Letters from Abroad: Derek Bermel Calls Home



Derek Bermel, always at home in New York
Photo by Tom LeGoff

“It’s so beautiful,” composer Derek Bermel says when I ask how his Rome Prize residency is going at the American Academy. The thirty-four year old composer is spending his days—absent of the weight of routine commitments—composing (his Westchester commission, among other projects), learning Italian, going to the opera, playing the clarinet. “I played at this club the other day called Club New Orleans which was kind of fun. The guy that asked me didn’t show up, he went skiing. But that’s the way things happen here.”

Until next August, Bermel will continue to live and work in this place, dripping with history, in a small house that was once a tavern and later a brothel, built on a hillside where Galileo once observed the heavens. Plenty of material for inspiration, but Bermel says that even more than music, “first and foremost I’m working on being human, which seems to be ever more difficult.”

The current world political climate, mixed with his own workload and his usual non-stop pace of life, has led Bermel to personal introspection. “Humanity is in scarce supply, it seems,” he observes. “Especially when you’re involved in creative work, you can lose your humanity in the pursuit of artistic endeavors and so trying to find it again, to find your center as a human being, that’s important.”

But Bermel is also referring to larger societal issues in the same statement and wonders about our respect for our own humanity and our tolerance for others.

“There’s so much reading the paper and acting as though we are this, we’re this, or we’re that and we’re all human beings. All this societal stratification—it creates a lot of bad energy and a lot of what’s going on politically right now, a lot of what’s coming out of our own government, things coming out of other radical groups. Unfortunately, what we do at a certain level is sort of stoop to the level of other radical groups from other countries and our government stops acting like a government and starts acting like a gang.”

I wonder if his view of his native country has shifted with his new perspective from the other side of the Atlantic. “I’m sure it’s different. I don’t know if it’s…I have to say I think I would feel the same way if I were in the states. I was home for a couple weeks and I feel very concerned about the way we’re trying to solve long term problems in a short term way. I’m not talking about the healing process in New York, that’s a totally different thing. I’m talking about national governmental policies which have very long range, long term serious effects and I feel very concerned.”

Connected to US politics mainly through the daily newspapers, Bermel is alarmed by the path on which the country has set itself. “Today it was Bush saying that he was going to go ahead with this plan to build a military shield and scrap all these treaties that we’ve had since 1972. It’s like we’re becoming a police state in a lot of ways and it’s very scary because, that way, we allow terrorists to dictate our national and our international policy. We go down to their level in a way which is very scary because in a way we’ve become much more victimized by doing that.”

Bermel has taken a lot of that frustration to fuel a commission he’s working on for the St. Louis Symphony. The piece is intended for children, a fable he penned himself about a bear and a beehive, but “which is inspired by, and hopefully relevant to, the world/warring situation now.” In brief, the story follows a bear and a hive of honeybees. In a series of threats and retaliations, bears get stung, bees get killed, and in the end the bear is chased away to another mountaintop and becomes a hermit. “Before that he was friends with all the animals but now he doesn’t let anyone near him,” Bermel concludes, letting the moral settle in.

While working on the piece, Bermel has been revisiting some of his own childhood favorites, works such as Peter and the Wolf, A Soldier’s Tale, and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This bit of nostalgia is “uplifting and inspiring, but it’s depressing when you’re working on your own piece because those are just such incredible, phenomenal works. But I think sometimes it’s good when you strip down your language and try to write for kids. You start to come down to musical essentials as well as philosophical essentials.”

Bermel is also at work on his piece for the Westchester Philharmonic based on Bulgarian folk music. “This year I spent a month working in Plovdiv with clarinetist Nikola Iliev—one of the best-known folk clarinetists in Bulgaria—listening, transcribing, and memorizing Thracian melodies and rhythms, so those sounds have been ping-ponging around my head, and I need to exorcise them.”

So just how did this English-speaking New Yorker end up in Bulgaria? “It’s always the same in these countries. You call or you write, and they say, ‘Yeah, sure. Great. Whatever.’ They don’t take you that seriously until you get there.

“As you know life gets busier and it gets harder to carve out space for those essential learning experiences which are in a lot of ways the creative markers in our lives, so when I found out about the Rome prize, I knew if I didn’t go soon I’d have to wait another year.”

Bermel’s story of how he got there shows the kind of gutsy, passionate way he approaches music making. “Iliev doesn’t speak English, so everything was in Bulgarian. When I got there he said, ‘What do you want to do? How much do you want to learn? Do you want to learn once a week, twice a week, every day?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s up to you. If you are willing to teach me every day, of course I’ll learn everyday.’ So we would start at 9 and go till noon. That was a lot of material and then I spent the rest of the day trying to catch up and transcribe and practice everything.

“It was an incredible experience. It was very rich and very intense.”

Now he’s planning on taking these experiences and molding them into a piece for the Westchester Philharmonic, but by this point in the conversation, Bermel levels with me. “You know, it’s weird because I’m telling you this and I’m saying I’m going to write this and I don’t really know what I’m going to write. I have some sketches from the Bulgarian stuff.”

“It’s this weird thing when you sit down that you can’t really control. I don’t like to try and control what I’m doing too much because I feel like I need to listen to what the music wants to do. If it doesn’t want to go in the way that I want it to go, I don’t want to force it there. I want to go with whatever I find is the most compelling music that I can hear or that I can imagine. If I try to force it into being something, then it might get kind of stilted and kind of fake and stupid.”

Bermel also mentions that he’s been working on music for his band Peace by Piece, so I wonder how his composition process there compares with classical work. “It’s something different I think. I mean, I can sit down in the same night and work on an orchestra piece and then work on a song, but it feels like they’re kind of separate things.

“Writing a good song is as hard as anything, is as hard as writing a good symphony. It’s just a different kind of work. It’s a totally different way of thinking.”

At 34, Bermel has enjoyed a noteworthy amount of success and studied and performed all sorts of music all over the world. Is it a means to an identifiable goal, or is the goal simply the process of taking in all these experiences? “That’s a very hard question. I think my goals in terms of the end of my life are a lot more mundane than making some great musical pronouncement and saying I want to have changed the face of music or something like that. Probably there are more things like having a family and things like that. I don’t like to predict what I’m going to do because it’s very hard for me to look too far ahead and imagine some kind of culmination of what I’m doing in a work of art, for example. There are certainly projects that I really want to do, but probably my long term goals would have more to do with the ‘being a human being’ part than with the ‘being an artist’ part.”