Composer in Residence Derek Bermel

Derek Bermel takes a bow following a concert in Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center. (Photo: James Holt)

What happens when a composer is fully embedded in our community?

By James Holt

What do you think of when you imagine a living composer? And what does it mean when a composer is “in residence?”

Seattle Symphony audiences are no strangers to seeing living composers at Benaroya Hall. And in the past few years, the Seattle Symphony has asked a great deal of these composers, like Trimpin and Alexandra Gardner, with their roles evolving far beyond the Benaroya Hall stage to interact with the region in unique and powerful ways. Engaging and collaborating, teaching and learning, and sharing the creative process with the community.

This season’s Composer in Residence Derek Bermel is doing a lot more than taking well-deserved bows, he’s collaborating with veterans from Compass Housing Alliance on a new community-based composition, leading the Seattle Symphony’s Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop, curating two of the inaugural concerts in Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center, and, oh yeah, composing a new work of his own. 

Each season the Seattle Symphony partners with local nonprofits as part of the Simple Gifts initiative, aiming to empower individuals experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity through connecting with their creativity. This season Derek is leading the Simple Gifts composition project with veterans who have experienced homelessness.

When Bermel is asked about the importance of a composer being embedded in the community, he jumps right to the impact working with veterans in Seattle has had on him. “I’ve been inspired by their thoughtfulness and resilience, and most notably by their love of music, which manifests itself in a variety of ways.”

Derek Bermel
Chris, left, collaborating with Derek Bermel, right, during a session at Compass Housing Alliance. (Photo: James Holt)

Chris, a Marine veteran who served from 2003–11, including time in Japan and Iraq, is mostly in awe that a composer from New York would be interested in working with him and his fellow veterans. 

“To be completely honest, I was really expecting a 'hoity-toity' group of people just kind of nitpicking at every little thing we were saying,” Chris laughs. But he was curious and wanted to see what it was all about anyway. In the end he says, “I liked everything, I mean, the whole collaboration. I think it’s just the fact that people care to listen.” 

Meanwhile, Elise, a junior at Emerald Ridge High School and one of the talented teens participating in the Young Composers Workshop, finds working with a Composer in Residence an invaluable experience.

“Because of this program, I have met so many talented and wonderful people who have helped me to grow as a musician and as a person,” Elise shares. “It’s extremely important because they bring new ideas and experiences to the table. In classical repertoire, contemporary music is sometimes swept under the rug, and music from our own era is underrepresented. Composers in Residence provide audiences with something they haven’t heard before.”

Seth Parker Woods
Derek Bermel working with students from the Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop. (Photo: James Holt)

Bermel did just that on April 28 when he presented his own world premiere written for the unique technical capabilities of the Seattle Symphony’s new venue, Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center.

“Composers have a unique gift,” says Laura Reynolds, Vice President of Education & Community Engagement at the Seattle Symphony, “they translate experiences, ideas and the world into the notes on the page that our musicians bring to life. The act of listening is bearing witness to the lives and experience of young people and veterans in our community and translating that into music amplifies their voices and empowers them to unleash their creativity. That is the gift that Derek brings our community.”

For the Seattle Symphony, this is what it looks like for a composer to be embedded in our region. Writing collaboratively with community members, teaching and mentoring students, writing music and curating concerts — capturing this moment, and the voices of our city, through music.

Hear the Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop on May 6 at 7pm and Derek Bermel’s collaborative composition, created with veterans from Compass Housing Alliance, on May 11 at 7pm, both in the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. 


Support for the inaugural season of artistic programming for Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center is generously provided by the Judith A. Fong Music Directors Fund.

The Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop is generously underwritten by the Merriman Family. The concert is presented as part of the Seattle Symphony’s New Music WORKS initiative, which is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. New Music WORKS features commissions, concerts and educational activities that use composition as a catalyst for collaboration and engagement in music. Additional support for The Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop is provided by Michel and Christine Suignard.

Simple Gifts is supported by a generous grant from the American Orchestras' Futures Fund, a program of the League of American Orchestras made possible by funding from the Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation.

The Seattle Symphony’s Community programs are supported by Aetna, Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation, Citi Community Capital, the League of American Orchestras, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Tulalip Tribes Charitable Fund, the U.S. Bank Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation, the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Foundation, and individual contributions to the Seattle Symphony Annual Fund.

Posted on April 30, 2019

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