From Octave 9 to Outer Space: Derek Bermel’s Adventures at the Seattle Symphony

by Maggie Molloy

As Composer-in-Residence with the Seattle Symphony this year, Derek Bermel kept pretty busy. Putting together multimedia performances in the brand new Octave 9 space, collaborating with local veterans through the Compass Housing Alliance, and nurturing the voices of young composers were just a few of his weekly activities.

He also wrote an immersive new piece about the Mars rover Curiosity, was featured as part of a 24-hour contemporary music marathon, and found an innovative new way to fit the full Seattle Symphony Orchestra within the intimate walls of Octave 9.

Learn about all this and more in our interview with the composer below.

Music in this interview is from Derek Bermel’s Hot Zone, performed by Alarm Will Sound. This interview originally aired on Classical KING FM’s Seattle Symphony Spotlight. Audio editing by Dave Beck.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, July 1 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Derek Bermel: Three Rivers; Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe Music)

artworks-000034193045-rcfdyx-t500x500Derek Bermel’s “Three Rivers” sounds almost more “big band” than “chamber ensemble.”  In this piece inspired by a trip he took to Pittsburgh, where he spent several hours mesmerized by the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, he’s crafted over eleven minutes of pure swagger.  It’s angular and almost bawdy.  If it doesn’t put you in mind of an abstract version of West Side Story then you probably haven’t seen West Side Story. – Rachele Hales


Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.

Bruce Adolphe: “My Inner Brahms: An Intermezzo” performed by Orli Shaham (Canary Classics)

8Brahms is not easy. Brahms is not easy to learn, not easy to play, not easy to perform, and certainly not easy to imitate. But composer Bruce Adolphe rose to the challenge when his former Julliard student Orli Shaham commissioned him to write a Brahmsian solo piano piece for her album Brahms Inspired.

And rise up he did—in “My Inner Brahms (An Intermezzo),” Adolphe channels the Romantic master’s trademark lyricism and profound depth. He echoes Brahms’ famously thick, dense harmonies and cascading arpeggios, his searing poignancy and that unmistakable sense of yearning. Like Brahms, there is a quality in Adolphe’s writing that is tragic, traumatic, and so incredibly vulnerable.

The piece completely surrounds and engulfs you in its swirling arpeggios and elusive melodies—and after a while you begin to lose yourself entirely to that bold, unmistakably Brahmsian lyricism.

No, Brahms is not easy—but he is so incredibly worth it. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.

Suphala: Eight and a Half Birds (Tzadik Records)

MI0003637669If you weren’t paying attention, you might think this cut is just another track of house music that samples some “world music” sounds…  But, that would be a shame, because with this track, the beauty is in the details.  In Eight and a Half Birds, Suphala fuses danceable beats, nature sounds, piano samples, electronics, and her own tabla mastery into something very special, with the texture evolving and morphing in a deeply fascinating manner that’s also just subtle enough to fly right by the ears of the inattentive.  So, just what should we call this?  I’m going to choose to call it “post-minimalist post-house,” but labels don’t really matter when the music is this good.  This cut is music for squinting slowly into the sun on a bright, hot summer day and loving every second of it.

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano

by Rachele Hales

I was excited – well, excited and scared – to be given the opportunity to review Anthony de Mare’s latest album of Stephen Sondheim “re-imaginings.”  Excited because Sondheim’s impact on me was very strong as I was one of many children who listened; scared because I didn’t want to find flaws in the interpretations that might underscore my devotion to the originals.  After listening to Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim From the Piano several times, I can calm similar worries other listeners may have by entreating you to remember that “the way is clear, the light is good/ I have no fear, nor no one should.”


Thirty-six composers from a wide variety of backgrounds were commissioned by Anthony de Mare to re-imagine a Sondheim song of their choice as a solo piano piece.  The result proves that things change – but they don’t, when you make something that lasts.  Mark Eden Horowitz, author of Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, puts it this way: “One of the reasons Liaisons succeeds so brilliantly is because Sondheim’s music is such a rich source for sounds, ideas, and approaches.”  Too true.  The pleasure of Liaisons is hearing how thirty-six other Sondheim fans engage with his music in their own ways.  There are thirty-seven selections in the 3-CD collection.  So many worth exploring, just one would be so boring.  Alas, it’s impossible to review them all here but you can listen to samples of each glorious one at the Liaisons Project website.  With that said…  Curtain up!  Light the lights!  Play it, boys!


