Derek Bermel - Murmurations (2015)
New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, concertmaster
San Francisco Conservatory, CA

I. Gathering at Gretna Green
II. Gliding over Algiers
III. Swarming Rome

When I listen to and watch a string orchestra play, I'm reminded of a flock of birds. Visually and aurally, the performers seek unity on many levels -- attention to tuning, tone, clarity of rhythm, consistency and pressure of bowing. They glide and dive in formation, soaring together or splitting into layers of counterpoint before regrouping into a single unit. During my year living in Rome, I was often treated to the graceful spectacle of a starling murmuration. Their stunning, geometrical displays of aviation prior to settling down for the night are a humbling sight to behold. In fact, starlings' mass motion suggests "emergence", a concept in Game Theory that explains how simple interactions can engender complex systems.

In "Murmurations" I attempted to map onto a musical structure some of the behavior I observed in the starlings' flight. Their collective push and pull, swoop, and parallel movement manifests in the opening movement "Gathering near Gretna Green", titled for the Scottish village where starlings frequently assemble. The music hovers and swoops, culminating in a cadenza – the lone concertmaster briefly separates from the flock for a rare individual moment, and is again swallowed up into the mass motion. In the middle movement "Soaring over Algiers", the melodic line glides alone, then in double, and finally triple layers of counterpoint, over arpeggios in the lower strings. I was inspired to write the third movement, "Swarming Rome", upon learning that starlings signal and sense subtle directional intent to and from their neighboors seven birds distant. Here the notes travel in loose clusters, darting and fluttering, far enough from each other to maneuver through the air, yet close enough to respond to sudden shifts in the murmuration's rhythm and cadence.

"Murmurations" was co-commissioned by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and partner A Far Cry. For inspiration, violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Steve Copes, Jae Young Cosmos Lee, and Cho-Liang Lin; writer Siobhan Roberts and Noah Strycker; mathematician Helmut Hofer; and photographer Richard Barnes. Special thanks to Alecia Lawyer, Parker Monroe, Kyu-Young Kim, Todd Vunderink, Anthony Cornicello, and Elizabeth Dworkin.


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