Derek Bermel: Context is Key
Whatever genre of music he is engaging in, Derek Bermel is always mindful of its context. That mindfulness, coupled with an insatiable musical curiosity, manifests itself whether he is composing music for an orchestra, playing clarinet with various chamber ensembles, singing in his own R&B band, or jamming with traditional musicians from around the world.
A conversation at the New York Office of ASCAP
July 12, 2013—1:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Alexandra Gardner
He is equally comfortable composing music for cutting edge chamber music groups and symphony orchestras, playing clarinet in a variety of contexts (whether performing a wide swath of repertoire in the resident ensemble of Copland House to jamming with musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center), singing and playing caxixi in his R&B-tinged band Peace by Piece, or even rapping upon occasion. But whatever genre of music he is engaging in, Derek Bermel is always mindful of its context. Part of this mindfulness comes from Bermel’s deep respect for an extremely broad range of music making, but it is also the by-product of first-hand knowledge about music from many different traditions which he acquired both through extensive academic study and while traveling all over the world.
The key epiphanies along Bermel’s path to becoming self-aware as a musician reveal a wide array of influences. As a child, seeing the unfamiliar and, at the time, strange-looking name Messiaen on a concert program at a music camp made him hope his own name would be displayed similarly one day. Picking up a copy of Thelonious Monk’s LP It’s Monk’s Time at a local record shop in his home town of New Rochelle (just north of New York City) opened the door on a world of jazz that was even more eclectic than the Bennie Goodman album his grandmother had given him. Hearing Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke” for the first time (a rap he can still quote by heart) convinced him that it was possible for music to still be vital, urgent, and innovative at a time when a lot of the new music he heard was, as he describes it, “kind of sleepy.” But perhaps the episode that left the deepest impression on him and gave him the determination to pursue musical composition was having his clarinet teacher Ben Armato, who played in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera and was no fan of new music, tell him: “[E]very note you write is more important than everything I’ve done in my entire life.” While this collection of memories might initially seem completely unrelated, and some of them did not even appear to have direct consequences, these episodes compositely served to codify Bermel’s outlook. As he explains:
[A]s a teacher once said to me, “It’s all grist for the mill.” There’s beauty in so many things, and they don’t have to be the thing that I’m doing. … But I would say that you can’t predict how things will change you. I think it’s just important to keep learning and taking stuff in. Because when you stop learning, if there’s no input, there’s not going to be such a great output either. I hope that I can keep learning.
Bermel’s insatiable musical curiosity is arguably an even more defining attribute of his persona than either his compositions or his clarinet playing. This trait, couple with an adventurous spirit, eventually led him to explore Ireland, Bulgaria, Israel, Ghana, Brazil, and China. All of these journeys have left a deep impact on him that continues to surface in different ways through the numerous channels in which he expresses himself as a musician. But it never degenerates into pastiche because of his concern for context.
There’s something about seeing music in context that is very important for me, and that means playing music in context. Being there and experiencing not only the music, but the things around it: the dance, the way people talk about it, what they’re doing when there’s music. Are there chickens in the background walking around? What’s the situation? Who’s there? What language are they speaking? What is that all about? And I think the reason is because, for me, in this world that we’re now living in—where you can go onto the Internet and find just about any type of music or dance or life experience you want—context is lost. You can see incredible stuff and hear incredible things, but you lose that original meaning. We’re so much closer to everywhere in the world and to so many different styles and ways of thinking about music, yet we’re also much farther because we’re seeing everything through the scrim. I think there’s something dangerous about that because we lose the humanity of making and experiencing music.
An overriding humanism has been at the heart of everything that Bermel does, which extends beyond playing and composing to being an exemplary musical citizen, a quality he has shown in his dedication to mentoring younger composers and in spearheading a variety of innovative programs at the American Composers Orchestra where he was appointed artistic director earlier this year. Bermel’s hands-on approach has made him a fixture in the contemporary music scene for decades. It has also fueled his sense of experimentation, which he describes as “problem solving.” Yet despite his predilection for trying out unusual things, whether it’s exploring the possibilities of a complex rhythm or getting string players to mimic the sound of blues vocals through a combination of slides and microtonal notations, Bermel is ultimately both practical and pragmatic. This is perhaps why he is completely accepting of the reality that certain kinds of musical ideas work better in certain musical situations than others (e.g. you can’t expect an orchestra to play well in 13/8 time under most circumstances). Yet since he is involved in so many different musical genres and curious about so many things, inevitably things sometimes blur.
I do think that genre sometimes does create interesting notions, if only just that it gives you something to rub up against. Because I think the rub is good … I think genre can have uses like that where you can try to push the edges of it and, in doing so, you get kind of a strange, hybrid creature that doesn’t have a name exactly.
Frank J. Oteri: Listening again to the recent discs of your music which contain mostly orchestra pieces, I was actually struck by all of the Charles Ives influence I heard in it; he’s the king of impractical music for orchestra. The last time we ran into each other, you mentioned that you strongly disagreed with what I wrote about having to compromise important elements of one’s compositional voice when writing for the orchestra. We couldn’t really talk about it then, but now we have a perfect opportunity to engage in that debate. Part of what triggered what I wrote was witnessing orchestra musicians discouraging the use of unusual meters during a workshop I had attended. I also know what usually happens when someone attempts alternate tunings in an orchestra context. But I know that you have also written quite a lot of music that explores oddball meters and even microtonality at times. Yet you are totally comfortable working with an orchestra and you are able to get them to play what you write.
