Sunday, June 12, 2005

William Albright: a lesson in disobedience

Here is a letter that I wrote upon hearing of William Albright's tragic and premature death at age 53. It was published in the SCI Newsletter by David Gompper as a tribute. Bill was a complex person who battled for 30 years with alcoholism, a disease which ultimately took his life. I encourage more people to get to know Albright's music, which is available through C.F. Peters. There's a fine tribute to him, written by Evan Chambers, which you can read here.

A Lesson in Disobedience
(Derek Bermel remembers Albright)

I've just heard the news about Bill Albright, and needless to say I am shocked and devastated. I have always held him in the highest esteem as an insightful and caring teacher, as well as a brilliant composer, performer, and scholar. But he was also a person with an enormously big heart, and that is what I will miss the most. During my last two years in New York, we would often talk at great length about life, philosophy, food, love, the arts, politics, or any number of other subjects which fired his wild imagination.

He was utterly devoted to the University of Michigan, and rightly considered himself in the teaching legacy of his mentor Ross Lee Finney. Bill leaves behind an awesome teaching legacy of more than twenty-five years, and hundreds of students all over the world. I know that I speak for many of them when I acknowledge that the world has lost some of its vivid color with his passing. As a teacher, he was masterful and penetrating, and always, always sincere. His questions reached to the very essence of the issue at hand - "But is it radical?" "So, what will you do now that you're a great composer?" - yet the ambiguous nature of his comments demanded that we solve the riddles of creation ourselves - "What a gorgeous mess!" He knew when to say "I don't know," and he said it often. But sometimes I could detect, in his enigmatic smirk, a hint that he did indeed know, but wouldn't tell. I can still hear him telling me, quite earnestly, "Derek, disobey your teachers. Disobey us!"

For me, his most inspiring lesson was his total and uncompromising musicianship. "We teach composition by example," he would often say, and he meant it. When Bill Albright was at his best, he was as powerful and ingenious composer as any; I dare say that his clarinet quintet is one of the most perfect pieces of music I have ever played - or heard, for that matter. He was a deftly skilled contrapuntist and an elegantly funky rhythmitician. But I have always felt that the stunning beauty of his writing was wrapped in the details - a quirky "off" note in the harpsichord melody, just in the most annoying spot; a dazzling and grotesque flourish in the tuba; a haunting chord in the vibraphone lingering a bit too long - for me, these subtleties give Albright's music its distinct and pungent flavor. His expressive markings are a testament both to his humor and to how passionately he felt the music in his soul: "Strident, shrill, shrieking", "spit it!": Abiding Passions (1988) "Suddenly ecstatic": Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (1987) "Apoplectically, ": Seven Deadly Sins (1974) "Maestoso Grunge": Pit Band (1993) "Half-lit, smoky ostinato": Rustles of Spring (1994)

How much poorer our world is without his many Flights of Fancy. I will miss him immensely. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

DB, Aberdeen, Scotland, Oct. 1998

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Henri Dutilleux: «On ne peut pas tout aimer...»

This is mantra which Dutilleux has reiterated in writings and interviews. I suppose it’s his way of saying “trust yourself,” a statement of pride in asserting one’s individuality in the world. It reminds me that what makes us uniquely human is our ability to absorb and synthesize material, to reason, to develop tastes, to fall in love with people, places, smells, sounds, memories. I have often mused on this phrase, especially when I have felt forces – be they artistic, economic, or socio-political – conspiring to push me strongly against my nature. Because of their grammatical construction in the negative, because of their insistence nuanced with gentleness, his words urge a generous defiance. For D'lux, music must be grounded in a context, be it a sense of place, a philosophical idea, a point of view, or a cultural milieu. In many conversations throughout the ten years I've known him, he has always insisted that composers should not shy away from what they love, that they should resist shutting out influences simply because they do not fit the “style du jour”. His own music was certainly neglected by those in his own country who advocated a "pureté de style".

It’s not an assertion that we as composers ought to make pastiche or collage of that which we admire or strive to emulate, but rather that we should invite what deeply moves us into the music we create. And that we should not feel embarrassed about rejecting that which we don’t love, since we can’t love everything. Only Jesus could do that, and he was half-divine, or so the Christians say…. As artists, we should treasure and embrace our likes and dislikes; they are character traits which cannot be obliterated by force nor by fashion, though they do (hopefully) evolve and change.

I suppose another interpretation of D’lux’s mantra might be “to thine own self be true”, or, more accurately, the contrapositive: “feel not the pressure to be true to that which is not thine own.” I have seen an almost childlike reverence in D'lux when he describes a piece of music that he loves, be it Ravel or Sarah Vaughan. And I find myself reminded how precious our tastes are; they define our musical core; they are what – originally – drew us inexorably to music one the most elemental level, and they guide us towards uncharted territories that we can explore with confidence and passion.