Once upon a time, all your favorite fairytales were combined into one story about loss and confusion.  Oh yeah, and nearly everyone dies.  Sondheim’s original prologue to Into the Woods acts as both exposition by introducing us to each character and also provides a path through the show.  Andy Akiho’s version takes us into the woods, where witches, ghosts and wolves appear, by maintaining the driving rhythm of the original but allowing each character’s narrative/personality to speak with the clever use of a prepared piano.  Dimes were used on the strings for the cow scenes, door knocks and narration utilized poster tack, and the witch is portrayed by clusters of credit cards.  Akiho’s use of these found objects to alter the timbre is just as effective and innovative as Sondheim’s witty spoken narrative.

When asked about his intent with the Into the Woods’ climactic ballad “No One is Alone,” Sondheim replied, “What I truly mean is that no action is isolated.”  One action you can take is to write a musical, only to find its score the subject of a landmark commissioning twenty-nine years later.  Fred Hersch drew from his jazz background to make subtle changes to the piece.  In doing so, he’s maintained the purity and simplicity of the original but plumped it up to create a lusher sound.  It feels less like an arrangement and more like a fantasia.

With Kenji Bunch’s selection we attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of fleet street.  Sweeney Todd is based on an urban legend (though some claim the story is true) from Victorian London about a barber who seeks revenge upon the corrupt judge who sentenced him to unjust incarceration, raped his wife and caused her insanity, and eventually kept Todd’s daughter Joanna as his ward for lustful reasons.  Todd’s revenge of choice?  Slitting the throat of the judge (and other clients) and partnering with his amoral landlady to grind the flesh, use it as fillings for her meat pies, and turn a handsome profit.  It’s a musical thriller that wonderfully sustains fear and anxiety throughout, which Bunch amplifies to horror-show levels with “low register rumblings, shrieking high clusters, and insistent rhythmic ostinato patterns.”

Venezuelan composer Ricardo Lorenz turns those meat pies into spicy empanadas with his “Worst Pies In London”/”A Little Priest” combo.  Mrs. Lovett’s cheeriness shines through here with help from a range of Latin American styles including tango, salsa, and merengue.  But is it any good?  Sir, it’s too good, at least.

“Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is Joanna’s song to the caged birds she identifies with while sequestered in the judge’s home.  Toward the end of the original number there’s a trill notated for the singer and Jason Robert Brown found his way into the arrangement through that trill.  Rather than focusing on Joanna, he’s chosen instead to paint pianistic portraits of the birds.  A charming notion, but the aviary became too complex.  He thought one was enough; it’s not true.  It takes two to play his “Birds of Victorian England.”

Hopping across the pond to a bit of American history now, we get a couple arrangements from Assassins, a show that’s about exactly what it says on the tin.  “The inverse of the American Dream is the American Nightmare, which confuses the right to pursue happiness with the right to be happy,” writes Horowitz.  In Sondheim’s opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” our presidential assassinators/assassination attempters sing out this misguided philosophy (aim for what you want a lot/everybody gets a shot/everybody’s got a right to their dreams…) as they purchase their weapons from the gun proprietor.   Michael Daugherty inserts snippets of “Hail to the Chief” as reminders of the show’s subject and ends the piece by spinning out the opening chords until they “explode like a volley of gunfire.”

Sondheim turned the poem Charles Guiteau wrote the morning of his execution (“I Am Going to the Lordy”) into a cakewalk march to the gallows in “The Ballad of Guiteau.”  Guiteau’s trial was famous not just because he assassinated President Garfield, but also because he was, as one doctor testified, a “morbid egoist” who delighted in the attention he received during the trial.  A media sensation, he smiled and waved at spectators throughout the trial (and even as he walked up to the gallows, where he stopped to read said poem, going so far as to request that an orchestra play behind him while he read).  Right up until his conviction he thought he’d have a good chance of becoming president himself and considered running.  Why am I writing about history instead of music?  Because the way Jherek Bischoff plays Sondheim’s original histrionic promenade against moments of emptiness perfectly suits the sad, ridiculous insanity of Guiteau’s mindset.

