emerged?

DB: Well, the original drum set player didn’t want me to write out every note. He just wanted a basic chart. For that kind of drum set player you shouldn’t over-notate, because you want them to depart from what you write and bring their own spice to it. So when writing for musicians from another tradition—let’s say from China or Brazil, if they’re traditional players—then you want to give them a chance to stretch out a little bit and offer some pizazz. Otherwise, you rein them in, make them uncomfortable. In the initial group at the Kitchen, there were a bunch of players who were really more from a jazz tradition, so the parts I wrote reflected that. When I rewrote it for you guys, I evened some of that out. Yet the drumset player still makes or breaks Three Rivers. If the drumset player cannot really jam, can’t take on a leadership role from the back of the band, it’s tough to bring it off.

AP: There’s also the improvisational challenge. Something that was a new experience for us the first time we did it was the section that involves group improvisation. There are lots of players in the group that have improvisational experience, but not everyone does. Figuring out how to do that together was a real challenge for us.

DB: Yeah. You can’t have just anybody start to wail on that section of the piece, otherwise it will sound bogus and insincere. I think Three Rivers is also reflective of the influence of Nancarrow’s simultaneous tempi. This is a strain you see throughout American music. You can see it in Ives, of course, and later you see it in many free jazz composers who are trying to communicate that relativity of tempo and that kind of freedom—like Ornette Coleman, Coltrane and Ayler. Nancarrow was doing this with the player piano, and later Ligeti.

AP: I feel like those ideas are in pretty much everything in the album. (I guess not so much in At the End of the World.)

DB: For me, it’s one of the big, inspiring ideas in music—from free jazz composers like Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy to Messiaen, and even earlier to Debussy. Messiaen, for example, has a lot of pieces with multiple tempi, which he actually writes out very clearly. I think his Seven Haiku is a particularly good example of that. Before that, in Vingt regards… and in his organ music. He obviously thinks in multiple lines because he is an organist. But Debussy also did that in his orchestral music, multiple layers. And being an clarinetist, I know it from Brahms—Brahms does it all the time.

AP: It’s very fitting for us. We’ve played a bunch of Nancarrow’s stuff and having to simultaneously handle these complex rhythms while still making something that feels authentic in some sort of vernacular style is a really interesting challenge. It’s having to think in two different ways at once: one kind of thinking is required to make sure that you are getting the rhythms and the tempi lined up right; another kind is required to be sure that the rhythmic feel is right. And often the rhythmic feel that a listener would hear is completely different from the way you are having to think because of the weird tempo relationships and rhythmic relationships. That’s a really cool challenge.

DB: I remember that from the arrangement I did for Alarm Will Sound—Nancarrow’s Player Piano Study no. 3A, which is technically very, very difficult, with all these layered tempi. That was fun to do. But again, it is that combination you guys have of virtuosity, attentiveness to style, and the ability to just go for it. You mentioned At the End of the World—that’s just more or less a simple song. It is polytonal though: two different simultaneous tonalities, one in the upper instruments and one in the lower instruments. Maybe that’s also kind of Ivesian. Probably I got some of that from Bill Bolcom, my teacher who studied with Milhaud, a composer who was really into polytonal music. Also it’s characteristic of a lot of jazz starting in the 60s and 70s.

AP: What was the occasion for that piece? It is an unusually short piece.

DB: I wrote it for David Miller’s group The Dogs of Desire. He has a small ensemble that has similar goals to Alarm Will Sound, but they have two singers. I originally wrote it for Barbara Hannigan. Barb is a Canadian soprano who lives in Holland and who performs a lot of avant-garde music over there; she is and extraordinary musician and also a good friend. Kiera Duffy, who sings it on the album, is doing wonderfully in her career right now too, so I was grateful that she recorded this. And I was also really happy that Timothy Jones collaborated with us on Natural Selection. Timothy is a phenomenon.

AP: That was a unique experience for me and for us as a group, because I had never done anything like this before: we did that on basically no rehearsal. The ensemble had prepared the piece; we knew Timothy was great, and you’d said that he was the guy for this album. And so we said, “Okay.” And he walked into the recording studio and just laid it down. It was so much fun. It was actually one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve had because it is a piece that’s so flexible around the singer. As a conductor, it’s just super fun to be able to be spontaneous like that and walk into the recording studio and really not know what Timothy was going to do and then just follow him and make music with him.

DB: It’s a piece that evokes a number of different styles, differently than the other pieces we’ve talked about, certainly different from, say, Three Rivers, where the players are immersed in the style and have to access specific expertise related to it. In Natural Selection the style is more hinted at; the drum part, for instance, is completely notated in Got My Bag of Brown Shoes. Nothing is left to the player’s imagination—although I am sure drummers still add their own ideas. They always do.

This disc is really terrific. What you guys have done with it just brings out all the character and nuance. When I asked for cabaret style or wrote in “bluesy”, I didn’t have to teach anybody—you just played it bluesy. These days recordings are so important for composers. I mean, the score tells performers something, but composers come from all over the world, and when musicians look at a new piece of music, that music could be coming from anywhere, it could be stylistically related to almost anything. So, having a recording which is really authoritative—which I feel this one is—can give other groups and other musicians a clear insight into the music, into where to start. That’s a great gift to a composer. It doesn’t mean that other players should interpret the music in the exact same vein—not at all—but they may get a real sense of where the composer is coming from, and that makes an enormous difference.

AP: That’s really cool. I’m glad that we could be part of that. One last question. Looking at this album as a document of your work for this idiom, it’s easy to see Canzonas Americanas as a kind of summation because it’s so well put together and it’s the biggest piece on the album, and it seems to draw so much from what came before. But, obviously, you have a lot of music still to write. How do you see Canzonas Americanas in Derek Bermel’s story and what you are interested in doing next with this instrumentation?

DB: As a composer, I want to make a contribution. I feel like the album exhibits a whole bunch of approaches to this particular ensemble. I tried a whole variety of approaches to form. I took different kinds of risks in each piece. I always tried to communicate something unique. I suppose there are many, many influences from all over the world. My love of Latin music hopefully comes through; African music—especially West African xylophone music; Brazilian music; Bulgarian music; also cabaret and jazz and blues and funk; Thelonious Monk and Sarah Vaughan, Gershwin, and many composers from the classical tradition like Messiaen, Bartok, Debussy, and Nancarrow of course, and Dutilleux, Andriessen, Meredith Monk. I hope all that’s in there, and that it gives a kind of summation of where I’ve been. I hope that it’s a contribution that represents one way, my way, of seeing the world.

What’s next for this ensemble? I don’t know. Of course I would love to do a bigger piece for Alarm Will Sound one day, maybe a more serious larger work, a summation of all these things we’ve been discussing. Ironically, you recorded all my music so beautifully, but none of the music was written specifically for Alarm Will Sound. I would like to see a work that takes all the different quirks and energies that your members bring to their roles in the group, a work that’s laid out specifically for you guys. I am sure we will do it one day.

AP: Yeah, we will make it happen. We would love to do that.

Purchase Canzonas Americanas at the Bang on a Can store.

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Authored by Alan Pierson
Artistic Director, Conductor, Keyboards

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