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Derek Bermel Shows Another Side

by Mic Holwin

You might know him as a composer of vibrant orchestral works or a virtuoso clarinetist. You might know him as a West African xylophone player. Or a soulful pop singer.

Derek Bermel playing gyil (Lobi Xylophone) with his multinational group Tonk.     Photo courtesy Derek BermelFar from being an overly-talented curiosity, Derek Bermel isn't an atypical musician and composer. Which is the reason American Composers Orchestra's new Composers Out Front series at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in downtown New York was created. Composers are often accomplished performers, musicians who do a myriad of musical things besides putting pen to staff paper.

Through Composers Out Front, listeners can hear different sides of a composer they may know only from his or her "uptown" gigs. It works the other way as well-New Yorkers who consider Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center in the same vicinity as Connecticut may come to Joe's Pub and be intrigued to hear the composer's "uptown" side. Equally at home on any side of town, Bermel will sing and play keyboard and caxixi (Brazilian shaker) with his band Peace by Piece (which also includes guitarist Mark Tewarson, bassist Bobby Roe and drummer Mat Deveau) on February 2 at Joe's Pub.

"Zydeco," "funk" and "samba" are all words Bermel uses in an attempt to describe Peace by Piece's sound. Whichever of these words may best describe his pop songwriting (he writes the songs for Peace by Piece), none of them would probably be used to describe Bermel's concert music. Yet all of these musical forms are part of who Bermel is.

Two parts of Bermel will share the bill at Joe's Pub. On the same program with Peace by Piece is a mini-concert of Bermel's chamber music-his piano suite Turning, played by Marilyn Nonken, and song cycle Old Songs for New Man, sung by Timothy Jones and scored for piano, percussion, violin, bass, trumpet and trombone.

Such juxtaposition begs the question: Do composers approach facets of their musical expression in different ways? One part of the brain for "pop" and another part for "classical"? Bermel says yes, that he thinks "in terms of counterpoint" when he writes concert music and starts with "the groove" when writing pop songs.

More importantly, he says, writing style is directly related to who will be hearing the end result and where. "The venue affects how you hear music," says Bermel. "It's a whole different audience mindset. People don't go to see a band for the same reasons that they go to see an orchestral concert."

Classically trained since he was seven, Bermel played in rock bands throughout high school and college. "I knew every Beatles song and all the soul songs when I was growing up. I remember when I was seven and being crazy about listening to Top 40 on the radio." However, he can wax just as enthusiastically about an orchestral work by Gygöry Ligeti or a Thelonious Monk jazz recording (yet another side we'll leave out for now).

Though it seems an obvious solution to splitting oneself into discreet musical personas, Bermel isn't enticed by the fusion of concert music and pop.

"For me, they're two separate things," he says. "Audience mood is different. I have difficulty understanding what composers are talking about when they say they're trying to combine pop music and classical music. [Each is] a different model of creativity. Pop music is about icons and identification. Classical music is about communicating an experience that can be reflected on. How do they intersect? I don't really know-I don't feel they do intersect."

Someone who has heard Bermel's clarinet concerto, Voices (premiered by ACO at Carnegie Hall in 1998), whose first movement was inspired by an Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus recording and which breaks into a funk groove in the third movement, may quibble with his professed preference of peas and potatoes separation.

"But see, I would never try to pawn that off on a pop audience," he explains. "Audiences come to venues with a certain thing in mind. The whole way the orchestra's built and the way it functions has nothing to do with people coming to a bar to hang out.

"Joe's Pub is a place where some of these things could intersect. Joe's Pub is classy and you can really listen to music, but has the relaxed atmosphere of a bar. So Composers Out Front is a really interesting experiment."

One that hopefully will result in a heightened appreciation of a composer's oeuvre. Bermel would agree. "There's so many different ways to express yourself in music," he says excitedly.

-Mic Holwin

Mic Holwin has written on Derek Bermel for ACO and for American Symphony Orchestra League's resource site NewMusicNow.