Derek Bermel: It’s a tough nut to crack. It’s like one of those Russian dolls which you keep opening and there’s another doll inside. Artists of all types have had to deal with the imagined ideal versus the reality of making things happen in real space and real time, and with real people. Sometimes it creates unique challenges, I think. Sometimes it allows us to find things out about ourselves that are unusual that we didn’t know were there. But those compromises can be painful; they’re like the compromises you make in life, you know. When you find a partner or when you have a kid, or when you have a pet, or when you make friends and think you have irreconcilable differences, somehow you find a way to navigate those. I think that it’s something built into the human condition. So we as artists have to tackle that as well.
You mentioned Charles Ives. One of the things that’s incredible about Ives is how visceral his music is and also how immediate. It’s so much about everyday life, yet at the same time, there’s this abstract quality to his music as well; it’s asking so many difficult questions. It’s hovering on the edge of playability as well as knowability and identifiability as music. It’s out there, yet at the same time, it’s so immediate, especially to Americans, I think, but also to people all over the world. I think now his music has come to that place where he is recognized internationally as the father of a kind of modern school of composing in America. Ives sometimes made a lot of compromises in his music, but sometimes he didn’t. There are two versions of The Unanswered Question. One of them is completely notated and the other is much more spatial. When you look at that, you see that he was struggling with the pieces that he really wanted to have a life and the question of how to make them playable. I learned a lot by studying Ives’s notation of the songs where he chose to leave things free and where he chose to keep things very rigorous.
Same with Gershwin. I mean, there’s that incredible spot in Porgy and Bess where they start to sing to Doctor Jesus. There’s a whole chorus singing and it’s notated freely; he doesn’t write out all the kinds of inflections that he wants. In my own music— more anally some might say—I try to write out all those inflections. But I found inspiration in the fact that Gershwin just left things open, it’s just the note heads. American composers were really trying to figure out how to bring in so many other types of music, other sounds, flavors, and experiences, from the very start. Ives, Gershwin, and Ellington are composers who were really stretching the boundaries of what it meant to write concert music or jazz or anything else. They weren’t really giving it labels. I find that very inspiring. But they were also immensely concerned with being practical, with having their music played again and again, and with finding a way of notating it that meant the most to the players that they were dealing with. In Duke Ellington’s case, of course, you see the names of the musicians written right into the music, which you see in Wynton [Marsalis]’s music, too. They’ve written things that meant something directly to those musicians. If I’m dealing with orchestral musicians, I want to write something that’s going to have the most immediate meaning to them in that moment yet allow them to make the sound that I hope they’ll make, and hopefully with purpose as well. There are so many things that are contradictory that we have to juggle in that moment of allowing what’s in our head to become a reality in sound.
FJO: In terms of those sonic realities, you’ve been deeply influenced by Bulgarian meters, which are really complex. In your solo and chamber pieces, you’ve used these meters all over the place. How do you reconcile how you hear those rhythms in your head when you write for an orchestra, considering that some musicians in orchestras will balk at, say, 7/4 which is a relatively simple time signature compared to the rhythmic groove of some of those Bulgarian folk melodies?
DB: Well, when I studied with Louis Andriessen, one of the things he told me is, “There’s only one real five and that’s Stravinsky in the The Rite of Spring.” I’m not sure I agree with that exactly, having been in many places where people dance in five and seven and all kinds of things. On the other hand, Louis was very concerned with getting things down to an essence. He was not a simple thinker about music. His music, as you know, contains all kinds of polyrhythms, and he loves Bach. And he brings all that to bear in his music, which is very complex. But at the same time, he was very interested in making sure that notation was the simplest that it could be. And he never wanted his students to confuse notation with music.
Notation is a means to an end. The question you ask is very germane when you want someone to feel a seven which is not really a three plus four or a four plus three, but it’s really a seven. In Bulgaria [sings a few measures here to demonstrate], it’s not really this and then that, or that and then this. It’s kind of a flow between the two. Yet—when dealing with musicians who are trained a certain way out of a specific historical style and who feel music in a certain way, and when there are 70 or 80 of them, and there’s a conductor standing in front of them who’s beating a specific way—if you beat a seven, that means one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, or ONE-two-three, FOUR-five-six…. That’s very confusing. They’re going to have to probably beat that in a way that is intelligible rather than beating it one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, which is really a four and a three. Even though there’s still a big beat there, they’re going to be sub-dividing anyway. So the question is how can you get these musicians to subdivide the way you want, instead of the way they want? Because they will subdivide! It’s kind of like there are certain political issues—which I won’t get into—where I feel like we’re dealing with an abstract question which actually doesn’t address the reality of the way things actually are and what people will actually do in a given situation. Maybe I’m being too vague, but I can think of one very strongly. And I think you know that we as musicians have to deal with the reality. This is how things are and people will subdivide.
I have this orchestra piece, Thracian Echoes, where I notated it one way, then I notated it the other way, and then finally I said, to hell with it. I’m going to make that decision because I found that other people were doing it for me. So one time I did it in 7/8, another time I did it in 7/4, then I finally I said, no, it’s going to be four and three or three and four. And I’m going to have to make that tough decision. And it works better. On the other hand, with a string quartet, I go for it. In chamber music, you can do so many things that you can’t do in orchestral music because you just have more time.
