Despite being seven years old at the time, Derrick Werlé vividly remembers his first piano lesson. “I had no idea what a piano was supposed to be. But, the teacher was kind to me and she offered me some sweets. She then proceeded to teach me how to read. music. I found everything quite simple and easy to understand, to the point of being boring, so much so that I finished the book in an hour when it should have taken a month. She was surprised at how quickly she had learned. I’ve never had a problem reading music,” Derrick recalled.
Over the years, the now 44-year-old “Frenchman from Paris” has studied at various conservatories in France and also in Scotland before heading to the US to pursue a Masters and PhD at the University of California, The Angels.
“The reason I left France was because of my frustration with the French musical ideology. I really wanted to make music that anyone could enjoy, not just classical music enthusiasts, musicians, or professionals. I want to reach a wider audience and I don’t think any music should be considered too ‘cheap’ to enjoy. However, at the Conservatoire de France, composers made experimental music that was more like noise than music in a traditional sense. I’m not against it either, but I don’t feel that the exclusive use of this type of music is something I want to do for life”, said the composer and orchestrator who has worked on hollywood with people like Hans Zimmer on projects like Kung Fu Panda 3, Boss Baby, Pirates of the CaribbeanY Dunkirk.
Now based in Los Angeles, he has written an opera, touted as the first of its kind, to be sung entirely in Sanskrit. Based on Hermann Hesse siddhartha, the libretto was translated into Sanskrit with the help of Indian teachers. Derrick also had to learn the pronunciation so he could turn it into music.
“I have been familiar with the work of Hermann Hesse through Richard Strauss. last four songs. I really love those songs and when I read the book, I fell in love. He resonates with me on a different level: Siddhartha wants to find his own way to Nirvana, despite the comfort he was in. I left France for the US to find my own way in the music industry. Of course, my goal was less spiritual than his, but I can relate to Siddhartha’s struggle to find his own way in life,” shared Derrick, who has been listening to opera since childhood.
Although she cannot speak “nor have I learned Sanskrit,” she asked the teacher who translated the script to record each sentence so she could listen to it over and over again to catch every nuance. “During the pandemic, from 2020 to mid 2022, I watched a lot of Indian movies like Bajirao Mastani Y kalank; I know they don’t speak Sanskrit but the languages are derived from it so I can hear the tonalities and expressions when people speak. It took maybe a year to really listen to the intonation and write the melodies and rhythmic elements that accompany the Sanskrit path. I hope I’ve done a decent job of honoring this language,” Derrick said, sharing his prep routine.
According to Derrick, his latest opera can be enjoyed by everyone because of its “universal representation of finding one’s way.” “When we were young, our parents always told us certain things about the world, and I paid attention to them. However, there are certain things in life that simply cannot be taught. We have to experience it on our own and learn from our mistakes,” said Derrick, who feels that “opera is more accessible even than movies.”
“It is a film that plays in real time, with actors, dancers and musicians. That makes it more special because no two performances are the same. This creates a special connection between the audience and the artists that lasts a lifetime. In addition, the artists are accessible after the show. They receive direct feedback by the amount of applause from the audience. Some members of the audience would come and greet the artists to admire or criticize them. In a way, opera creates a more equal environment between the performers and the audience because both have to be physically present at the performance. That’s what I love, the human connection,” added Derrick.
Expressing that Indian music has strong global appeal not only for its inherent beauty, but also for its complexity, he is “very fascinated” to be able to learn it. “While I am not a specialist in classical Indian music, I feel that Indian music is extremely complex and should be taught and studied more in the Western world. Just to give an example, the raga and the taal in Indian music is much more advanced and complex than what we have in the western twelve-tone system which is structured in harmony and counterpoint. Raga, the Indian modes, have more than twelve notes and taal, the rhythmic component, is not a simple 4/4 but a time cycle that comprises between 3 and maybe 128 beats,” he said.