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The Seattle Times: New experiences shape the music of Seattle Symphony’s composer in residence

Submitted by Humanities Web Project on April 19, 2019 - 9:15am
Marcin Pączkowski - photo: Steve Korn
Marcin Pączkowski - photo: Steve Korn

 | Special to The Seattle Times

Derek Bermel has learned creativity is a messy thing. It comes in fits and starts, backtracks, changes directions. The Seattle Symphony’s 2018-19 composer in residence rarely lands on the compass point he initially charted when working on a new piece of music.

And that’s kind of the point.

“Composing is just a combination of things you know already and things you don’t know,” Bermel said. “As soon as it starts becoming predictable, where I know how everything’s going to sound, it becomes really boring to do. And I think it becomes really boring to listen to. There has to be something where you have to say, ‘I don’t know how this is going to read.’ ”

The Grammy Award-nominated composer, conductor and clarinetist has reached that crux with his latest commission for the Seattle Symphony. The piece, titled “Nine Revolutions,” is a synthesis of live string quartet, recorded orchestral pieces, visual content and the cutting-edge immersive sound system at the Symphony’s new Octave 9 facility, where it will debut on April 28.

Bermel is writing music for the quartet’s performance and has to constantly check it against pieces recorded with the entire orchestra that are being altered and edited by producer and electronic music composer Marcin Pączkowski. He’s also waiting for photographer Carlin Ma to submit the images that will be displayed on room-sized screens during the performance. And all of it has to be stitched together in a relatively small space that nevertheless offers big sounds and programmable options.

“This is really exciting to me,” Bermel said. “I don’t usually work like this. I’m kind of a notes and rhythms kind of guy, so this was a real challenge for me to try and engage with this type of project.”

The writing process started in New York where Bermel initially took his inspiration from images made during the exploration of Mars, both by rovers moving over the landscape and satellites in orbit. Soon after he made a trip to Seattle to view the Octave 9 space that was still under construction.

The creative process took its first unexpected turn shortly after he walked through the door.

“I changed my whole idea, just threw out everything I had been writing up till then,” Bermel said. “… I started again from scratch and thought about this immersion concept, immersing the audience in the concert. So, in doing that, one of the ideas that excited me was bringing the orchestra into that space. It’s the orchestra’s space, but ironically you can’t fit the whole orchestra in it.”

Bermel oversaw an hourslong recording session with the entire orchestra. He had the group record specific chords and progressions that he then handed over to Pączkowski, a research associate at the University of Washington’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media. He was faced with the challenge of modifying the recordings, often by time-stretching the material, while retaining the natural acoustic qualities of the orchestra.

What is emerging is satisfying as a musical piece, but also takes the audience through a different set of experiences.

“One of the things we can do with the space is put everyone inside the orchestra, so to speak,” Pączkowski said. “We can have the orchestra sounds coming from all around the audience. This is, I think, fairly compelling because you can’t actually experience that yourself unless you actually play in the orchestra. … (The facility) will allow us to create something that I don’t think you can experience anywhere else. This is very intriguing.”

The Seattle residency has been challenging Bermel, a former winner of Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, in unexpected ways. After the April 28 performance at Octave 9, he’s due to unveil music created in partnership with veterans he met through the Compass Housing Alliance, which serves people experiencing homelessness and poverty, in a free performance on May 11 at Benaroya Hall.

Bermel first went through a learning session about the Alliance’s residents, then began meeting with a group of veterans to teach them a limited musical vocabulary that would allow everybody to converse about music in a creative way.

The veterans, of different ages and service backgrounds, in turn are telling him their stories.

“Each time I come out of there, it takes me a little while to grasp and grapple with their experiences and the telling of those experiences, and to try to think about what that means to me not only on the level of doing this project, but also as a human being,” Bermel said. “It’s profound, and I understand why the orchestra has to do this. Because they’ve connected on a profound level with a part of the community that may not be connecting with them. And if they want to truly serve their community, there’s a place for this.”

“American Horizons,” an evening of music curated by Derek Bermel including his world premiere “Nine Revolutions.” 6 p.m. April 28; Octave 9 at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $35; 206-215-4747,

Simple Gifts Community Concert, with music created in partnership with veterans, 7 p.m. May 11; Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; free.

Featured on The Seattle Times | April 19, 2019