by Jill Kimball
About 22 years ago, the composer Derek Bermel was in Ghana, practicing the xylophone.
(It’s a long story. Just go with it.)
“I see this woman walking along, carrying a jug of water on her head, and she’s moving her hips, dancing to the music,” he said. “But then I notice that she’s dancing in a different rhythm than I was playing.”
Bermel kept playing, confused but smiling. “I thought…why is she doing this dance to another rhythm? And then I realized: My whole way of feeling the rhythm was wrong in that song.”
To Derek Bermel, an award-winning composer and clarinetist who has traveled the world to perform and write music, context is everything. If he hadn’t been in Ghana that day to see a local woman dancing along to his music, he’d never have been able to see beyond his Western view of rhythm.
Similarly, if we hadn’t caught up with Bermel in the studios for some context before the world premiere of his latest piece, “Death with Interruptions,” we might not be quite as choked up listening to it now.
On Monday night, at the Seattle Chamber Music Society‘s Summer Festival, “Death with Interruptions” had its premiere. You can be the first to hear it on demand below.
“Death with Interruptions” was commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Music Society and is a piano trio, an established classical form that in Bermel’s hands sounds anything but established. It begins with a simple, plaintive melody and moves through a series of transformations in movement, speed, and texture. Every variation continually returns to the piece’s core, which sounds like a kind of musical heartbeat.
“Death with Interruptions” is inspired by Jose Saramago’s novel of the same title, in which death is a living character. “It was an intriguing thought,” he said. “Yes, death is often very dispassionate, but also quite ridiculous and impulsive,” like a human might be.
He began writing the piece just a month after the passing of his father, playwright and theatre critic Albert Bermel. Much like Johannes Brahms in his German Requiem, he was interested in exploring the ways we, the living, cope with death as it strikes us again and again over the years.
“We experience death in many, many ways–the deaths of parents, friends, pets, lovers–but life keeps going as death hits,” he said. “So the way we experience death, I realized, is not so much as this one calamity but as a series of pangs we experience. The experience is continually interrupted, and we return to it when we’re in a quieter moment. There’s something about that that’s present in the form of the piece.”
Bermel was never shy about exploring feelings of loss. One of his first compositions was “A Pig,” which he dedicated to the family’s pet guinea pig when it passed away.
Between early childhood and adulthood, Bermel pursued music–he played in his high school jazz band and in a rock group simply called The Generic Band–but he also loved science, and his focus shifted between the two for a number of years.
“I was interested in a bunch of different things, and I’m grateful for that time I had to figure out who I was as a human being,” he said. “That hopefully comes through in my music.”