American Record Guide
Patrick Hanudel
July 1, 2009

The American clarinetist and composer Derek Bermel is gaining increasing prominence as a postmodern force. His philosophy involves recreating the sounds of world music, jazz, rock, and funk in traditional instrumental genres, especially the symphony orchestra. This artistic viewpoint, of course, is hardly new; Mozart invoked the sounds of Turkish music, Debussy conjured the timbres of the Indonesian gamelan orchestra, and Bernstein was at home with jazz, Latin music, and the Western European canon.

Bermel does more than follow in their footsteps—his music is fresh, creative, and uniquely his own.

Here we have three orchestral works and his clarinet concerto, all written in the last 15 years. The first piece, Dust Dances (1994), is a nine-minute tour-de-force that synthesizes Western jazz with the sounds of Northwest Ghana, where Bermel spent four months learning to play the gyil, a 14-key xylophone that is the ancestor of the Western marimba. Like Debussy, Bermel strives to turn the orchestra into the instrument itself, favoring timbre over harmony. But while the African influences are always present, the listener will more likely be swept up in the work’s colorful scoring and driving rhythm.

The next piece, Thracian Echoes (2002), is a 20-minute rhapsody on Bermel’s travels in the mountains of Bulgaria. It opens in an atmosphere of meditative sadness, a chamber-like string texture embellished with glissandos and layered with shimmering cymbals and howling woodwinds. Slowly and gradually, a series of modal fragments assemble into dance tunes that transform the orchestra into “a giant village band” whose rhythms and colors recall the music of Stravinsky and Gershwin.

The third piece, Elixir (2006), which Bermel calls a “spectral love potion”, is only seven minutes long, but decidedly more abstract. The composer mentions the influences of Messiaen and Takemitsu, but a better comparison might be Ives. Although the music begins and ends with shimmering percussion, the heart of the work is a consonant drone-like progression of strings, human voices, and theremin—over which winds and percussion compete for space, invoking incidental but colorful dissonance.

The final piece, Voices (1997) for clarinet and orchestra, is the climax of the program, a daring expansion and yet an appropriate summation of Bermel’s eclecticism. The first movement, “Id,” is a study in instrumental vocalization—the composer takes center stage to hiss, moan, growl, and shout through his clarinet; and the orchestra punctuates his statements with dissonant and colorful commentary.

The second movement, “She Moved Thru the Fair,”is an ethereal fantasy on a traditional Irish tune—here, over a pulsating orchestral background, Bermel imitates the raw, wailing quality of Irish folk singers with grace notes and glissandos. The last movement, “Jamm on Toast,” is a vintage 1970s funk song where the soloist and orchestra compete for the limelight in a contest of virtuosity and showmanship.

Bermel’s clarinetistry has its own tenets; it breaks every rule of classical playing and it stretches the accepted conventions of jazz playing to the outermost limits. But it fits his music perfectly—so much so that it may inspire a school all its own.