I’ve heard people say, “Mahler had 21 rehearsals; why can’t we go back to those days?” Well, first of all, we can’t. That’s an economic reality. But second of all, I think that it’s up to us. It’s exciting to find answers to those pressures. We have to embrace the challenges, or not. But if we don’t embrace them, then we get to the side of Ives that maybe is the toughest part, which is the Ives that’s really hard to play, that people still don’t know how to play, or don’t know what to do with. Maybe that’s the part of Ives that was just too stubborn to change. That’s not so bad. We should have some stubbornness as composers. I’m sure I do. But I think as much as we can, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who have to play it and who want to play it well—who are dying to play this well; whether they’re on the clock or not, they want to do the best they can.
FJO: You also used a lot of microtones in your first string quartet, which is another thing that you can’t really do with an orchestra most of the time.
DB: Well, I actually I think you can! When you say microtones, it makes me think of when I heard Grisey for the first time. I was very intrigued because something really interesting had happened in France which I thought had not happened in a while. Much as I respect Boulez, the music doesn’t speak to me at all. Most of it feels very distant to me. With Grisey and Murail, something was going on, and it was with microtones, but it’s a simple concept, and it’s so beautiful that it took so much complexity to get to realize it.
Remember we were talking about the Dr. Jesus section in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which is very open. One thing that I thought about when I saw that is that I bet I could notate the kind of stuff that they would be actually singing. But it would be a challenge to try to come up with a notation that expresses what people are actually singing, as opposed to Gershwin, who said, “Sing in a gospel style.” If you have string players and they have no sense of what that means, or they have no curiosity about it, you’re not going to get very far if they’re just conservatory trained. But I thought the challenge is interesting because even if I fail—and I will fail—to make a string player sound like a gospel singer, you make a leap and you go to an interesting place. It’s a “What if…?” question. What if you could actually notate what a gospel singer is singing or might sing at that time? I felt like I had absorbed enough of the style from just growing up and sometimes staying over at a friend’s house and going to a black church and taking the music in when I was little. So I had that sound in my ears, and I had been listening to Stevie Wonder and analyzing what he sang. [He sings to demonstrate.] It’s not just the quarter tones, and all those other tiny microtones; he’s actually changing the vowel and the sound is changing. It’s complex, what’s happening there rhythmically, pitch-wise, and texturally. Going into that was very important for me, and it was a way of coming up with a certain kind of musical language. So I did that in the string quartet, and later on I expanded it in a piece like Soul Garden, where I was trying to get the viola to sound like a gospel singer with a background responding, which was a slightly bigger kind of vision of that.
Then the piece that I did for myself with Fred Sherry, which was called Coming Together, has no fixed pitches. It’s just glissandi, although, as Fred said, the pitches matter. I mean, he said, “Well, what I like is that the pitches matter, but you never stay on pitch.” It’s about taking your mind off that, as I would say my clarinet concerto is. There’s no way to listen to the clarinet and hear the pitches. You have to hear the contour. And the orchestra’s playing clusters, so you can’t hear the pitches they’re playing. You can only hear the contour where they’re moving. And that is about pitch, but it’s not about pitches, it’s about areas of pitch and larger gestures of sound. What I was interested in developing was a language that did that, and I did that for a certain number of years, and it’s still part of my musical vocabulary somewhere. But I guess I respect composers like Ligeti or Stravinsky who just move on, as did Debussy. You know, they come up with an idea, and they do it, but then move on to another exploration of something else. Hopefully it all remains in my cookbook, but maybe it’s a different kind of food in the next chapter.
FJO: There was a great comment you made in the talk you did on SoundNotion which I’ll quote: “Almost everything that’s worth it is problematic. What gets me going in composition is having a problem to solve.” I think you hit the nail on the head with what you said earlier about having restrictions. Having to decide if it’s four plus three or three plus four is a problem, but you use what some people might think of as a restriction as a launch pad to create something.
DB: I just take it as a challenge. I don’t know that any of these problems are solvable, but they do bring us somewhere. Attempting to solve a problem may just bring you into the next cul-de-sac. But maybe that’s an interesting cul-de-sac, or it’s an interesting place to be for a little while. And so I probably view composition in that way. I view it as problem solving or a game because, first of all, it’s a way to stop being bored by it. And it’s a way to push myself to explore, to become better, and to try to stay relevant, too. Mathematicians and scientists do this well; they want to stay on top of real problems that a lot of people are dealing with. I try to push myself to find some kind of situation that’s a little uncomfortable. I’m better when I’m slightly uncomfortable. So maybe trekking to all these different places has been partly [about] allowing myself to view things from a vantage point of being an observer because it puts me a little bit as an outsider and makes me have to deal with some uncomfortable truths.
FJO: Taken at face value, that’s a very experimental kind of a statement. But I think you’re more of an adventurer than an experimenter. To some people those words might mean the same thing, but I think they’re quite different. To be an experimenter is to be in a laboratory and chart what happens. Being an adventurer, on the other hand, is going out in the field to see how something plays out. You mentioned your travels, which I want to get into more specifically later. But traveling in a more general sense strikes to the heart of this. Tell me if I’m wrong on this, but I wouldn’t think of you as an experimental composer per se. But I think of you as an adventurous composer. Another aspect of this comes from your being active as a player as well as being a composer—you’re physically involved with performing music as well as creating it. It gives you a different approach. They’re not just notes on a page; you know what’s going to happen with them.
