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Michael Daugherty with Linked host Peter Cummings discusses his admiration for James Brown

Interview with Peter Cummings, February 11, 2011


Composer Michael Daugherty describes his early connection with the music and work ethic of James Brown on Sirius XP Pops, "Linked"




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  • Daugherty and Peter Cummings on Linked

PC: This is Peter Cummings at Linked on Serius XP pops where we are connecting the classics. During 2010, the inaugural year for Linked, the goal was to connect classical music to jazz, pop, and rock by interviewing contemporary artists and exploring their classical roots. We discovered that Sting, Annie Lennox, Natalie Merchant, Herbie Hancock and others had either been trained classically, or at some point had fallen in love with classical music. This year, we have mixed it up a bit. Out featured guest in January was Matt Haimovitz, a decidedly classical artist right from the start—an artist who, at 13, appeared at Carnegie Hall in a quintet including Mintz, Zuckerman, Stern, and Rostropovich. Haimovitz has carved a unique career for himself. Her performs classical music and jazz, plays in concert halls and non-classical venues such as clubs and bars. And on top of that, he teaches cello at McGill University. Our guest today is the first composer to join us on Linked, Michael Daugherty. Michael teaches composition at the University of Michigan, is one of the most regularly performed contemporary composers in this country, and his Metropolis Symphony album has just won three GRAMMYs, including the best contemporary classical composition for Deus Ex Machina, a pinao concerto included on the Metropolis Symphony album. Michael, welcome to the Sirius studios.

MD: Very happy to be here.

PC: Great to have you. Typically, when I speak to contemporary artists, they have made their name, Michael, as pop, rock, or jazz artists, and then together we have enjoyed digging for their classical roots. Your story, in some ways, seems to me almost to be the opposite. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it sounds as though you were drenched in contemporary culture and music, and that your own personal journey brought you to classical music, perhaps during your college years. Can you tell me whether I’m on the right track here? Or, if I’m on the wrong track, put me on the right track.

MD: Well, I sort of had a normal childhood back in Iowa. I played piano at a very young age, and learned piano, actually, by the player piano. We had it at home, and I remember putting the player piano rolls on, pumping the keys, and watching the keys play Alexander’s Ragtime Band, or whatever. And my dad was a drummer, and he played in lots of bands that played jazz and rock at the time. And I was surrounded by music. I had four brothers, if you can imagine, all playing musical instruments in our small house back in Iowa, all at the same time. So, we had a trombone, piano, drums, bass, and trumpet all going on at the same time. And our neighbors, in fact, were so upset with us they would call the police frequently for disturbing the peace.

PC: This is Peter Cummings. It’s Linked on Sirius XM Pops, and I’m in the studio today with contemporary composer Michael Daugherty. Michael, as you pointed out, there were five Daugherty sons, and I think in one musical group. I have a picture showing them in one musical group. And do you remember what your repertoire was, and who you modeled your group after, to the extent you modeled it after someone?

MD: Sure. Well, it’s interesting, at the time I was really into Soul music. So, the bad was called the Soul Company. And we played a lot of James Brown, believe it or not. We had a couple black guys in the bad, too. And so it was an integrated band, which was unusual back in those days, and we would play small proms and high schools, and we would play James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood Sweat and Tears. We had some horns in the band too. So I was never interested in Top 40 music. It was always the cutting edge rock at the time, or Soul music. What I remember about James Brown is in 1968, you couldn’t buy a James Brown record at the local record store. So in order to pick up a James Brown record, I had to go down to the beauty salon in the black part of town. And because there was no music, to learn the songs I had to play the records and transcribe off the records to try to figure out what they were playing, and then make the arrangement for the brass and so forth. So, I started out composing at a very young age by listening to records, and then transcribing from the records.

[James Brown “Sex Machine” plays]

PC: This is Peter Cummings on Sirius XM Pops. It’s Linked, and today we’re talking to composer Michael Daugherty. We just listened to an excerpt from the album Sex Machine, the title track from the album from the late 60s, and share with us again, Michael, what it was about James Brown’s music that seemed to have such an impact on you in your earlier years.

