Composer, clarinetist, conductor, ethnomusicologist, record producer, and jazz and rock musician Derek Bermel began his term as artist in residence at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study on July 1. The most prominent tip of Bermel’s iceberg, however, is as impresario. He has organized the four-concert Edward T. Cone Concert Series for 2009-’10 at the Institute’s Wolfensohn Hall.
Bermel has also scheduled a couple of lecture gigs for himself. He gives a talk for the Princeton Composition Colloquium on Thursday, October 8 at 4:30 p.m. in Princeton University’s Woolworth Music Center. And he will speak later this month at the Rutgers Composers Forum.
Multitasker Bermel is the clarinet soloist in the first concert of the Cone series on Friday and Saturday, October 16 and 17. His collaborator at the piano is Christopher Taylor. Taylor, winner of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and a finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, who is currently associate professor of piano in the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics.
The concerts begin at 8 p.m. Following the Friday concert Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times, and the musicians will discuss the music on the program from the stage. On Saturday at 6:30 p.m., Tommasini will discuss his experiences as a music critic.
Bermel and Taylor play a program that includes music by Bermel and by Paul Moravec, Bermel’s immediate predecessor as artist in residence at the Institute. Moravec wrote “Autumn Song,” the piece on the October program, for Bermel when both of them were participants at Yadoo, the Saratoga Springs, New York, arts center. Bermel calls it “a bonbon piece.”
Three Bermel pieces are programmed: “SchiZm,” “Thracian Sketches,” and “Turning.” Here’s how Bermel accounts for the capital “Z” in “SchiZm.” “Its two movements are so different,” he says. “One is tranquil, a peaceful meditation; it has a formal tight structure. The other is a manic romp with various styles mashed together. The piece is supposed to be schizophrenic, so I spelled it with a “z.” People thought it was spelled wrong. So I used a capital “z” to show that there was no mistake.”
Bermel describes “Thracian Sketches” as a clarinet sketch for an orchestral piece. Here he uses asymmetrical Bulgarian rhythms of 5/8, 7/8, and 11/8, but alters scales, form, range, structure, and harmony. “I kept the gestural language and the rhythmic cells,” he says, “so it’s recognizable as Bulgarian.”
“Turning,” a theme and variations piece, was written by Bermel for pianist Taylor. “It’s a hymn theme with hymn harmonies overlaid by African pentatonic harmony,” Bermel says. “The coda spirals back into the opening theme; it’s hazy; it’s about memory.”
Bermel’s approach to composition goes beyond sonic happenings and mines human experience. About “Turning” he says, “The whole piece is about remembering a melody, about how a thing changes over time. It says something about the way we experience events and how we recollect things. So much of human experience is about memory.”
He believes that the aims of the Institute are a natural fit with its artist in residence program. “The Institute for Advanced Study is primarily a center for research,” Bermel says. “It’s all about innovation and interdisciplinary connectedness. It’s a place where creativity is paramount.” He deflects the notion that the scope of the Institute does not extend to artists: “The idea behind the concerts and the residency is to introduce, to interact, and to amplify interdisciplinary connectedness.
“For performers in the Cone concert series, I chose people with wide interests, who care about innovation. I wanted particular artists who have strong interests outside of music. I’m doing a short piece for Midori. So I invited her. She has a degree in psychology. Chris Taylor is a mathematician. The mathematicians have already invited him to the table. Bill Bolcom, who just retired from the University of Michigan, has been on an Interdisciplinary Committee. The duo pianists on the last program have non-musical interests. Craig Taborn is a literature major. Vijay Iyer has degrees in mathematics and physics. These are the kind of people I wanted to invite.”
Bermel has two offices at the Institute for Advanced Study, a traditional space on Einstein Drive, and a two-room suite in one of the two trailers off Olden Lane beyond the children’s playground at Crossroads Nursery School. We meet at the trailer. A gleaming red and yellow Cannondale bicycle, Bermel’s transportation, stands just inside the entrance. He delights in the lightness of the bike. He lets me lift it. It weighs less than a small backpack.
“I wanted isolation,” Bermel says. “I wanted to be able to compose at any time of the day or night without worrying about whether I would disturb somebody. This is perfect.” We are in a long, narrow room with stark, white undecorated walls. The windows are uncurtained. The decorating style is contemporary clutter. There are a lot of boxes; some are labeled. The computer on the desk has access to the music-writing program Sibelius. An electric guitar and a keyboard are tucked among the filing cabinets. Sandals and a bicycle helmet rest on the floor.
A similar room contains additional boxes, files, acoustic instruments, and a large paper bag. The decorating style is ethnic instrument aficianado. Assorted drums are visible. Two imposing primitive-looking xylophones from Ghana are there. They are made of unpolished mahogany planks, unevenly rectangular. The planks are held together with cord and cow leather. Fragile gourds, resonators, are attached below the planks. Bermel points out small white patches on the gourds, which he identifies as the webs of spiders that live under rocks in Ghana. The spider webs create a buzz. The xylophones play pentatonic scales, with the intervals you hear by using only the black notes on the piano. The tuning is not exact. Bermel shows me places where wood has been removed to refine the pitch.