DB: I can’t really say because I don’t have perspective on what I’m doing. I have this skewed perspective of being me, so for me things feel experimental when I don’t know what’s going to happen. I try to put some aspect in every piece that I’m unsure of—unsure of how it’s going to turn out. At least that’s what I strive to do. I think in my better pieces that is probably the case. Although, in the same way, I don’t know which pieces are my better pieces, because—as they say—only time will tell. There are probably some composers who thought that they were experimental who actually were not, or that other people thought in their age were experimental, who actually turned out not to be, and vice versa. So it’s very hard to say. I know that I like challenges, but I don’t have much perspective on whether I’m an experimenter or an adventurer, or both, or neither.
I like to get my hands on the music. I’m kind of a tactile type of musician; I like to feel the way it feels on an instrument. So probably some of that wandering around has to do with wanting the experience of context in performance. I like working with musicians. I’m a social guy, as you know. I can also be very reclusive, too. But I do like the experience of feeling the way music bounces off of other people and the way they respond to it. I think that that’s partly what making music is about as a performer, and for me it’s also true as a composer to a certain extent.
On the other hand, sometimes performance hampers the idea. I like a certain amount of working with musicians, getting in there with them and playing. But then I like to be by myself for a while to try to figure out what happened. I’m a chronic reviser of my own music; sometimes I over-revise if it’s going to be in my catalog. I’m trying to create a catalog of work that says: “This is who I am.” It has many different types of music, but I think in total, it says something. I don’t really want to put anything in the catalog that I don’t feel really good about, so that’s what makes me chronically revise my music until I really don’t have too many problems with it.
As far as being a performer, there’s something about seeing music in context that is very important for me, and that means playing music in context. Being there and experiencing not only the music, but the things around it: the dance, the way people talk about it, what they’re doing when there’s music. Are there chickens in the background walking around? What’s the situation? Who’s there? What language are they speaking? What is that all about? And I think the reason is because, for me, in this world that we’re now living in—where you can go onto the Internet and find just about any type of music or dance or life experience you want—context is lost. You can see incredible stuff and hear incredible things, but you lose that original meaning. We’re so much closer to everywhere in the world and to so many different styles and ways of thinking about music, yet we’re also much farther because we’re seeing everything through the scrim.
I think there’s something dangerous about that because we lose the humanity of making and experiencing music. There’s something that creates this level of irony around music and around life in general when we’re seeing it through a screen. So there’s a lot of work that’s ironic. I appreciate irony as much as anybody else. I mean, life is ironic—period—when we’re living it. And I guess we can live through The Onion and see everything as ironic, but while irony can be powerful, it’s also not very lasting. It means something different for every generation. I don’t know that irony is the answer. One of my friends said to me once, “Irony is cheap.” I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but I think that we’re in danger when we become self-consciously ironic about work, or see it through the screen too much, even if we’re being genuine about experiences that we’ve only seen through the screen. I need to experience things live as much as I can.
And I’m saying that here on a video. Isn’t that ironic? But those are the ironies built into life. I don’t know how much more self-conscious irony is needed. For me, the human experience is something kind of gritty. That can mean gritty like urban gritty, like here in New York, or it can mean gritty like on a farm, or in a cave, or in the air. I don’t know. It’s just that the real experience of life is messy. It’s full of contradictions and complications. It’s not neat on a screen like it’s packaged. And so I want to get at that in music and to get all that messiness of life. I want to be there, not viewing it through another medium.
FJO: For you, being there is also physically playing the music as well as writing the notes. You’ve always done both. You’ve written music that other people play. You play music that was written by other people. And then you play music that you wrote yourself. We always like so say, “Well, once upon a time, all the great composers were also great players and then there was this point where this terrible divide happened.” But in a way it’s a little disingenuous, since most probably identified more as a composer or as a performer. But you’ve always been both. You’re a fantastic clarinetist; you’re fabulous when you’re playing other people’s music. You’re totally on as an instrumentalist, in addition to being a really terrific composer. So do you think of it as a divide? Has it always been that way? Were there periods in your life that you felt you identified more as a player than as a composer, and now do you identify more a composer than as a player? How do you navigate those two identities? Are there two identities?
DB: I probably have more identities than that, but whenever people ask me what I am, I usually say musician. Inevitably the follow up question is, “What’s the name of your band?” I don’t know how Bach identified, but I have a feeling that he might have also identified as a musician. But I won’t speculate about the way he thought. I think that the break occurs with Beethoven where the composer becomes more self-consciously a composer, although he was also supposedly a great performer as well. I wish we had recordings of him playing. Berlioz was not a performer and you can think of other examples, but they’re more isolated. I don’t even know if they thought of themselves more as this than that; they didn’t really think that much about that separation. That’s more of a 20th-century phenomenon, and it probably has to do also with the economics of it all. Before then you just didn’t think about it because there wasn’t really a way to make money as a composer. There was no copyright. And there was no Stephen Foster yet, or a printing press running 24/7. Maybe Brahms was the first who was really making money independently. And then in the 20th century it just accelerated with the advent of composers at universities where they didn’t really need to perform to make a living.