MD: I think, first of all, it’s very tight. The structure of the pieces—it’s very minimal. Plus, you really hear the brass playing this lick, the guitars playing this lick, the bass playing this lick. It’s very structured, and I think I liked that. And also, I think the groove is amazing.  That’s one of the things that old classical music really had—a great groove. Music from the baroque period and the classical period—Beethoven—there’s great grooves to it. And that’s something that kind of got lost in the twentieth century.

PC: Michael, what I’d like to do is, perhaps, go forward in time a bit to your early twenties, when I know you had an experience attending a Dallas Symphony concert when you heard the Barber Piano Concerto. And I know that was a profound moment in terms of the development of your musical career. Tell us about that moment and what impact it had on you.

MD: Up to that point, the only way I had experience great orchestra playing was through records, on speakers that probably weren’t that great at home, or on television, again where the speakers weren’t that great. I really never heard a great, live orchestra. So, when I was an undergraduate at North Texas State, where I went to study jazz, I went to the orchestra to hear the Dallas Symphony play that evening, and I was in the front row, because I got a cheap ticket. Right in front of the piano player. The sound of the orchestra is one of the most amazing sounds. I love a great soul band, I love a great rock band or a great jazz group, but the sound of an orchestra is probably one of the most amazing sounds, because you hear the strings, the brass, the percussion, and the winds, and all the things that those instruments can do. It’s a very exciting sound. The minute I heard that, I said, “I really want to write for orchestra.”

PC: And what movement was it from the Barber piano concerto? Was it the whole piece from the first movement through the third movement, or was there one movement in particular that got your attention?

MD: I’d say the first movement. There’s this motive: [sings] with the brass playing, and the piano right at the very beginning. And then the strings play, [sings]. It’s just very exciting. And I knew right then and there that the orchestra was something that I wanted to compose for.

[Barber Piano Concerto plays]

PC: This is Peter Cummings on Sirius XM Pops. The show is Linked. Today the guest is Michael Daugherty. We’ve just listened to an excerpt from the first movement of the Barber Piano Concerto, and, Michael, I’d like to come back and discuss some of your other classical influences. In particular, let’s go right away to Deus Ex Machina. Which of the major composers that you’ve brought to our attention—Barber, Ives, and Mahler—would you say is most visible in the Deus Ex Machina piece?

MD: The first movement of the concerto, really, is probably like Ives, in that it’s very experimental. It’s very modern and daring. The second movement, probably, Train of Tears, inspired by the Lincoln funeral train, is probably like Barber. It’s very lyrical, but I use taps, [sings] which is something probably Mahler or Ives would do too, quoting music from their time period for something dramatic. You quote music that’s very dramatic, that you recognize. Then, the last movement is probably influenced by my days of playing lounge piano. One of the first pieces I learned to paly was Boogie Woogie. You have to have this left hand, very fast [sings]. In fact, I have to tell you one story about when I played lounge piano in New York City. This is actually a true story. This is when I was a student studying at Manhattan School of Music, and I had a gig down in the village, playing in a piano bar. I always had a tip jar, and so I’m playing along, and who walks in but Phillip Glass. So I start playing minimalistic music, and he gives me a five-dollar tip. Then he leaves. So, I keep playing, and who walks in but John Cage. So, I stop playing for four minutes and fifty-three seconds. He doesn’t leave a tip at all. So, I keep playing, and who walks in, Van Cliburn. I think, “Oh, man, this is amazing. This is a really great night.” So Van Cliburn sits down. He’s in the back, and I think I’d better show off. I start playing arpeggios, going crazy at the piano. He comes up, puts a twenty-dollar bill in my tip jar and says, “Can you keep it down?”

