Even as part of a scene where being more-eclectic-than-thou is a fundamental shibboleth and musical “fusion” projects have long since become the PR-ready norm, Derek Bermel’s chameleonesque versatility boggles the mind. After all, who else on earth can boast of – and this is only a sample – composition studies with Louis Andriessen, William Bolcom, and Henri Dutilleux; years of work as a genre-hopping clarinet soloist, with the chops to play concertos by Adams and Corigliano; early and formative immersion into various strains of “ethnic” music in Brazil, Bulgaria, and West Africa; employment in an innovative multimedia pop band, TONK; longstanding links to the hip hop world, with friends in Chuck D and Mos Def; and substantial service as an educator, having among other things founded the New York Youth Symphony’s composition lab for high schoolers? No doubt all this makes Bermel a singularly lively creative presence and a great musical citizen, witty, generous, and resourceful in equal measure. Yet one still can’t help but wonder: what does such wide-ranging experience mean for Bermel’s own compositional practice? Can it all possibly add up to a coherent and engaging musical language? After all, as any fusty old composition professor would rightly note, the danger of absorbing every last shred of sonic detritus floating within earshot is irremediable cultural overload, the loss of the ability to discriminate between any of it and – by extension – the capacity to fashion one’s own musical identity. Well, if Bermel’s latest full-length portrait disc Canzonas Americanas is any evidence, the fusty types out there needn’t have worried: with his objective, almost ethnographic approach to composition thoroughly assimilating the “source materials” variously gathered from his years of musical globetrotting, listeners are in great hands with Bermel.
Bermel’s sureness of touch is largely a function of his affinity for the deep-rooted musical traditions of the Afro-Cuban diaspora – gospel, salsa, hip hop, and above all, the rich and infinitely variegated heritage of jazz. Now a relatively rare breed among purveyors of new music, in this sense Bermel rather harkens back to the days of Copland, Gershwin, Still, and Bernstein, a time when colorful orchestral essays like El Salón México and Cuban Overture weren’t yet relegated to pops fare. Of course, this makes some of his work easy to dismiss on stylistic grounds: the last song of Canzonas Americanas, featuring Luciana Souza, at first sounds like little more than the bossa-nova B-side to some long-forgotten Muzak staple, but then the silky, gently insinuating melody gets under your skin and before you know it you’re wondering how many other composers-in-residence at Princeton can write such a good tune.Bermel’s work is also comparable to that of some of the more compositionally-minded auteurs in jazz history, from Duke Ellington to Sun Ra, John Lewis to Hermeto Pascoal, and Gil Evans to Don Byron. (No matter that his music only intermittently features improvisation – most notably in Three Rivers, the brashest, funkiest piece on this release.) Above all, the down-and-dirty slides, moans, and hollers that so memorably populate Bermel’s music seem imbued with the spirit of Charles Mingus: from the gangly, gawky tread of Continental Divide and Three Rivers to the offbeat, unexpected word painting of the song cycle Natural Selection, Bermel’s aesthetic resonates deeply with Mingus’ quest to restore to jazz some of the original ill-mannered roughness and licentiousness whitewashed by commercial success.
That Bermel remains very much his own man in the face of such a dense tangle of references, allusions, and affinities is also a testament to his sheer earnestness. Take Hot Zone, a celebration of the Ghanaian gyil (a type of folk xylophone similar to the balafon): because Bermel cares not a whit for the tortured complexities of the debates over cultural imperialism, there’s no need to ironize, estrange, or “domesticate” the piece’s distinctive borrowed mallet patterns. We’re a long way from Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Concerto, the musical equivalent of pillaging Middle Kingdom bas reliefs for display in the Louvre. Bermel apprenticed with a master gyil player in Ghana, so he’s payed his artistic dues. Instead of taking the attitude that an outsider can never truly penetrate a “native” artform, Bermel rather believes that substantive creative links can be forged by diligent, unpretentious individuals committed to cultural dialogue – no matter the social or class differences. Breaking ranks with the jaded “postmodernism” of Berio, Corigliano, and Rochberg – irrespective of what Cantaloupe’s promotional materials say (they describe Bermel as a “postmodern force”), Bermel is patently not a postmodernist – Hot Zone paints a thoroughly engaging portrait of the communal practice of gyil playing through the eyes of an individual at once “inside” and “outside” of the culture. For precisely this reason, questions of “authenticity” never enter into the equation. The funk basslines, swing riffs, snatches of folk fiddling merely confirm the impression that this is no stuffy ethnomusicological exercise, but an imaginative sort of free-association game marrying the tribal African with the urban African-American.
Some might well object that Bermel’s unrelentingly perky, untroubled music ignores certain key areas of aesthetic experience. Perhaps there’s something to this criticism – the desperate lament of the blues, so central to the history of post-Emancipation Black music, appears rather infrequently in Bermel – but for the most part, this complaint misses the point. Who else can combine Cuban montunos and Blaxploitation vamps with Stravinskian rhythmic dislocation and quotes from Beethoven with such convincing ease? Ultimately, what makes Bermel’s music quietly radical (for lack of a better word: Bermel has no interest in iconoclasm for its own sake) is that the expected composerly window-dressing – a dash of dissonance to placate the graying uptown crowd, a sprinkle of extended techniques so as to appear “innovative” in a university setting, or a citation from an obscure philosophical tract to maintain the pretense of elitism – is completely absent. In this respect, even John Adams appears cautious by comparison. Drawing from a rich cultural well, Bermel simply writes the music he believes in. There’s absolutely no calculation or posturing here. Seemingly alone among today’s composers, Bermel doesn’t aspire to the Grand Statement, and the result is that the disarming fun of his music feels truly earned. Precious few artists possess the quality of humility; even fewer know how to translate that humility into meaningful art. Bermel, with his gift for comedy and his sympathetic humanity, is one of the tiny handful to have discovered the formula.
Canzonas Americanas, Derek Bermel/Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe, 2012) | Buy on Amazon
Matt Mendez is an independent musicologist and critic. His personal blog is http://soundproofedblog.blogspot.com.