February 8, 2013
A decade ago, WNYC’s John Schaefer, host of the essential, long-running New Sounds radio show, brought together composer Derek Bermel (who has worked with musicians as diverse as Philip Glass, Mos Def, Stephen Sondheim, and Wynton Marsalis, not to mention choreographers, installation and performance artists, poets, and playwrights) with the estimable new music chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound, in hopes that the latter could play the former’s Three Rivers, which the program had commissioned. It could indeed, and that 2001 piece has become a signature work for AWS. That initial encounter also led to a fruitful continuing collaboration between musicians whose interests and influences reveal few boundaries. Who said arranged marriages can't work?
It’s hard to imagine another ensemble that could handle the vast range of musical ingredients — including rock, Conlon Nancarrow–style layered rhythms, jazz, and especially world music influences ranging from Brazilian choros to West African balafon — that inform this wildly eclectic new document of the Bermel/AWS partnership, covering works written from 1995 to 2010. Bermel has also studied music in Brazil and Bulgaria, as well as in more-conventional settings such as Yale and the University of Michigan.
Three Rivers is here in all its cannily cartoonish style, with its improvisatory passages sounding now like John Zorn, now like Henry Threadgill. Earlier works pulse with the rhythmic vitality that Bermel absorbed in his 1990s studies with Dutch minimalist composer Louis Andriessen (1996’s Continental Divide, with its tricky tempo and metric changes) and Ghanaian xylophone music with gyil master Ngmen Baaru (1999’s vibrant Hot Zone, which employs percussion and vocals reminiscent of Tehillim by Steve Reich, another composer who studied Ghanaian music).
Eclecticism rules in the two multimovement works on the disk. Bermel cobbled together the four-song cycle Natural Selection (2000) from separate texts (by his longtime collaborator Wendy S. Walters and the great Texas poet Naomi Shihab Nye) about various animals. He set the work to be sung by baritone Timothy Jones, who brilliantly covers their extreme stylistic range here, from cabaret to gospel to pre–World War II strutting Harlem blues. It’s a fun, modern Carnival of the Animals.
It’s hard to imagine another ensemble that could handle the vast range of musical ingredients.The most recent work here, Canzonas Americanas, was commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its storied Green Umbrella series led by Gustavo Dudamel (presumably the “El Dude” of the opening movement, which is actually dedicated to his fellow composer John Adams; Dudamel is the dedicatee of the third movement), and shows the now 45-year-old composer cogently assimilating the many influences his music embraces. As elsewhere, both Bermel and AWS seem perfectly at ease in pop rhythms from across the centuries, varying from rock and funk to myriad Latin beats. The great Brazilian-born singer Luciana Souza, best known for her work with composer Osvaldo Golijov, delivers a sweet fourth movement vocal. Any or all movements from this ambitious four-movement title work, an Ivesian collision of North and South American rhythms and tunes, would provide an ideal 21st-century follow-up to an orchestra program of Latin-influenced American works by Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein, and so many others.