Canzonas Americanas continues the new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s long-running, fruitful relationship with the composer Derek Bermel, who has plied them with a series of ever-more-ambitious works testing both their boundaries and his. He is an omnivorous sort, the kind of composer who studies studied Thracian folk music, Brazilian caxixi, Ghanaian gyil and other far-reaching forms well outside the Western knowledge base, and the pieces collected on Canzonas feel, on one level, like a colorful and chaotic regurgitation of all the folk forms Bermel’s digested.
The titular piece veers between the simple, grass-scented beauty of Dvorak’s String Quartet in F (The “American”) and tangled Ivesian blurts of intruding quotes – look out for the asphyxiated “Merrie Melodies”-style interpolation of Beethoven’s Fifth early on. “Three Rivers,” meanwhile, evokes beat-poetry jazz, with its hushed tom rolls, stand-up bass and syncopated horn blurts. The meter and rhythm complicates itself playfully as Bermel confuses the piece’s momentum so thoroughly that it ends up hopping in place in a corner. Bermel never draw a straight line; pieces leap border fences and find themselves in slinky samba or bossa nova territory, and art songs suddenly stumble into cabaret and scatting. Like the best American composers, Bermel has a trickster’s impulse, an irrepressible will to scramble that makes his music such rich traveling.