Tag: Alarm Will Sound

Uncomfortably Serious and Disarmingly Fun: The Irreplaceable Matt Marks

[Ed note: On May 11, 2018, the composer, performer, and new music organizer Matt Marks, 38, died unexpectedly in St. Louis. Testimonials from friends and colleagues sharing reflections on his humor, candor, and inspiring work as a music maker have poured in across social media where Matt was a vibrant, pull-no-punches presence. Perhaps illustrating the far reach of his impact, many of these messages were prefaced with variations of “I only met him IRL once, but our friendship here meant so much to me.” Online and off, Matt Marks was a point of community connection, and the absence of his voice—especially in the days leading up to the annual New Music Gathering he helped to found—has been difficult for many. Reflecting on this vital role he played in the field, Will Robin offered to share this interview he conducted with Marks in 2015. Spending a bit more time in the company of Matt’s conversation seemed a perfect way to celebrate him. Acknowledgments to Ted Hearne for the title inspiration.—MS]

As a historian of the recent past, I am in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to speak with the musicians whom I study. Most of the composers and performers I interviewed for my dissertation on the so-called “indie classical” scene were in their late twenties to early forties; I never thought to worry that a subject might pass away before we could talk. That one of them died last week is an unfathomable tragedy, from which the world of new music is still reeling. Matt Marks seemed like the kind of composer who would simply exist forever, whose presence would always be palpable. From his work as a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, to his heartfelt and hilarious compositions, to his organizational efforts with New Music Gathering, to his sardonically prolific Twitter account, it was impossible to overlook Matt or his essential role in the new music community.

In September 2015, I spoke with Matt in the sunny Brooklyn apartment that he shared with Mary Kouyoumdjian, a fellow composer who would become his fiancée, and their menagerie of adorable pets. I was primarily interested in his role in the scene around New Amsterdam Records, the label that released his first album, which was a main subject of my dissertation. The condensed interview transcript that you read below thus focuses primarily on Matt’s life, and less on his music; I hope that the many tributes that we will surely be reading in the coming weeks equally emphasize his compelling artistry. But what I think it does address, importantly, is that community doesn’t just “happen”: it requires the tireless labor of people like Matt to make it happen.

For me, despite—or perhaps because of—the incisive humor and postmodern irony that swirled through his music and writing, at the core of Matt’s work was a willingness to be publicly vulnerable, and to provide his listeners and readers with a sense of his entire self. This is maybe why it’s so hard to feel his absence, especially for those of us who primarily knew him virtually. His sometimes-insightful, sometimes-stupid, always-entertaining tweets are all still there; his music is so insistently written in his own voice, with his own voice. All you have to do is check your timeline and cue up his Soundcloud, and there he is again. On our screens, in our ears, in our presence.

Here is our conversation.

Matt Marks, a.k.a mafoo

Will Robin: Could you tell me a little bit about your musical background, up until college?

Matt Marks: I don’t come from a musical background. My dad owned an auto place and my mom worked with him. It was very much a car family: my brother was into cars, worked with them, my dad raced cars, all of that. I’m from Downey, California, so like L.A. I started taking piano lessons in second grade and got pretty into that but was never really a pianist-pianist, just played and had a good facility for it. And then in sixth grade I started French horn. When I got into high school I started getting more serious with horn, and actually the first big thing I did was—kind of out of the blue—auditioned for the LA Philharmonic High School Honor Orchestra, the first year they did that. I won first chair French horn. That kind of gave me a big ego boost, to “Oh, maybe this is something serious.” I joined more orchestras around there and did a bunch of playing: it was very much horn, horn, horn, classical music, Mahler, everything like that. In high school, I had my Stravinsky thing; I listened to The Rite of Spring and had my mind blown. That was a big thing for me, hearing The Rite of Spring. At this point, I was still pretty ignorant of new music or new music groups, or whether that could be a thing.