For me personally, I just love being in a room with other musicians and making music. Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to get a commission from a great performer, but I’ve met most of the best musicians I know by performing with them. I can give an example of just working with the JACK Quartet. I have enjoyed getting to know them by making music with them. We played the Brahms [Clarinet Quintet] and I wrote a clarinet quintet for them. It’s a lot of fun to play with them. That was a real bonding experience. There’s nothing else like it.
I would say that having a great performer play your music is a different experience than performing with them. There are so many wonderful musicians that I’ve met, like Nick Kitchen and the Borromeo Quartet, Maria Bachmann, Fred Sherry, or all of the folks I’ve met through playing at Copland House. The act of performing with somebody is something you can’t compare to anything else. I’m leaving so many people out. When I wrote for Jazz at Lincoln Center, just getting up there and playing with the guys in the band—it also means something to the players when you get up and play with them. You are coming into their space, and you’re saying we’re all together. We’re all on the same plane, and we’re listening to each other at the same time. It means something very different than them interpreting what you wrote. But I’d say they’re both very deep experiences, and I wouldn’t really want to live without one or the other.
FJO: Though at this point in time you can’t imagine life with one and not the other, but I’m sure that when you were growing up and first learning about music, particularly if you were studying classical music, that playing had to come before composing.
DB: I started playing clarinet when I was seven. But I was playing other things earlier. According to my mom, I was picking out tunes on the organ when I was one or two or something. I don’t remember any of that. But I do remember starting clarinet when I was seven, and then starting to work on jazz piano after that.
I had started writing when I was eight or something. I think my first pieces were called symphonies, and they were for clarinet and trumpet because my brother played the trumpet and I played the clarinet. I think what I was doing was copying him because he had started composing something. I don’t know why, but of course I just copied him, like you do when you’re a younger brother. But it may have always been in my blood to compose. My dad was a playwright and a translator, so I had this theatrical kind of background. And my mom had studied drama and was a good singer. She could sing a lot of show tunes. The first record I got was Benny Goodman; my grandma gave it to me. When I was 11, my grandmother bought this very beat up piano from a relative. She paid like $400; I think she way overpaid. In any case, I started composing on it immediately. It was actually my cousin’s piano. And he also became a composer later in life. So it was a charmed piano.
But my first real great teacher was my clarinet teacher: Ben Armato, who played for the Met. He taught me so much about paying attention to detail in music. I used to go down to Patelson’s in New York and buy tons and tons of music when I was kid. And one of the things that I bought was the Copland Concerto. I brought it to him; I was going to impress him and play the Copland. I was 14 when I went to work with him. He listened to me play and after about three bars, he stopped me. Then he said, “Let’s work on that.” And we spent the whole lesson on the first four bars—getting them right, thinking about the phrase and the breath. How was I playing it? Was I supporting it? Was I thinking about the line and where the important note in the line was? All these kinds of things. That had a huge impact on me, because it gave me a kind of seriousness and attentiveness to music.
Although he was my clarinet teacher, he was the first person who really made composing music serious for me. When I started to think critically about what I was doing, Ben took me aside one day and said, “I know you want to be a composer. It breaks my heart, because I would love for you to be a clarinetist. But I want you to know that every note you write is more important than everything I’ve done in my entire life.” And that was very moving to me, that a guy who played clarinet in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra would say that to me. And that he felt that way so strongly, even though he didn’t like modern music. I liked Verdi, Puccini, and Bellini, you know, all the great opera composers. But he felt so strongly that the composer was the center of everything. I think that had a great impact on me. Maybe to hear it from him was even more important than hearing it from a composer because he didn’t need to say that.
I kept playing throughout high school. And I played in rock bands. Then when I got to college, I didn’t make the orchestra. When I got to Yale, which was where I went to school, I was very upset because I thought I was a great clarinetist. But I didn’t know how to play excerpts. I had no idea. I just went in there and played very expressively and did whatever I wanted. And they said “X.” So then I was left without a major musical thing to do at school, since I thought I’d be doing the orchestra. It left me in a strange place, but again, I think sometimes those limitations bring out something interesting. Everybody was telling me I should try out for an a cappella group because that’s a big thing to do at Yale. So I did. I tried out for a group called the Baker’s Dozen, which ended up being a terrific experience. I didn’t know what I was doing when I went in to audition for them. I think I played and sang “Just the Way You Are,” or something like that. But singing opened up a whole new world of making music to me; that being the primary way of generating sound was very influential for me. I ended up doing lots of arranging, all kinds of stuff from Queen to The Cars to jazz standards, even kind of delving into some folk songs and classical stuff. I was singing with people who sometimes didn’t know how to read music. Or if they read music, they only barely read music. Some of them were quite excellent musicians, too. In my class, by the way, was Lisa Bielawa. We were there at the same time. She was singing in a different group at school. So we’ve known each other for a long time.
FJO: When did you start studying composition? Was composing already at that point a thing you wanted to do as a career path?
DB: Yeah, I had decided when I was 11 that I was going to be a composer. I had already been composing little pieces. I think that I had also been writing poems from when I was very young and doing all those creative things that kids do. But somehow I just thought musically. I was always a kid who didn’t notice what he was wearing, but I remembered what I was hearing. And I would imitate sounds and imitate singers. I was a by-ear person. But then I remember that I went to this music camp, and I went to see a pianist play several movements of the Vingt Regards of Messiaen. I remember looking at the program and seeing Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, and then over here, it said Olivier Messiaen. It was a slightly unusual spelling, with all those vowels together. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I don’t know who that is, but whoever that is, I want to do what he does.” It’s a very clear moment to me. It’s funny because people say, “Well, I’m sure you don’t remember when you decided to be a composer.” I say, “No, I remember the exact moment. It was when I saw that guy’s name: Olivier Messiaen. I never forgot it.”
