Sonic Explorer: Bermel Uses Bulgarian Sounds in Composition

Views on BG | March 18, 2011, Friday // 09:31|  views

Composer Derek Bermel???s "Thracian Echoes," inspired by Bulgarian music, will be performed in Princeton on Sunday. Photo by

From The Star-Ledger,

By Ronni Reich

Every day for six weeks, composer Derek Bermel spent hours studying Bulgarian music under the tutelage of an accordionist named Blagoi. Bermel paid his teacher in rakia, a local spirit, and since they didn't speak the same language, they communicated largely through music — nodding, gesturing and grunting as Bermel worked to understand the unique rhythms and harmonies of the region's festive wedding bands and the mournful quality of its a cappella women's choirs.

"It's a very special kind of place," Bermel says. "They have very deep musical traditions of instrumental folk music and of vocal music."

Bermel, who is artist-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, has traveled all over the world, taking trips to Ghana, Brazil, the Netherlands and China to immerse himself in their music. Also a clarinetist, he was nominated for an instrumental soloist Grammy award in 2009 for "Voices," performed with conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

The album includes the work "Thracian Echoes," based on Bermel's studies in Bulgaria. The Princeton Symphony Orchestra will perform the New Jersey premiere of the piece at the Richardson Auditorium on Sunday.

Bermel originally went to Bulgaria in 2001 to learn about the Thracian folk style — music from the region of Thrace, which spans the stretch between northern Greece and southern Bulgaria — with fellow clarinetist Nikola Iliev. Every day, he transcribed melodies, gradually becoming proficient in the odd meters that challenge Western ears. With his accordion teacher Blagoi, he internalized the harmonies as well.

In "Thracian Echoes," he says, "I hoped to address these two sides of Bulgarian music, these very beautiful close harmonies that are present in the choral song and then this kind of manic, rhythmic, joyous instrumental music."

The second half of the work's title takes on multiple meanings. On returning to the United States and going over in his mind the music he heard abroad, the piece became partly about memory, Bermel says. He also noticed that many of the musical phrases he recalled had "a cyclical quality" — an echo contained within. He tried to emphasize this aspect, using canons (a technique that includes rounds, like "Fr?re Jacques") and horns placed in the balcony to add repetitive, boomerang-like effects.

Taking the melodies he describes as "snakelike," "winding" and "hypnotic," he made his own versions. He transformed harmonies and rhythms and transposed songs into a whole tone scale — an open-ended pattern of notes favored by composers like Claude Debussy — to create the feeling of being suspended in time, without a clear direction.

The work's folk roots fit it into the PSO's "Ethnic Exploration" program, which includes Czech composer Anton?n Dvor?k's spirited Violin Concerto in A Minor with renowned soloist Jennifer Koh, who appeared last season with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra playing Brahms' concerto.

"Ethnic Exploration" culminates in Hungarian composer Bel? Bart?k's animated, colorful Concerto for Orchestra, a work that features odd rhythms not unlike those in "Thracian Echoes." The concert is the PSO's annual Edward T. Cone series event, dedicated to the late Princeton composer.

PSO music director Rossen Milanov, who is originally from Sofia, Bulgaria, will lead the performance.

"To have a Bulgarian conductor is ideal," says Bermel. "He'll be feeling it innately."

"I wonder how he'll feel to hear these melodies transformed in this way, but I'm sure he's going to bring something unique to the performance."

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Tags: Ancient Thrace, Derek Bermel, composer


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