I went to Eastman. I did my undergrad there in horn. Like a lot of classical musicians, I started off trying to be really good at my instrument, and not necessary being like, “I’m going to win a job,” but just like, “I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.” Practicing horn a lot, playing horn a lot, and trying to win auditions and placements at Eastman, stuff like that. My sophomore or junior year, I played the Ligeti Piano Concerto and that kind of blew my mind, and that was this thing for me of like, “Holy shit, this is a new type of music that I don’t even understand yet.” I did a rare thing for me, which was I took the score to the library and was like, “I’m going to sit down and listen to this because it looks really hard.” And then I got lost on the first page. I was like, “What the fuck is going on?” Which is funny, now, because I listen to it and I’m like, “This is such an easy piece,” [hums and snaps the rhythms] but for some reason there was so much going on in the 12/8 and 4/4 stuff that I couldn’t follow it. I practiced it and learned it: in the horn part there are a lot of microtonal partials and stuff like that, which is something I eventually got kind of into. Within two to three years, I went from “Holy shit. What the fuck is Ligeti? How do I do this?” to then soloing on the Ligeti horn concerto at Miller Theatre for the New York premiere of that, and that was one of Alarm Will Sound’s first gigs. That was my senior year, so that would have been 2002.

WR: What was your involvement at the beginning of Alarm Will Sound, which developed out of Ossia, the student new music ensemble at Eastman?

MM: We came to New York, did that [Miller Theatre concert], and it was a success. I think we got a good review. So that was the first kind of like, “Oh, man, maybe we can actually be a thing.” At that point, there was Kronos Quartet, there was Eighth Blackbird, there was California Ear Unit, and a bunch of string quartets. And from my perspective, all the other chamber groups were people who tried to play CMA [Chamber Music America], and tried to just be a chamber group and play colleges, and play hard music or whatever, or French wind quintets or whatever, or brass quintets—I was very plugged into brass quintets, and that was pretty bro-y. What’s your instrument?

WR: Saxophone.

MM: Oh yeah, sax quartets, you know, all that shit. And there’s something really beautiful, but also kinda bro-y about traditional chamber groups—I don’t know, whatever, there’s probably something bro-y about new music groups. When we started, Alan [Pierson] and Gavin [Chuck] were like, “We want to make this a real thing, an actual group with members.” And I was like, “Sure!” But I also had no idea whether that would stick or what. I graduated and then went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music for a year, so I was like, “Sure, if you want to fly me down to play some gigs, okay,” and they did. And that was our first year where we had somewhat of a season, and it was weird because I was in London the whole time so I would just periodically fly back. I left and moved back to the states, first to New Haven and then to New York. I moved to New York in 2004, and from then on it was kind of like, “Okay, now I’m here” and it was actually a pretty interesting time to be in New York for new music groups and shit like that.

You know, I’m your typical composer narcissist so I can just keep talking about myself: feel free to stop me.

I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever.

WR: What was it like starting out in New York?

MM: It was pretty shitty for a few years. I knew just a few people in the city, and I was like, “I guess what I’m supposed to do is try to hound gigs, just make friends with horn players and brass players and bro out, and try to get gigs.” And I did that to a certain extent, but it was never really my thing. I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever. So I pretty soon off decided that wasn’t the track for me, or at least I tried for a while and was like “I don’t have the heart for this. This is not my thing.” It took me a couple years, but I started meeting more people who were involved in new music. I eventually went to Stony Brook for a master’s in horn. At that time, I was starting to write music more—mainly electronic music and weird noise music on my sampler, and building my confidence for like, “Maybe eventually this will be something that’s not just on my headphones.”

At that point, there were maybe about seven Alarm Will Sounders living in the city. We started playing together and doing our own things. I started playing with Caleb [Burhans] and stuff. [Soprano Mellissa Hughes] was like, “Oh, you’re making music. You should keep doing that, and I’ll sing on some of it.” So we started working together. And after a few years, we had A Little Death, Vol. 1, my weird pop opera. That just came out of my weird sample pieces and pop pieces, and having an actual good singer to sing on it. I had that and recorded it and didn’t really know what I was going to do with all that material. Around that that time I started writing more for instruments—Mellissa, myself, and James Moore started this weird chamber group called Ensemble de Sade. It was basically this S&M-themed chamber ensemble, but it was also kind of satirical and making fun of itself. This was at that time when – I guess we’re still in that time – when classical music was all about tearing down the borders between audience and performers. Performers were trying to dress more casually, inviting people from the audience to join them. And we were generally into the idea, but we had this idea of being this satirical ensemble that was the opposite of that, like “Fuck that, there should be more distance! The audience is beneath us and we’re the top, and they’re lucky to be here!” So we put on a couple performances where we all dressed in tuxes and we were all super slick looking. We came out and we would be mean looking, play shit and finish and just leave, and not even acknowledge the audience. We had this dominatrix who would instruct the audience when to clap, and they weren’t allowed to clap unless she told them. We had all these restrictions on them—they had assigned seating, they couldn’t sit near their friends, they were really far from each other. I had been reading a bunch of Marquis de Sade at the time, and so this idea came from 120 Days of Sodom. The audience was seated, and they were super restricted and couldn’t talk, and if they did she would yell at them—she had a switch and shit. And then we had this separate section that was a VIP section with friends of ours. We let them sit there and we let them talk, and gave them food and wine. Some of the people who came were pissed about it, but some were like, “OK, I’m in a theatrical thing.” We did a few of those and that was pretty fun, and through that, basically, Ensemble de Sade and Newspeak, the two of us formed the New Music Bake Sale.

