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Michael Daugherty on His Childhood and the Writing Process

Interview with Tanya Muzudmar, June 30, 2010

http://www.concentratemedia.com/features/michaeldaugherty0109.aspx

 

It's lofty enough to have a few personal 'graphs on Wikipedia, but Ann Arbor composer Michael Daugherty's curriculum vitae runs an epic 11 pages with little indication of stopping.

A brief synopsis: Daugherty was the third-most performed living American composer last season, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League. He's a professor of composition (and former department chair) at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater, & Dance. A Fulbright and Tanglewood scholar. There are nearly 100 recordings on his website. Some might call him a musical tour de force, but there's no mistaking Daugherty's earthy, plain-spoken manner. In fact, a good part of our talk, and the Wikipediaspread, centers on his formative years.

Raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the oldest of five sons born to a school teacher and a car salesman, he says of his boyhood: "Probably the two biggest things in our life were sports and music." Daugherty played piano and organ in the high school band - and jazzed up nightclubs before reaching drinking age. During summers off college, he worked as an organist at county fairs for the likes of Bobby Vinton and The Lawrence Welk Show cast members. But in an offbeat foreshadowing of his career, classical music didn't loom large in Iowa. "Most of my playing and most of my musical experience was American pop music and jazz, and, of course, rock and roll was in its heyday at the time," Daugherty says. "As a teenager we had rock and roll, we had the Vietnam War, and Civil Rights - very turbulent times, to say the least."

While studying jazz and music composition at the University of North Texas, Daugherty saw Woody Herman's jazz ensemble play at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He soon noticed other collaborations, too, between orchestras and rock bands such as The Beatles, Deep Purple, and The Moody Blues, as well as various Motown artists. "Using orchestral sounds was in the rock and roll palate. It was experimental, but part of the movement at times," Daugherty explains. "In other words, integration. Integration of races, the civil rights integration, of ideas east and west. Many artists were flirting with Indian music and music from other cultures... I, being a very curious person, was interested in all of that."

Mid-century models

Daugherty ultimately looked to James Brown, the godfather of soul and a self-made man, as his inspiration. While pursuing his doctorate in composition at Yale, he also met composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, who, after hearing his works at the Tanglewood Music Center, encouraged him to mix American pop with concert music.

And he wasn't afraid to root his music in adolescence. "A lot of people run away from their youth. Let's take Andy Warhol, the artist. He left Pittsburgh as a kid. He never came back, never looked back. That's not uncommon. But I still go to my high school reunion, I still take a lot of photographs."

Not surprisingly, the composer is a family archivist and mid-century antiquarian - easy to tell from his website, with its 1950s TV flashing shots of vintage Niagara Falls postcards and Superman comics. "I have a huge collection of things that have to do with my past  - books, photographs, autographs," he says. "I collect autographs of famous personalities, like Elvis Presley and Jackie Kennedy. My studio where I work is a huge, almost antique store of the '50s and '60s and '70s. I'm a very sentimental person."

Collections shape Daugherty's career, which he likens to that of the American composer Charles Ives. "If you just check out his music, he used a lot of artifacts and art, music and march tunes, and football songs and church music from his childhood in his crazy avant garde music. I'm cut from that cloth, I guess."

Daugherty doesn't forget things, or people. After studying and performing in western Europe, he taught at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and then came to U-M in 1991. He keeps up with former students and follows their careers post-graduation. "Education, teaching is something I grew up with and I've always enjoyed it. So I actually look forward to the days I go to the university to work with young composers. Fortunately the students at Michigan are very good students, so working with them is always a source of inspiration. And it's a light."

The soul behind the music

Daugherty writes about three pieces annually, a steady pace he's held over the last 25 years. He plays piano and composes in his home studio using percussion instruments, among them tambourines, cow bells, bongos, gongs, and cymbals.  A 20-minute orchestral number takes a year to create. Compare that with Hollywood productions, where, he says, composers write 40 minutes of orchestra music in one month.

The time gap lies in the minutiae. "It's the detail of writing for all the instruments and the intricacies of the different parts, how they fit together," he explains. "When you're writing a piece for the concert stage, you're everything. Plus you've got to develop your script, you've got to develop the idea. What is the piece about? That takes some time."

The Metropolis Symphony took five years to complete. The Jackie O chamber opera was a three-year project. It premiered in Houston in 1997 and has since been performed nationwide many times over. "So now when I listen to them, I say, oh my God, I can't believe I had the energy to write those pieces," he says with incredulity.

His favorite music is whatever he's hearing at the moment, he says. However, a few workssummarize the last 20 years. The Metropolis Symphony, an ode to Superman comics of yore, is now in its second recording and has been published by Naxos, the biggest classical label in the world. Also on Naxos is violin concerto Fire and Blood, inspired by the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Art.

Dead Elvis, another signature piece with a lot of play, is written for a solo bassoon and chamber ensemble. "...Does this rock star sell out his Southern folk authenticity to the sophisticated professionalism of Hollywood movies, Colonel Parker and Las Vegas in order to attain great wealth and fame? Dead Elvis goes far beyond this romantic Faustian scenario," Daugherty writes in the program note. "For me, the two clashing Elvis images (the hip, beautiful, genius, thin, rock-and-roll Elvis versus the vulgar, cheesy, fat, stoned, Las Vegas Elvis) serve as a sturm and drang compositional algorithm..."

Juxtapositions ring prominently in the composer's musical trove. He's researching a new piece on über conductor Arturo Toscanini, who left Italy and Fascism behind for America, and poet Ezra Pound, who emigrated to Italy from America and broadcasted over the radio for Fascist dictator Mussolini. "So that's what I do when I do a new piece; I do a lot of research, I read a lot of books, I talk to people. Then I start to write the music."

In September, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra will play Trail of Tears, his new concerto depicting the deadly forced march of the Cherokee Indians from their Tennessee homes to Oklahoma in the early 1800s.

As for innovation in the field, Daugherty points to the new ease of notating music for scores and musical parts using computer technology and distributing it through PDF and MP3 files. "So it's a time now that a composer can be really independent and anyone around the world can find that composer...Of course I'm in the cusp of that and always have been and will continue to be investigating the relationship between technology and human emotion."

"That's what I'm still working towards - Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Emotion and technology."

 

-Tanya Muzudmar