Having just a vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution.  Anthony de Mare’s work on this project has, bit by bit and piece by piece, amounted to a thoroughly enjoyable collection that sounds like thirty-six composers having a musical conversation with America’s preeminent composer of musical theatre.  Liaisons offers up something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone.

In this 2013 image released by ECM Records, Anthony de Mare, left, and Stephen Sondheim pose in New York. Pianist Anthony de Mare and three dozen composers had put their own imprints on songs Sondheim wrote over the past half-century, a tribute to the man who redefined Broadway. "Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano" was released last month as a three-disc set by ECM. It features 37 original compositions by an All-Star team of composers. (Nan Melville/ECM Records via AP)

Anthony de Mare, left, and Stephen Sondheim pose in New York. (Nan Melville/ECM Records via AP)

“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!


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.


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.


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!

A Worthwhile Journey

by Joshua Roman

Follow Joshua on Facebook, Twitter, and see his schedule at


Dear Readers:

Thank you for joining me here as we embark on an exploration of musicians’ lives in today’s changing landscape. Over the last few years, I have been taking on projects and roles that I never dreamt would be a part of my professional life as a musician, and I see many of my colleagues redefining their musical career as well.

For many of us, this is uncertain territory. Leaving our practice rooms behind, entering the worlds of interdisciplinary collaborations, social experiments, entrepreneurial endeavors, and in general, a broader sense of creativity, we are making things up as we go. Luckily, there are fantastic examples of success, from the composer-­performer, like the JACK Quartet, who write and arrange music as well as performing new works by others, to the modern day impresario, like Derek Bermel, who not only composes and plays clarinet, but has curated chamber music series’ in the past and is now Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra.

In a world where geographical borders are often easy to cross, and technology blurs the lines of genre and categories in other realms, the question of whether we should define ourselves within old and possibly rigid boundaries is an important one. Am I a cellist? Am I a musician? Am I a classical musician that enjoys other kinds of music, or some broader kind of musician that specializes in classical music? Perhaps a sound artist? Personally, I’ve begun to feel a strong and central pull that brings me towards a core, something I could only describe as “my voice”. In this fast pace world of 30 second sound bites, it is challenging to define this new type of musical individuality, and the meeting the need to articulate a concise statement of who one is, or what one does, can be especially difficult as one embarks upon new paths and begins to explore new avenues of artistic expression.

All of this sounds very new, but one of the most encouraging realizations that keeps coming back to me is the fact that this is all a very old idea. Name a composer from before 1900 and chances are strong that they were also a performer. Many of them were skilled (or at least effective) organizers as well. Assembling musical forces was not always easy to do, if you weren’t in the employ of royalty. Even then, many contracts included more than just writing and showing up to play. I draw much inspiration from famous musicians of old such as Mozart, Bach, Brahms, and others from their time who developed a unique voice, while sharing through their performances and repertoire decisions as well. Today, many of my friends are doing this at incredibly high levels, and their creativity and passion manifest in ways that surprise and invigorate me.

Hopefully, along with keeping you up to date on the things I’m doing, sharing about the music and people I get to know along the way, and musing about ideas and provocations that pop up, this space will afford the opportunity to help discover new and better ways to communicate the essence of what the hell it is we are doing here with this amazing art form. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds!

For now, I will leave you with two lists, and gratitude for sharing the journey with me.

Some Current Projects
Finish writing my first Cello Concerto
Bring back the Haydn C Major
Flesh out a few programs for 15­16 and 16­17 seasons

Music On Rotation

Punch Brothers:­ Who’s Feeling Young Now? (buy)
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem (John Rutter conducting) (buy)
John Adams:­ Shaker Loops (buy)

P.S. Thank you to Second Inversion for inviting me to share via their platform. I encourage you to check out their 24/7 webstream, where you’ll be hearing from me occasionally as well.