Marks on stage

Marks on stage with Mary Kouyoumdjian (left) and Lainie Fefferman
Photo by Tina Tallon

WR: What appealed to you about New Amsterdam Records—which released The Little Death, Vol 1.—and its scene?

I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it.

MM: It’s less of a scene as in like, everybody’s going to the same concerts all the time and hanging out, and bro-ing out. It’s more that they tapped into something interesting that was happening in the mid/late 2000s that seemed pretty cool. And it’s funny, because we talk about it in the past tense because maybe it’s not as much of a thing anymore? But I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it. I like this idea of classical music, or pop music written by classical musicians, that is a little bit more immediately appealing to people who aren’t trained to understand how classical music works. That doesn’t mean I think that that’s the only music there should be or anything like that, but I think that the people involved in New Amsterdam are all people who are very interested in pop and involve it in their work in some way. Some people more explicitly than others, I think. Some people take ideas from pop music and involve them in music that’s clearly written in a modernist tradition, or in a classical tradition. And some people like me are more explicit with it, where it’s like, “We’re going to make music that’s pretty much like pop, but with influences from outside of pop.” I think that’s interesting, and it was a unique movement or scene or whatever for a while. I think it got pigeonholed by a lot of people outside of New York and also in New York as being like, “Oh, we’re going to make classical music more fun – or more accessible.” I think a lot of people think that it was really focused on accessibility, or trying to be hip.

WR: What were the early New Amsterdam shows you performed in like?

MM: The vibe at that time at a lot of these things was playing for people or going to their shows to support them, but also, “Oh, this will be genuinely good so I’m going to go check this out.” With Little Death, when we did it and I had the small choir, I think I paid them $100 or something like that. I don’t know if that’d be possible now. That was 2010, and those people are now touring all over the world and shit, or teaching at USC. There was something kind of special about that. We got like a hundred bucks for it, but it was a day’s work and it was fine. I do feel a little bit like it’s gotten a bit spread out though: there’s not the same feeling of everybody’s going to come to everybody’s show and everybody’s going to play on everybody’s show.

WR: How has the new music scene changed since you’ve been active in it?

MM: I’ve been in New York eleven years as of September. It’s funny. I feel like I’ve gotten a bit disconnected from it, mainly because I’ve become more involved in my own things, and I’m also kind of a horrible homebody. It’s hard to get me to go out. In the event I have children of my own, I’m a little worried, because I won’t go to any shows. I always find a reason to miss shows. What are the scenes right now that I think are cool? I really dig the vibe of Hotel Elefant, Mary [Kouyoumdjian]’s scene.It’s a good mix. They tend to be younger—late 20s, early 30s. I guess I like that vibe a lot because, similarly to how I was maybe five years ago or whatever, people are just willing to try shit out and do things, and they aren’t necessarily worried about like, “Okay, this many rehearsals means I need to get paid this much and blah blah blah.” There’s a lot of vitality with younger people, because even though they have less economic freedom, they’re just down to do weird shit.

WR: What are the most interesting things you’re seeing these days?

MM: I think San Francisco will be seeing more cool stuff. The fact that we did New Music Gathering there was really interesting. There’s a ton of stuff happening in San Francisco, and when we were there, a lot of it came on our radar and we were like, “Oh wow, this is great.” We’ll see what happens in Baltimore, but I know that there’s a lot happening there. Part of what we’re trying to do with New Music Gathering is to be like, “Hey, there are all these really great scenes. Let’s go to these places.” Rather than just be like, “Let’s do it in New York where we live.” Let’s go to these places that have these interesting scenes and shine the light on them and let them show the world what they’ve got, and also have other people there too.

