After his clarinet was stolen from a Paris phone booth, Derek Bermel explains, he gave up busking to become a goatherd in the south of the country. He has studied the music of Yemen in Jerusalem, the music of Thrace in Bulgaria, choro music in Brazil, and in Ghana the music of a xylophone-like instument called the gyil, and conducted a choir of emotionally disturbed boys at a residential center in New York City.
His career, in other words, has taken a few detours from the conventional path from college to conservatory to eminence. The influence of his study of non-Western musics is as audible as the sturdiness of his classical training, as in the complex Bulgarian meters of Thracian Echoes (2002) for orchestra, or the syncopations of "Two Songs from Nandom" (from Bermel's Wanderings (1994) for wind quintet), which recall the rhythms of the gyil.
The heavy rhythms and bluesy harmonies of funk music find their way into much of his work, the vernacular music of Bermel's own country not having escaped his notice, either. Or the vernacular music of his own borough: long fascinated by the lyrical structures of Brooklynite hip-hop emcee Mos Def, Bermel recently created a set of new orchestral arrangements for the rapper's 2011 performances with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
Of course, an openness to influence, a lack of dogmatic boundaries, should not be misinterpreted as a lack of musical principles. When the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center—unable to fund enough concerts to play all the music they'd commissioned—asked him to make a five-minute cut to his gospel-tinged Soul Garden (2000), a thirteen-minute movement for viola and quartet, he requested instead that the players should just put down their instruments when their eight minutes were up. (The ensemble complied.)
In addition to composing, he remains active as a performer, playing the music of other composers as well as the highly idiomatic solo parts in his own music—his concerto Voices (1997), for instance, which demands that the clarinetist imitate human speech. Bermel was also the founding clarinetist of Music for Copland House and of the Dutch-American band TONK, which he created with poet Wendy Walters and guitarist Wiek Hijmans as an "inter-disciplinary ensemble."
In the fall of 2011, he co-curated the SONiC Festival, a nine-day, 13-concert celebration of music written by composers under 40 in the first decade of the 21st century. His selections drew from an remarkable breadth of aesthetics—a range of sensibilities even broader, if possible, than those already reflected in his own music.