He plays the two octaves plus three notes in the compass of one of the instruments from low to high with a single, short hard-headed mallet. There is a homemade quality to the tuning. I find the sound intimate and appealing. Normally the instrument is played with two mallets. The other one is someplace in the large paper bag, which contains caxixis of various sizes. Bermel spent the summer in Brazil enlarging his knowledge of the caxixi, a percussion instrument consisting of a closed flat-bottomed basket filled with seeds or other small particles. He demonstrates the instrument, shaking a caxixi in each hand and producing unmatching rhythms. Bermel already used the caxixi extensively in the semi-rap 2000 CD “Peace by Piece.”
In addition to his work at the Institute for Advanced Study, Bermel is composer in residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. There is no conflict between the two residencies, he says. “When you’re a composer in residence, you go for one, two, or three concerts a year. On the contrary, as artist in residence I have to be here.”
I ask whether Bermel’s musical sensibility is shaped by his clarinet training. “Yes,” he says. “I’m a melody guy. By extension, I think linearly. Counterpoint is important to me; harmony is not. I think of harmony as a result of counterpoint.
“As a composer, I’m very interested in inflection, the way language affects music and vice versa,” he continues. “I’m very interested in the contour of music and the cadence of the human voice. I care about inflection in both speech and music. The trombone is my favorite instrument. It’s like the human voice because it’s a wind instrument and it slides around a lot.”
Bermel turns to extended techniques that permit instruments to produce sound in unconventional ways only when he feels that they serve a musical purpose. “I don’t like using extended techniques for the sake of experiment. For me, extended techniques are not a what-if question in the sound world. It’s a larger concept. I write based on need. If I want to make cello sound like it’s talking, I find out what I need — quarter tones, or glissandi. I figure out what paraphernalia to put inside a piano to make a particular sound.”
Flutist James Galway premiered Bermel’s “Swing Song” at the Tanglewood Festival in the Berkshires in August. “I didn’t use extended techniques for Galway,” Bermel says. “He’s very adept at playing the flute the way it is usually played. I think it’s important to write considering what superstars like and do, and what they did in the past. You have to consider who the artist is as a person. You can write a better piece if you know the person well. The piece becomes my portrait of the player.”
Bermel was born in New York in 1967 and grew up in New Rochelle in nearby Westchester. He makes his home in Brooklyn and has temporary quarters in Princeton. His father, Albert, is a retired professor whose field is theater and film; he taught at Lehman College, the graduate school of City College of New York; at Yale University; and at Columbia. His mother, Joyce, is a retired magazine editor. His brother Neil, two years his senior, is a Slavic linguist.
As a seven-year-old Bermel wanted to play trumpet, like big brother Neil. “He called me a copycat, so I started clarinet,” the agreeable younger brother says. He started composing at age eight, with a piece that he called “Symphony No. 1.”
His degrees include a B.A. from Yale (1989) and a D.M.A. from the University of Michigan (1998). He studied ethnomusicology and orchestration in Jerusalem, Israel; Thracian folk music in Bulgaria; caxixi in Brazil; and Dagara xylophone in Ghana.
“I like to get my hands on the music,” he says. “I like to learn it firsthand by a hands-on approach. When music makes a gigantic impression on me, I like to go to the place of origin and learn it there. It’s hard to see your own environment. Sometimes it’s more comfortable to learn by being an outsider and an observer.”
Bermel observes not only far-away places but also his recalled experiences. Looking back to starting a blog he says, “I thought ‘What did I eat for breakfast — that’s not interesting.’ I like to write about what I remember. Maybe things that are passed down in memory are more important even than immediate strong emotions. They’re filtered things. I thought, ‘I’ve had some very inspiring experiences, and come into contact with inspiring, people, art, and events. Maybe some people would find it invigorating. Maybe it would touch somebody. Maybe I could publish it as a memoir without having to write it all at once.” His blog “People, Events, and Ideas That Have Inspired Me” is a good read. Try it yourself at www.derekbermel.com.
Composition Colloquium, Princeton University, 102 Woolworth Music Center. Thursday, October 8, 4:30 p.m. Derek Bermel, composer. Free. 609-258-6842.
Edward T. Cone Concert Series, Institute for Advanced Study, Wolfensohn Hall, Einstein Drive, Princeton. Friday and Saturday, October 16 and 17, 8 p.m. Artist in residence Derek Bermel on clarinet and Christopher Taylor on piano. Following the Friday concert New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini will discuss the music. At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Tommasini will discuss his experiences as a music critic. Register. Free. 609-951-4458 or www.ias.edu/special/air/tickets.