WR: What do you think is the significance of the entrepreneurship rhetoric that’s become a significant part of the discussion in classical and new music?

MM: It’s a tricky thing, because I do think that it’s really important to think creatively about how you’re going to run the business that is either yourself or your ensemble or your label or whatever it is, and I think people are getting better at doing that. And I think that’s something that sadly hasn’t been really taught at schools at a practical level. Schools have their entrepreneurship program or arts leadership program which, if you’re a horn player and you’re there to play the horn, you just don’t engage with. I would have gladly foregone taking the mandatory humanities class that I didn’t care about at all to take a class on how to put on a show, how to program a concert, how to schedule rehearsals. That could be a fucking semester class, just scheduling rehearsals. The most stress in my life is about scheduling rehearsals, promoting things. That’s terrifying, and I just learned it from being in New York and doing it the wrong way for ten years. That said, I don’t think you can think too capitalistically with it. Classical music, I don’t know how well it would ever survive as something that is purely capitalistic, purely something people just spend money on.

WR: Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

MM: Who do you want me to talk shit about?

The New Music Gathering Co-Founders

The New Music Gathering Co-Founders: Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Daniel Felsenfeld, Lainie Fefferman, and Jascha Narveson
Photo by Tina Tallon

No Place Like This—The 2013 Mizzou International Composers’ Festival

Simon Rehearsal

Alarm Will Sound rehearses Greg Simon’s Draw Me the Sun in the Missouri Theatre.
All photos by Greg Simon unless otherwise stated.

Last Sunday, I stumbled off a tiny commuter jet and into the airport at Columbia, Missouri, arriving in town to attend the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival. Along with seven other composers from around the world, I had been chosen to write a piece for the festival’s resident ensemble: the incomparable chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. We gathered in Columbia for a week of making music, talking shop, and what AWS affectionately calls “the hang.” There were concerts by Alarm Will Sound and the University of Missouri New Music Ensemble; lessons with Daniel Kellogg and Augusta Read Thomas; bouts of laughter, tough love, elation, anxiety, terrible food, amazing wine, new friends, old teachers; and, of course, world-class music. The week ended with a concert featuring the premieres of the works we had written for Alarm Will Sound, a truly hair-raising program showcasing a wild array of backgrounds and styles. I’m still processing the whirlwind of emotions I experienced during the festival and the amazing premieres, but I left certain of this: the MICF is a truly special event, an opportunity young composers will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

The Festival

Presented by the University of Missouri and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, the festival brings together eight resident composers, two guest composer mentors, and the ridiculously talented members of Alarm Will Sound for a week at the end of July. The ensemble workshops, records, and premieres pieces written specifically for them by the eight residents. The guest composers work with the residents, in individual and small-group sessions; the residents work with Alarm Will Sound, sitting in on rehearsals and lending their ear to the preparations for the premiere performances. Just about everything is open to the public, including rehearsals and lectures by the guest and resident composers.

Like most composers, I’ve done the summer festival dance for a while now. Before coming to the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival, I was lucky enough to spend two summers among the bats at the wonderful Brevard Music Center. Before that I was the worst operations intern in the history of the Aspen Music Festival, and tagged along with their composers for the six-week session. At Mizzou, the eight-resident roster also included alumni of Aspen, Bowdoin, California Summer Music, ACO and EAMA workshops, and more. Every music festival is different, but there’s one thing I’ve learned: It’s a bit weird to be a composer at any of them. While your instrumentalist friends are getting yelled at in rehearsal, you’re taking hikes or having lighthearted talks with knowledgeable mentors and colleagues. You might compose, but not nearly as much as your buddies practice. The performances of your work, if there are any, might be well-attended but will pale in comparison to the crowds at the operas and symphony concerts. The festival is, in most cases, very good to you and your colleagues; but ultimately, you’re on the fringe, a vital part of the mission statement but one that spends precious little time center stage.

It’s a brand-new experience, then, to come to a festival where composers are the main attraction. The eight of us were the focus of the festival’s final night, but the MICF love affair with new music runs much deeper than just the last night’s festivities. The three programs presented during the week featured more than 20 works, just about 100 percent by living composers. No fewer than twelve of us were in the building, introducing our work and talking to our audience before and after the performances. The emphasis of MICF is unequivocally on creating an environment where new music can flourish and grow. As was pointed out to me by Ryan Chase, another 2013 resident composer, MICF makes a statement through its very use of the word “resident”. The eight of us aren’t “student” composers or “young” composers; we’re residents, brought in to be creative partners in the festival and its offerings.