FJO: So you’re 11 and you see Messiaen’s name and think, “I want to do that.” Then you have a clarinet teacher who says, “Any note you write is more valuable than anything I’ve ever done in my life.” And that sort of seals the deal. So you go to Yale and you study music.
DB: Well, there’s one other moment I remember from when I was growing up. I think I was about 12 or 13. I walked into Paul’s Record Hut in New Rochelle. In the bargain bin, I saw a record of a guy who had his head back. He had a hat on, and he was playing piano. He looked like he was almost in pain, and he was sweating. The record was Thelonious Monk’s It’s Monk’s Time. That had a huge impression on me. I had the Benny Goodman record that my grandma had bought me and a couple of other odd jazz records. But Monk was a revelation. So you have this European master Messaien on the one hand, who himself is an incredibly eclectic composer who takes in sounds from everywhere, from birdsong to Hindu chant to Japanese gagaku, then Monk, who had absorbed so many different influences and styles from Debussy to gospel music. Yet both of these composers expressed things in such plain language. It was very simple and straightforward. I think that’s why kids are drawn to both of these composers. And, of course, these were both piano composers, so it was there at my fingertips. I could kind of hear it and imitate it, which I did a lot. I think those were my biggest influences as a kid, as well as listening to a lot of hip hop, which was what was happening in New York. That’s what everybody was listening to growing up, and imitating.
FJO: Hip hop and punk rock. Punk was everywhere.
DB: I think punk was everywhere, but somehow the kids I grew up with in my neighborhood were listening less to punk than to hip hop. My friend Dave knew everything about punk rock. He was listening to the Bad Brains and the Clash. Even the Police had a kind of punk rock sound when they started, and INXS. And when I was 14 or 15 I went to see Suicidal Tendencies at the Ritz in Manhattan. I remember these guys stage diving and I got hit by a boot in the head and went down while people were slam dancing. All my friends had pulled to the back, but I was still there like a dork. And when I was in high school I saw Fishbone. So that was happening at the same time as early hip hop, for sure.
FJO: Both punk and hip hop were movements that started out being all about rejecting any kind of authority and just doing your own thing. Don’t listen to what anybody tells you. But you already had an important mentor, that clarinet teacher. And then you went to Yale, an Ivy League school, which would have been anathema to the whole punk and early hip hop gestalts. You entered into the establishment, and then from there met other people who became very powerful mentors to you, in very different ways, and they informed different aspects of your music. You already mentioned Andriessen, but certainly William Bolcom when you were in grad school, and André Hadju, with whom you studied ethnomusicology when you were in Israel. All of them became a very big part of your identity. And a big part of your own life now is about being a mentor to younger people. You’ve been at Bowdoin all summer.
DB: I always had mentors, and I think actually most people do. It might seem like punk music is DIY, but I’m sure if you ask anybody coming out of that movement, like Iggy Pop or David Bowie, or the guys at Fishbone, or anyone from hip hop, you’ll hear that they have mentors. They may not be obvious mentors. They may not be academic mentors. The mentor may even be someone who is three years older than them, or two years younger than them. I mean, was John Lennon Paul McCartney’s mentor in a way or vice versa, in some cases? It’s hard to say. Jazz musicians all have mentors, same with dancers. And no matter where you find a mentor, whether you find it through kind of a more traditional way like the academy or you go out and seek out somebody that has something that you want, I think it is very important.
My mentors have been some very well-established composers like Bill Bolcom, Louis Andriessen, and Dutilleux certainly, and I got some great moments of wisdom from William Albright. They were my composition teachers. On the other hand, as I said, Ben Armato, who was my clarinet teacher, was a mentor. And I followed Mick O’Brien, the pipes player, for several weeks in Ireland, just transcribing what he was doing. It was for a short amount of time, but he had something that I wanted to hear and to get more deeply involved with. And my teachers in Ghana who taught me the xylophone, those are mentors. They had something I thought was beautiful that I wanted to connect with through music, but also the context in which they worked. That was as important to me as the music.
And sometimes that also goes for composers from the past. As much as Nikola Iliev, the Bulgarian clarinetist that I went to study with, is a mentor, so is Debussy. You know, I try, I read what he writes and I try to get into the way he thought about his writing because it’s not that far from what we’re doing. They were also just people trying to figure out how to make music, how to do what they wanted to do, and how to solve those tough problems. When I’ve read Bartok’s letters, I felt there was a kind of commonality with some of the questions that I had. So I try to get deeper into their music.
And hip hop, too, because when I heard Rakim for the first time, that was a revelation, too. I mean, the first thing on that album you hear is:
I ain’t no joke, I used to let the mic smoke.
Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke.
When I’m gone no one gets on cuz I won’t let
Nobody press up and mess up the scene I set.
I like to stand in a crowd and watch the people wonder damn.
Think about it then you’ll understand.
I’m just an addict, addicted to music,
Maybe it’s a habit, I gotta use it.
Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm,
I hook a beat up, convert it in a hip-hop form.
