What Is the Sound of An Artist Taking Action?
Republic in Ruins ran for three nights at Washington Square Church in New York during the Republican National Convention. Composer Derek Bermel was among the participants. “I wanted to get involved with groups that were having a political impact,” says Bermel. “It just so happened that there were these folks who were artists of one type or another who were involved in [Mouths Wide Open]. I decided instead of just being frustrated I really wanted to actually act. I joined with the purpose of doing some political work unattached to performance, but then we began to scheme about something we could do that tied in with the RNC.”
As Republic in Ruins came together, music that could lead up to the entrance of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was needed and Bermel offered his work, Resignation to Alarm, re-scored for violin, cello, and clarinet.
Molly Sheridan: Do you think then as an artist and as a person with those sensibilities that you can have an impact on this situation?
Derek Bermel: I think as a person, yes. I’m intending to go register voters. Probably the biggest problem that we face in this country is that people don’t vote and that needs to be rectified. I feel that the direction in which the federal government has been moving is quite dangerous and that doesn’t just go for the war in Iraq, that also goes for the eroding of civil liberties, the expectation, for example, that we can keep prisoners in any way we want without accountability. Even the Supreme Court has declared that to be unconstitutional, but we’ve been doing it and we continue to do it.
It’s more than just in the States. In Holland there’s a conservative trend—they’re cutting all sorts of arts funding, putting much more into the military. The artists are getting fed up there. I was there two weeks ago and Louis Andriessen had written a protest piece which was performed in front of all these government officers during a press conference. That kind of surprised them!
Since I live in New York, people have asked how much of an effect I can have doing this. I wasn’t sure; I had been organizing people to give out literature near tourist sites, in order to try and help non-New Yorkers make informed choices. Then I started to realize that I was having an impact that rippled way beyond New York. So now my attitude on that has changed; I believe that activism is important anywhere it exists.
Molly Sheridan: When you’re speaking about these things through art, is it to be taken in the same way as work that you do purely out of artistic inspiration?
Derek Bermel: The one piece I’ve written which was a direct response to what was going on was a piece for a family concert for narrator and orchestra that I did for the St. Louis Symphony called The Sting. It was about a bear attacking a beehive. I won’t go into the details, but I wrote the text myself and that was my way of working out a response to 9/11, and invading Afghanistan and Iraq.
Molly Sheridan: When you look back now, how do you react to it?
Derek Bermel: Well, it’s eerie because the way I felt then I feel even more now. Basically, the lesson of that story was that violence begets more violence and that the cycle doesn’t stop. It was hard to make that into a children’s piece because the lesson was kind of grim, but ultimately I think it’s something that children really understand.
I fear that history is getting lost on us here. Of course everyone pulls their own lessons from history just like everyone pulls their own lessons from the Bible. It means whatever you want it to mean to suit your own views.