Composers Jason Thorpe Buchanan, Greg Simon, Ryan Chase and Wei-Chieh Lin
having a post-rehearsal round on Tuesday night.

The Community

There are many great festivals around the country and the world with similar goals and aims for new music, it’s true. But what makes MICF so special isn’t just its artistic bent, but the community it serves. The eight residents came from all over the world to Columbia, including visitors from New York, California, and the Netherlands. Not a one of us had ever been to Columbia before our arrival here in town, save for local boy David Witter. None of us knew what to expect from the community or its listeners, but I don’t know that we were expecting an appetite for new music on par with New York or L.A. Columbia, after all, is a college town separated from the nearest major city by a two-hour drive. At 100,000 denizens, it’s less than half the size of Buffalo and could fit into Los Angeles 38 times.

But its smaller size makes the presence of community members at rehearsals, talks, and concerts even more inspiring. At most events, the residents sit elbow-to-elbow with members of the Columbia community, who come out in droves for the chance to see this elite group of performers in action. There’s real conversation and familiar faces—it’s not unusual to see attendants to lectures or concerts grabbing their morning coffee the next day. (By the way, be sure to get a chocolate shake at Lakota Coffee. You’ll thank me later.) Most of those who come out aren’t affiliated with Mizzou’s School of Music, although there are plenty of students hanging around, too. Each of the three concerts of the week drew a sizeable crowd, with Columbians from all walks of life.
And of course, no account of MICF would be complete without mentioning the local heroes of the festival, Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield. Financial support of the festival through the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation is just the beginning for Jeanne and Rex. The Sinquefields opened their incredible estate to the MICF performers and composers to start the week with a kickoff banquet. (Side note: Rex drives a golf cart much better than I ever will.) You could find them at just about any of the week’s events. Jeanne has done some incredible work in service of her mission to grow Missouri’s contemporary music offerings, and MICF is a beautiful example of that. By including Mizzou faculty and students at every stage of the festival (Stefan Freund, cellist for AWS, is a faculty member at Mizzou), from composer to performer to administrator, she ensures that it will always be a blend of the best talent in Missouri and musicians from afar.

Jeanne Sinquefield and Augusta Read Thomas

Jeanne Sinquefield (left) chats with guest composer Augusta Read Thomas (right)
at the Sinquefield Estate.

Alarm Will Sound

Whether they’re working on your piece or someone else’s, it’s a pretty valuable composition lesson just to watch Alarm Will Sound in action. It’s no surprise: the group brings together twenty phenomenal players to form a chamber music superpower. Not only that, but the time and attention they grant every composer’s music is almost unheard of elsewhere in the orchestra world. AWS rehearses repertoire for the festival (including the eight world premieres) six or more hours each day during the week, including performance days. That’s on top of a three-day pre-festival “band camp” at the Sinquefield Reserve for more rehearsal.
The rehearsal schedule is intense and all-consuming; each participating composer gets a generous block of time to try things out, make changes to their pieces, and field questions. After the day’s activities, all is set aside in favor of beer, wine, and really awful music jokes. For the eight residents, the festival is an opportunity to take risks with incredible players and test their limits. It’s also an opportunity to skip most of the growing pains of passing out new music—the fumbled runs, the missed key changes—and skip right to drawing the music out of a brand new piece. And yes, it’s a chance to have a drink or two with some extraordinary musicians.

Most importantly, though, it’s a chance to put music in front of true professionals and get their full, brutal honesty. There were frank discussions about what notation worked or didn’t work, how to craft scores and parts for maximum efficiency, and how extended techniques like multiphonics can be used without being exhausting for the performer. Even in moments of tough love, AWS is kind. Even in the hardest trial-by-fire moments, AWS is adventurous. Regardless of style, writing for them is a pleasure, and having them as a lab to try out compositional ideas is an invaluable learning experience for a composer.

