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2023 Grammy nominee Derek Bermel chats with VPM Music about 'Intonations'

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Interview with VPM Music

Last year, Naxos American Classics released Intonations [Naxos 8.559912], five world-premiere recordings of works for string quartet, electric guitar, solo clarinet and solo violin by Rome Prize and Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowship-winning composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel. The album includes Intonations for string quartet (2016); Ritornello for electric guitar and string quartet (2011); Thracian Sketches for solo clarinet (2003); Violin Etudes (2009-16); and A Short History of the Universe for clarinet and string quartet (2013). Bermel himself plays clarinet on the album; also featured are the acclaimed JACK Quartet, Dutch electric guitarist Wiek Hijmans, and JACK Quartet violinist Christopher Otto playing Bermel’s solo Violin Etudes. (Also available from Naxos American Classics: Bermel’s Grammy®-nominated and critically-acclaimed recording, Migrations, 8.559871.)

“It’s hard to know what to be more dazzled by in the music of composer Derek Bermel—the range of stylistic voices he cultivates or the profusion of ingenuity, beauty and wit he brings to everything he touches.”  —San Francisco Chronicle

In the liner notes for Intonations, fellow composer Nathan Shields writes of the “deeply personal sensibility running through all [Bermel’s] music, one marked by sly theatricality, deadpan humor, and restless intellectual curiosity.” Bermel’s interests are indeed wide-ranging: his mentors have included the composers Henri Dutilleux, Louis Andriessen and William Bolcom; he has traveled to Bulgaria to study Thracian folk music, Ghana to study the Lobi xylophone, and Brazil to study the caxixi; and he has collaborated with adventurous musicians from Wynton Marsalis and Stephen Sondheim to the rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def).

Intonations (2016) is a three-movement work commissioned by the 92nd Street Y for the New York Philharmonic Biennial. Like the two “multiverse” pieces on the album, Intonations suggests an alternate universe in which the pitch-bending natural to the blues found its way into Western classical music as microtonality. Bermel’s starting point is the slightly out-of-tune sound of a harmonica as imitated by the JACK Quartet, which specializes in, among many other things, intonational flexibility. But the composer’s relationship to vernacular styles like blues and jazz is unique; as Shields puts it in the liner notes: “These traditions are treated not as exotic colorations to be grafted onto classical music, but equal partners with it, fused together to form an indissoluble hybrid style.”

Ritornello (2011), originally commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra but heard here in the world premiere recording of the version for electric guitar and string quartet, also uses a unique palette of sounds, but in a form resembling the Baroque concerto grosso, pitting a group of soloists against a larger accompanying ensemble. Electric guitarist Wiek Hijmans and the JACK Quartet take turns with these roles and the music that goes with them. Music that could have been written by Vivaldi collides with progressive rock, especially—as Shields points out—the guitar sounds of King Crimson guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew.

Thracian Sketches (2003) makes use of Bermel’s own wide repertoire of clarinet timbres, from pure tones that somehow evoke a distant primordial past to sounds from contemporary jazz and extended classical techniques. The piece explores the same Bulgarian folk style displayed in A Short History, but the solo clarinet setting gives Bermel the freedom to explore even further, with a development described by Shields as “from slow to fast, simple to complex, the clarinet’s depths to its stratospheric heights. ”

The first of the Violin Etudes, “Twenty Questions” transforms the verbal act of questioning into the language of music. “Gravity,” repeatedly returning to a single pitch, musically depicts an inexorable destiny. "Figure and Ground” poses the composer and performer the problem of conveying the constantly shifting focus of a two-part conversation, embodied in a single instrument. “Multiverse/Sketch” is a preview of material used again in A Short History, thus an exercise in using music to depict matters of cosmic significance. Finally, "Chôros,” is modeled after the Brazilian popular style of the same name. ("Twenty Questions was commissioned for Jennifer Koh by Justus and Elizabeth Schlichting; the remaining four Etudes were commissioned for Midori by Kathy Henschel via Meet the Composer (now New Music USA).

Written during Bermel’s four-year tenure as artist-in-residence at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, A Short History of the Universe (2013) was inspired by the lectures of the physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed. Commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts for the JACK Quartet with Bermel on clarinet, the piece is a musical gloss on Arkani-Hamed’s depiction of gravity and time. The clarinet glissando that serves as the basic building block, in Shields’s words, "evokes a world of gravitational fields rather than discrete objects. Throughout the piece, this glissando expands and contracts. Happening at different speeds, both successively and simultaneously, it suggests an experience of time at both minute and cosmic scales.”

Composer/clarinetist Derek Bermel has appeared as a soloist alongside Wynton Marsalis in his sprawling Migration Series for jazz band and orchestra, and performed his clarinet concerto Voices with dozens of orchestras worldwide, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The founding clarinetist of Music from Copland House, Bermel’s chamber music appearances also include the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, festivals across the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and with the Borromeo, Pacifica, and JACK quartets. As both clarinetist and composer, he has collaborated with musicians from an eclectic musical landscape, from jazz luminaries Paquito D’Rivera and Luciana Souza, to virtuoso violinist Midori, and hip-hop legend Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), to composer/conductors John Adams and Tan Dun. Bermel has twice been nominated for GRAMMY Awards – for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Migrations (Naxos 8.559871), and Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (with Orchestra) for Voices (BMOP/sound). He is currently artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra, and his many honors include the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, Rome Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships. 

VPM Music's Mike Goldberg writes…Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel has been nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. His piece "Intonations" for string quartet was composed in 2016. It was inspired by Ralph Ellison's novel "The Invisible Man" from the early 1950s. Intonations is part of a new release featuring selected works of Bermel's from the last 20 years. I hope you have the chance to listen in as we chat about the variety of music included on the album.