I mean, he just goes and goes. And that’s coming right on top of “King of Rock, there ain’t none higher / Sucker MC should call me sire,” which itself was revolutionary five years before and now sounds elementary. It’s also very powerful, but elementary compared to what Rakim did. And so Rakim just raised the bar. For me, what was so exciting about hip hop was that new revolutions were happening every couple of years. That same year as Rakim is KRS-One, and Public Enemy the next year. Things kept dropping that were incredible and which were moving the genre forward, and that was exciting. As a musician, I gravitated toward it because it was innovative. And it was vital and urgent and vigilant. I think a lot of other music was kind of sleepy. And hip hop was not sleepy. It was just bubbling up. It couldn’t be stopped, you know.
FJO: But you didn’t become a rapper.
DB: No, but as a teacher once said to me, “It’s all grist for the mill.” There’s beauty in so many things, and they don’t have to be the thing that I’m doing. But maybe what I can find in listening to hip hop is something very deep and complex that then I can channel into something else. Or maybe not, but it all comes in and it’s hard to predict how it will come out or to control it. David Gompper went to Nigeria and spent three years there. You don’t hear it on the surface of his music, but he will tell you that it greatly changed his life. And what changed his life was not exactly some of the musical structures, but maybe some of the things he learned there and the speed and time—things that might be hard to quantify and might be hard to immediately see on the surface. In my music, those things are more on the surface. But I would say that you can’t predict how things will change you. I think it’s just important to keep learning and taking stuff in. Because when you stop learning, if there’s no input, there’s not going to be such a great output either. I hope that I can keep learning. I know that for some people, teaching itself is a way of learning. I just think that there’s all different ways of learning. And I think we really need to keep that input going.
But I hear what you’re saying, that some people seek mentors out through means that are way more traditional. I didn’t really understand yet what studying composition was when I was at Yale, for the most part. My first composition teacher was Michael Tenzer, who was an ethnomusicologist as well. He studied the Balinese gamelan. And he, like Evan Ziporyn who had been a classmate of his, got very interested and went to Bali. Although I appreciated it, I was less interested in the gamelan and much more interested in African music, having played a lot of jazz by that time. I knew a lot about classical music, but I felt like African music was the other side of jazz that I didn’t understand and didn’t know anything about. I think I always had something in me that very much wanted to go to Africa at some point. So when I found a way to do that, that was important to me.
Working with Michael and seeing the way he had created opportunities for himself, whatever way he could, to get over to Bali and get that beautiful music was the signal to me to go to Africa. I went to study with André Hadju in Israel after my undergrad years. Even though I was studying Jewish music with him, he knew my heart was set on going to Africa. And he really encouraged me to go because he said if you feel very strongly the kinds of impulses as you should, as an American having been steeped in jazz and knowing a lot of black American music, this is important for who you are. And I respect the fact that rather than try to push me towards something that he loved, he wanted me to go toward what I love. I really learned what a great teacher is: somebody who can move you toward most fully realizing who you are and toward most fully getting what you need in order to be whole as a human being and—therefore—as a musician.
FJO: You’re describing Africa as your main focus and priority at that time, but it ultimately became much bigger than that. You spent time in Ghana, which you’ve mentioned, but you also described wandering around with a piper in Ireland, and we touched on you being in Bulgaria. And you were in Israel. Plus you’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil as well as China. You’ve been all over the globe, and all of these things have somehow gotten inside your head and your soul and have become a part of your identity. You talked about wanting to experience these things in their own context. There was also an interesting comment you made somewhere on your blog that’s a further elaboration on that—that you have to find a way to make it your own music. You can’t just take it; you’ve got to make it yours. I’m curious about that process, for African music as well as music from everywhere else.
DB: We’re in an unusual age now because it’s an age where people talk about appropriation and mixing up things, and then putting it back out there. I guess I’ve always thought it’s important to digest the music that you take in, rather than kind of chewing it a little and spitting it out. It has to somehow become part of who you are. And it has to go through your own particular digestive system. It’s getting a little gross, but for lack of a better word, you’ve got to shit it out. Or let’s put this more delicately, you want to sweat it out. If it hasn’t become a part of all the garbage that you are, and then comes out in that form, it remains at arm’s length from you. Maybe I’m a little less interested in music where I feel that just the surface has been touched and then kind of repackaged into another form. It’s a complicated subject. It’s the subject of our age really, because it’s tied in with all the stuff about YouTube and immediate access to everything and the Internet. Again, it’s that question of viewing things through the screen versus actually going and touching them. I feel like I can make some generalizations about it, yet at the same time I am only speaking about myself, because I can’t look through anybody’s eyes besides my own. So it’s a personal thing. I suppose maybe I shouldn’t make it general, but I should say, that’s what I do. Maybe there are ways of just taking the surface and making something beautiful out of that. I don’t know. But I haven’t been able to find that for me.
FJO: But now there’s an entire generation for whom the entire gamut of the world is the past and it’s not clearly differentiated, whether it’s classical music, jazz, rock, hip hop, traditional African music, bluegrass, salsa, klezmer, Peking opera, you name it.
DB: It’s all available.
