April 24, 2003
When Derek Bermel was 11, his pet guinea pig, Apollo, died, devastating young Derek. So Bermel, a budding pianist and clarinetist at the time, decided to eulogize Apollo with a musical composition, “A Pig.”
The musical piece – in 5/4 time, which Bermel says made it reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” – not only soothed Bermel’s pain over the deceased rodent. It was also the beginning of a lifelong pursuit: By the age of 14, Bermel was composing for the Westchester (N.Y.) Youth Symphony, and then for his high school band. After studying music – and astronomy – at Yale University, Bermel earned a measure of acclaim as a composer. In particular, “Voices,” the clarinet concerto he premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1998, has become a popular piece of contemporary repertoire, performed by the BBC Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra and, with John Adams conducting, the Los Angeles Orchestra. He has been commissioned to create music for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the National Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony, and has earned the Rome Prize and Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships.
Even with all the education, the work and awards, the 35-year-old Bermel has not forgotten what it was like to be an untrained neophyte, figuring out how to create music out of the air. “As composers, we strive to get back to what we had as kids – that purity, that creativity, that desire to be one with the music,” said Bermel. “To get the ideas across and be direct and clear.”
Making it easier for Bermel to stay in touch with his own childlike creativity has been his connection to other children. From the New York Youth Symphony’s Making Score program, which he founded three years ago, to the in-school residencies he does around the country under the auspices of the American Symphony Orchestra League, Bermel has had extensive contact with youngsters taking their first composing steps.
These past 10 days, Bermel has been in residence in four valley schools through the Aspen Music Festival and School’s Musical Odysseys Reaching Everyone program. In addition to addressing entire classes at several schools – Carbondale Elementary, St. Stephen’s School in Glenwood Springs and the Aspen Community School – Bermel has been working with select, small groups of students who have shown a particular aptitude for and interest in music. Those students were asked by Deborah Barnekow, the Music Festival’s director of educational outreach, to come up with melodic passages prior to Bermel’s arrival in the valley. With Bermel, the groups of fourth- and fifth-graders have been working on turning those bits of music into larger, cohesive, polished compositions.
The students from the Young Composers Forum will demonstrate what they’ve been working on in a free concert tonight, April 25, at 6:30 p.m. at Harris Concert Hall.
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It is an ambitious undertaking. The valley students represent the youngest musicians Bermel has worked with. And teaching composition – as opposed to music performance, or painting or dance – is at the more challenging end of the arts education spectrum.
“It’s more than just kids,” said Bermel, who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just over the Williamsburg Bridge from his native Manhattan. “Composing seems very mysterious and exclusive. You average person can imagine someone writing a song. Composing a piano symphony isn’t something most people can relate to.
“I think it has something to do with the extra language involved. There’s learning the language of pitch, of sound.”
The challenge hasn’t stopped Bermel. He practically fell into the educational aspect of his career: To qualify for a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship a few years ago, he had to do a public-service program. After approaching the New York Youth Symphony with his ideas, the director of the organization persuaded Bermel to turn the proposal into an ongoing program for aspiring composers. Though he doesn’t consider himself an educator, Bermel still heads the Making Score program, and has conducted workshops at the Harlem School for the Arts and in-school residencies from Albany, N.Y., to Los Angeles.
With the younger students he has been working with here, who don’t even know the basics of reading music, Bermel sees the work in broad terms. He is not trying to teach them to compose, necessarily. Instead he is teaching lessons about form, creativity, cooperation and expression.
“Composition isn’t about reading music,” he said. “This is not about putting ideas on paper. Because they can’t read music doesn’t mean they can’t compose. It’s about creating form. We’re dealing with all the things composers deal with, all the questions – texture and instrumentation and harmony and rhythm and form – any composer or creative artist does.”
Bermel also has the bigger picture in mind in teaching music composition. He is addressing topics that apply to math, English, science and life outside of school. “What you see in watching the process is a kid learning all different kinds of skills – to articulate their creative thoughts, to correct mistakes, to concentrate, to make decisions, to trust their own instincts, take criticism, take suggestions,” he said. And there is the biggest artistic lesson of all, learning to enjoy the creative process. “I’m concerned about them getting the spark, that they want to write music.”
One lesson the students don’t need, says Bermel, is how to come up with creative thoughts. “You don’t have to teach kids how to be creative,” he said. “They have ideas.”
Bermel can offer himself as the example of a kid naturally loaded with artistic ideas. The son of the playwright and play translator Albert Bermel and a mother who sang jazz and show tunes around the house, Bermel began picking out melodies on the family piano before he was 2. He picked up clarinet at 7, then took up piano and saxophone.
Before he was in his teens, Bermel was spending all his allowance on records, and spending much of his time at the library, looking through the music collection. At 11, unprompted, he checked out a four-record set of works by the early 20th-century Austrian composer Anton Webern. “I had really odd tastes for a kid,” he said.
Bermel also had an innate curiosity about music. On a visit to a record store, around the same time he was discovering Webern, Bermel saw a display for an odd-looking jazz pianist.
“I remember seeing a bright red poster of a man with a hat, head tilted back, sweating,” he said. “I had to have that. And when I heard it, it wasn’t like anything I had heard before. It was weird and beautiful and austere.”
The pianist was Thelonious Monk, and the discovery began Bermel’s appreciation for cutting-edge jazz.
Something of a musical wiz kid, Bermel was shocked when he entered Yale, only to find himself surrounded by people as advanced as himself. When he was turned down by the university orchestra, Bermel stopped playing clarinet and started singing and writing arrangements for an a cappella group that sang jazz, gospel and blues. After graduating from Yale, he lived in Israel for six months, studying Israeli folk music and orchestration. He baffled the fellow residents of the farm he lived on by mixing his farm chores with periods of intense composing.
Back in the United States, Bermel has made a name for himself as a composer, clarinetist, conductor and even as a rock musician. He sings, writes and plays keyboards and the Brazilian percussion instrument the caxixi for the New York band Peace by Piece, whose primary influences are funk and Brazilian music.
Though he is currently on his first trip to Colorado, Aspen audiences can expect to see more of Bermel in the near future. This summer, Colorado pianist Christopher Taylor, a good friend of Bermel’s, will perform “Turning,” a solo piano piece Bermel wrote for Taylor, on July 29. And Bermel will be in Aspen for the premiere of the brass quintet he is writing. The piece will be presented as part of the Aspen Music Festival’s Inside Music program, and Bermel will introduce and answer questions about the composition.
Bermel offers his students the same advice he has followed himself in his multifarious career.
“Try it. Go down that alley. If it doesn’t work, you can go back,” he said.