The Composers

The composers invited to the festival came from all over the world, as far away as the Netherlands and as close by as across town. We were a diverse group with eight totally different stories and styles—from Ryan Chase’s luminous tonality to Wei-Chieh Lin’s intricate, Grisey-influenced sonic landscapes. Andrew Davis, Elizabeth Kelly, and myself all profess to be influenced by jazz and pop, to three radically different ends. Eric Guinivan comes out of his experience as a world-class percussionist, and David Witter writes music that reflects his love of free improvisation. On Saturday night, the concert of eight premieres revealed a radical cross-section of the contemporary music world.

An excerpt from Jason Thorpe Buchanan’s Asymptotic Flux: First Study in Entropy (2012).
Video courtesy of Jason Thorpe Buchanan.

I’ve found this one of the greatest perks of attending music festivals: to encounter the music of other young artists that you might otherwise gloss over for lack of time or chances. Our field is one where the blinders go on all too easily, if only because there’s far too much great music out there to spend much time seeking out the brand new. Composers at music festivals have the opportunity to throw those blinders in the trash, and Mizzou goes the extra mile by surrounding you with nothing but living music.

In fact, Mizzou offers an even steeper inundation into the new music landscape than many. The focus of the eight composers at MICF is on building the premiere of a big new piece. As a resident, not only are you seeing new music from seven other voices in composition, but seeing the growing pains that come along with it. Composers sit in on the others’ rehearsals, following along with the score and observing the agony and ecstasy of the rehearsal process. The strengths and weaknesses of each piece are in the forefront when pieces are raw, and the residents see each other’s. In our off hours, we talked through issues both musical and extramusical. We talked about developing craft, shaping the voice, and silencing the demons. Every aspect of the process was laid bare. The usual festival experience of encountering colleagues’ music is enhanced by watching their process, understanding their anxieties, and—at the premiere performance of their work—sharing their elation.

On Stage Interview

Guest composer Daniel Kellogg interviews resident composer Elizabeth Kelly
as Andrew Davis, Wei-Chieh Lin, and Eric Guinivan look on during the final concert.

The End

So here I am, a few days after the incredible last concert at MICF 2013, trying to make sense of the experience. There’s no doubt in my mind: In a country filled with inspiring opportunities for young composers, the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival is unique. The wealth of offerings to the resident composers, the “bring it on” attitude that Alarm Will Sound applies to every new piece, and the emphasis on composers and performers growing together are all remarkable, made doubly so by the (somewhat unlikely) surroundings.

Throw in the emphasis on local participation and talent, and the festival’s aims become clearer: MICF is hoping to create a new kind of space for new music in the community. The festival brings world-class performers and young composers together with an uninitiated audience, inviting them to experience the process of building new music in all its painful, rapturous glory. Audience members can interact with and understand composers and performers in their element, in a way that might only be possible in such a context. Featuring local talent gives Columbia a voice in the festival, and a presence that lingers long after the applause dies down from the premieres concert. MICF is creating a new music festival that its college-town community owns, and is going a long way in building Mizzou and Columbia into major destinations for contemporary music in town and beyond. If it can work in Columbia, maybe one day it could work in Corvallis, Tallahassee, Boseman… who knows? If one thing’s for sure, it’s that this is a festival to watch, in a town to watch. Composers, take note: There’s no place quite like this.


Greg Simon

Greg Simon
Photo by Erin Algiere

Composer and jazz trumpeter Greg Simon is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Michigan and is the young composer-in-residence for the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. His music has been performed by ensembles and performers around the country, including Alarm Will Sound, the Fifth House Ensemble, the Playground Ensemble of Denver, and the California All-State Symphonic Band, and is featured on recordings by the California State University, Fullerton Wind Ensemble, the Fifth House Ensemble, and violist Karen Bentley Pollick. When he’s not composing, Greg enjoys hockey, microbrews, and short stories.

Sounds Heard: Derek Bermel—Canzonas Americanas

Following a recent release of Derek Bermel’s music for full orchestra (the excellent album Voices on the BMOP Sounds label), this new collection focuses on Bermel’s work for that quintessential contemporary sinfonietta, Alarm Will Sound. Led by artistic director and conductor Alan Pierson, AWS’s one-on-a-part instrumentation has provided a proving ground for a generation of eclectic and beat-friendly composers, to whom Bermel has become something of a (youthful) elder statesman. While Bermel’s music shares many characteristics with that of the 30-something Brooklyn scene, it’s undeniable that his distinct style in many ways harkens back to Copland and Bernstein’s generation and that era’s fascination with American folk and jazz sources. This collection of Bermel’s music provides a helpful point of entry for those curious to know just what has made this composer so consistently stand out: his music’s fusion of quasi-minimalist beat-based sensibilities with a dizzying diversity of popular and/or indigenous sound sources from across the globe.