FJO: And because of that there are many people creating music now who don’t really make a distinction between, say, alternative rock or jazz or contemporary classical music. Yet you do all that stuff, too, and you came to most of those different kinds of music at around the same time. But because you come from an earlier generation, it’s somehow still in different pockets. You write for orchestra and there are the things that you know you can do with an orchestra. And then you write as well as play chamber pieces where you can wig out in, say, 11/16. But then you also put together a soul band in which you sang called Peace by Piece and you’ve written a bunch of songs for that group. But when you write vocal music that’s performed with an orchestra or a chamber ensemble, the vocals in those pieces don’t sound like the vocals in Peace by Piece. So it’s like your albums would still be in different places in the record store that used to be across the street from here before the Apple store moved in.
DB: Well, I do think that genre sometimes does create interesting notions, if only just that it gives you something to rub up against. Because I think the rub is good, both on the musical level—the rub that you have when you have that third that’s kind of flatted from African music—and also the rub that exists when you’re up against certain kinds of fixed notions of what music should be or is, as Duke Ellington was. Or someone like Meredith Monk, who came out of dance yet created this beautiful kind of very humanistic minimalism—I don’t know how else to express it, but it was like genres rubbing up against each other. Someone like Ellington had so much to say but felt constrained, and he was also trying to make his ensemble stretch and grow. I think genre can have uses like that where you can try to push the edges of it and, in doing so, you get kind of a strange, hybrid creature that doesn’t have a name exactly.
I had originally conceived of my piece Three Rivers for a hybrid project at The Kitchen that John Schaeffer commissioned for WNYC; it was one of these strange groups which had people from different genres playing in it. And that was exciting. Sometimes you get pushed into a weird place when you’re working with artists in different genres. And it can be good or bad. I revised that piece many times in order to get it where I wanted it, where it is now. It’s strictly notated, but there’s a kind of malleability to it. Working with Alarm Will Sound and having some of those players improvise at different spots has been exciting for me. But it still feels like it’s in a strange zone, an I-don’t-know-what-you’d-call-it kind of music.
Genre can be challenging. I’ve worked a lot with Wendy Walters, the writer, and we’ve written art songs together and an oratorio for the Pittsburgh Symphony. But we also wrote this musical, Golden Motors, that’s now making the rounds. Wendy’s a kindred spirit. She has a kind of flexibility and interest in so many things. She’s a poet. She’s a lyricist. She’s a playwright. She’s an essayist. And she likes poking around between the genres, too. I feel like musical theater is another problem to solve: how to deal with musicians who think of music in a very particular way, in a very beautiful way, in a very structured way, sometimes in a very free way, but yet you have to figure out how to write it down and how to express it to them in a way that makes sense to them, with their background and who they are, which is slightly different from who I am. To me that’s really exciting. I embrace the challenge, although there are maybe disappointments along the way. I mean, Beckett said, “Fail again. Fail better.” You keep failing, but hopefully you do a little better each time.
FJO: You say musical, so are you thinking Broadway?
DB: Well, I don’t know what Broadway means anymore. Broadway means you have to have a lot of money.
FJO: Or someone else does.
DB: And they have to keep putting money into it. So for me, that’s more of a kind of tactic. But yeah, it’s musical theater, and it’s within that genre of singing and structure. That will be the only genre category I would give it. I think it probably has a number of things which will make people say that it’s not musical theater. But that’s true with most of my music, so I don’t worry too much about the labels.
FJO: I was intrigued by something you said earlier about being very careful about your catalog and constantly revising pieces, which you alluded to again when you talked about reworking Three Rivers. But at the same time, I’m overjoyed that unlike many other composers historically who have weeded out some of their earliest pieces, there are some very early pieces that are still in your catalog, like your solo piano piece Turning, which won the ASCAP Leo Kaplan Award for young composers. I also thought it was very brave for you to write on your blog about your very first commission, the band piece, and once again you’ve kept that piece in your catalog.
DB: For better or worse. As a composer, pieces that I’ve written are kind of markers in my life. I suppose my life has probably taken different turns than those of some of my friends who are not composers and who’ve had more normal jobs and lives, who’ve had families and all kinds of things that I haven’t had. So when I think of a certain piece, I think of a certain period in my life. It has a lot of resonance and meaning for me that goes beyond the notes on the page because I remember something about what I was like and what my music was like. Some of that is personal.
As long as people want to play something, I’m basically O.K. with it as long as I don’t think it’s a bad piece. I’ve done revisions on those older pieces and I think they’re the best they can be. People continue to publish and play these pieces, so I feel like I can’t be the architect of my own story. Other people will have to be. I can’t choose which of my works is the most significant. I may like certain pieces better than others, but those are probably, you know, the bad child that nobody else likes, and so I feel defensive and protective of those pieces.
But there are other works that I have not let out there, which are even earlier, because I’ve been writing since I was 11. I mean, you don’t see A Pig up there. A Pig, opus 1, is not there. Nor all the pieces I wrote for my woodwind quintet in high school, nor my first four orchestra pieces which I wrote in high school, where I didn’t even know where to put the violins. I put them at the top of the page. I remember showing that piece to John Corigliano when I was about 21 or 22; he was kind enough to give me a lesson. And he said, “The violins are at the top of the page. Did you know that?” And I said, “Oh.” And he showed me some scores, and I realized. Again, I’m not visual. I had looked at a lot of scores, but I had never picked up the fact that the violins were supposed to be down at the bottom. So a lot of it was just trial and error. I’m just failing better and better.
FJO: Well, I’d like to hear A Pig, opus 1.
DB: I still have all that music somewhere. I’ll try to have DJ Spooky mix it.