“Migration Series”: Q&A with Derek Bermel

In anticipation of Seattle Symphony’s first Sonic Evolution series concert, “Under the Influence Of Jazz,” we had a chance to talk to Derek Bermel about his piece, “Migration Series,” which will be part of a star-studded program. The concert is tonight, Thursday, October 29 at 7:30pm at Benaroya Hall. Be sure to stop by the KING FM/Second Inversion table and grab some swag!

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Second Inversion: Do you think the fusion of genres in Seattle Symphony’s Sonic Evolution series is a good strategy to expand and diversify the audience?

Derek Bermel: Absolutely. I think when you can give audiences a hook to come see something they’re familiar with and then you hit them with something they’re not so familiar with, it’s a gentle way of exposing way them to music they might not know about.  I think it’s truly a groundbreaking series – I’ve been following what Seattle Symphony’s been doing for the last four or five years.  Ludovic Morlot and Simon Woods are looking at music and art holistically as it effects peoples’ lives and they’re looking at what’s going on locally and trying to build in pathways for people who are not normally familiar with symphonic music to get into the vibe.

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Roosevelt High School Jazz Band, who will perform “Migration Series” with Seattle Symphony

SI: The title of tonight’s show is “Under the Influence of Jazz.” How has jazz influenced your composition style as a whole? 

DB: I grew up listening to and playing a lot of jazz, so there was a lot of influence right from the start. I was and still am a huge fan of Thelonious Monk and I remember walking into the record store as a kid and seeing a bright red record in the bargain bin and spending my allowance on it.  That record, “It’s Monk’s Time,” really blew my mind and changed my life.  It coincided with the time in my life when my grandma bought me a small, “honky tonk” piano and I immediately started imitating Monk’s playing on this piano.  It really worked on this piano because it had some keys that didn’t go down all the way and it went out of tune quickly, but I really got that stride and feel by imitating Thelonious Monk.  I also played clarinet and saxophone in the jazz band and was listening to a lot of Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington.

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Jacob Lawrence

SI: And how about the visual artistic influence of Jacob Lawrence? Tell us about your experience with his set of paintings “The Migration Series,” and how it influenced this composition.

DB: I first encountered the paintings when I was young, going into the city (New York) with my mom and saw the exhibit.  There was something about them that struck me in such a deep way. I think it was my connection to African American music and my friends and I saw something in the paintings that felt like music and felt like dance. They jump off the page and they’re very evocative of gesture, shapes, colors, and movement.  I was very drawn to these pictures and they stayed in my mind for many years.  When I started to write this piece, there was something about the form and the way I was writing that had kind of a mosaic quality. I wanted musical themes, approaches, and rhythms to come back during the piece, and for the piece to ebb and flow with this mosaic quality.

I’ve been lucky enough that the Seattle Symphony and Maestro Morlot are interested in having the images displayed along with the show.  It’s an idea that’s been brought up before, but this time it’s actually going to happen!  I’m very excited see how the piece will play with the images.  For me, the thrill is to introduce more people to this artwork as well.  It feels very powerful as an artist to be able to make a tribute to another artist that you admire so much and to let people know about it. A lot of people have gotten to know Jacob Lawrence’s work through my piece, so that’s very gratifying for me as an artist.

And for a taste of the piece and Derek’s insights about the structure of the piece, take a listen!

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