AWS’s instrumentation would seem to provide ideal expression for Bermel’s musical ideas. While I have always enjoyed his works for standard chamber ensembles and full orchestra, it’s in these compositions for a large confederation of soloists that his knack for utilizing extended techniques and vividly complex textures really comes to the fore. Pierson and AWS turn in performances that throb with crisp intensity when called for, while also displaying sensitivity to the many timbral colors that make Bermel’s music pulse, zing, and shimmer. The title selection, Canzonas Americanas, pairs the ensemble with Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, who conjures up an intimate sound that is the ideal fit for Bermel’s genre-hopping music. Originally commissioned by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Canzonas blossoms from its opening solo violin figure into a bustling, Andriessen-esque passage without skipping a beat. Bermel’s facility in fusing the simple lyricism of folk sources to more hard-edged and propulsive textures is one of his music’s most attractive qualities, and he illuminates a vast expanse rarely traversed by composers today—making him an eclectic in the most meaningful sense.

Three Rivers first struck me as being akin to Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs and other works from the mid-century “Third Stream.” But whereas many of Bernstein’s compositions in this genre seem almost too neatly contained within their assumed jazz-inflected style, Bermel assumes the guise of jazzy gestures in order to go way beyond anything resembling the Paul Whiteman variety of safe (if charming) pops fare. The three rivers of Bermel’s title refer to three streams of music, initially introduced in succession but eventually piling up in a gloriously raucous climax. Wild drum solos and off-kilter wind licks let us know we’re listening to something that sounds a bit like jazz, yet the familiar gestures of jazz have been transformed and transfigured into something entirely Bermel’s, in way that pays homage to the sound of Mingus and Gil Evans while creating something wholly independent of their influence. At his best, Derek Bermel is a composer who is always reaching beyond himself, pushing past stylistic limitations rather than simply confirming them. Three Rivers is one of the album’s best calling cards, and the members of AWS swing with a surprising lightness rarely heard in their heavier rhythmic playing—a capability that I do hope more composers will exploit.

Natural Selection features baritone Timothy Jones in the album’s most significant foray into vocal writing. Utilizing everything from speech to slides to gospel inflections, Bermel’s vocal writing makes use of the full expressive range of the male voice, especially some vulnerable falsetto moments that Jones pulls off perfectly, giving a performance that almost doubles as a dramatic reading in its subtle characterizations. The texts by Wendy S. Walters and Naomi Shihab Nye are nothing if not moody, and Bermel exploits this to maximum effect, with a cinematic or even noir-like sound that has tinges of the grotesqueness of cabaret—all resolving in the beautifully simple final song, “Dog,” with its Native American inflections both tender and unexpected.

Hot Zone begins with an affable and funky riff, inspired by Bermel’s study of the West African gyil—a small marimba-like instrument that Bermel studied in Ghana (and whose at times jarring pitchiness colors the sound of the piece). Meanwhile Continental Divide ventures into an almost spectralist, klangfarben-y territory not elsewhere explored on the album, the piece’s offhand jazzy licks subsumed into ominous crescendi. The oldest work recorded here (1996), it hails from Bermel’s days of study with Louis Andriessen and features abrupt transitions along with a more driving motoric sense. The work is colorful, bracingly dissonant, and quirkily toe-tapping—yet at the same time, I’m glad that Bermel eventually progressed from this approach to a style that is markedly tolerant of lyricism and more delicate gestures. It’s the tension and points of contact between Bermel’s affection for beats and grooves and the simplicity of folk-like song that often make his music so persuasive.

This recording is a sonic safari at its core: our chance to follow Derek Bermel’s contact with other peoples and traditions, and the impact of these lived experiences as they play out in music. As an album that shows a composer always reaching outside of his own culture and experiences for inspiration, it’s remarkable that Bermel’s offerings feel so distinctly personal and homemade. Despite their myriad sources and origins, each work on this disc reveals a composer totally in touch with his own social and artistic goals. It’s the most impressive release of Bermel compositions to date, performed by some of the most committed advocates of the composer’s artistic vision.