PC: [laughs] So, maybe what we’ll do is we’ll listen to Night Steam, the third movement of Deus Ex Machina, which will show the influence of the years as a lounge pianist.

[Night Steam plays]

PC: An excerpt from Night Steam, the last movement of Michael Daugherty’s GRAMMY winning composition, Deus Ex Machina. This is Linked on Sirius XM Pops, and I am Peter Cummings, in the studio today with the composer Michael Daugherty. Michael, you are associated with so many different American Icons. You’ve written pieces inspired by Route 66, inspired by Elvis Presley, inspired by Jackie Onassis, inspired by Niagara Falls. And yet, I know, as one of your great orchestral or classical influences, Gustav Mahler ranks high. Was there a moment when you heard one of his symphonies or one of his compositions when you realized, “This is an inspiration for me—this is going to effect and influence the way I write music”?

MD: Sure. In 1972, I was driving my 1964 Ford Falcon to basketball practice, and on the University of Iowa AM station, where they played classical music, they played a piece by Gustav Mahler. It was Mahler’s ninth symphony, actually, the first movement. And I thought, “What is this piece?” I had no idea. So, I wrote down Moller, or something, but I didn’t know how to spell it. I kept asking my music teachers in high school, “Do you know who this is?” Nobody knew who it was. So I went to the university and asked one of the composition teachers there if they knew who it was. “I think you mean Mahler,” so they wrote it out for me. This was before the days of Wikipedia, looking stuff up in your iPhone, and going to the Internet. It was hard to track this stuff down at the time. But what I liked about Mahler was the drama, the orchestration, and also the fact that the music reflects the time of the composer. He uses lots of musical elements from his own time, like bugle calls, marches, hymn tunes, and waltzes. It’s very exciting music. And the minute I heard that—it’s funny, because I had no reference; I really didn’t know much classical music—but when I heard that, I was immediately attracted to it.

PC: And Mahler, as I’m sure many of our listeners know, although he’s European born, did have a toured duty as music director of the New York Philharmonic. So, he had a lot of American influences himself. Let’s listen to a movement I know from an earlier discussion we had, which had a profound impact on you. Let’s listen to the first movement of Mahler’s sixth symphony.

[Mahler Sixth Symphony plays]

PC: An excerpt from the opening of Mahler’s sixth symphony, an inspiration to our guest today at Sirius XM Pops, a GRAMMY winning composer, Michael Daugherty. Michael, I’d like to ask you to share with us, if you would, the particular inspiration for Route 66. As you know, because we had this discussion last summer, I actually had the chance to drive Route 66 from Chicago to LA in September of last year. So, I’m curious to know what inspired you to compose that piece.

MD: Well, it’s interesting. How do composers become inspired? The kind of romantic way we think is that you’re struck by God, or something. Or you’re like Beethoven walking through the forest with a notepad, and as you’re walking through nature you get an idea about what you want to write.  For me, it’s driving a car. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved to drive cars, especially because I lived in Iowa, where you could just drive out of town, and it’s empty space with cornfields. It always gave me a place to think. I probably had to get away from my four brothers practicing their musical instruments all day long. But anyway, driving a car is really great for me, and I love exploring the back roads going to small towns. I go to antique stores, bookstores. Driving a car is a great inspiration, and no road is greater to drive than Route 66.

[Route 66 plays]

PC: This is Peter Cummings on Linked, Sirius XM Pops. We’ve been listening to an American composition by a quintessential American composer. That was Route 66 by Michael Daugherty. Michael, I’m going to throw you a kind of left field question that has to do with a question I’m asked frequently, and that is, what makes a contemporary composition “classical”? And I’ve asked this question to a number of different people, and I’ve never gotten the same answer twice. As a matter of fact, I find that a lot of people who I think would have the answer to that question don’t. What is your answer to what makes a piece of music written in 2011 “classical”?

MD: Classical means that you have to listen to it in a very focused way, and there’s no other elements like video, or a film going on at the same time. Or dance, even. Classical music is—you have to listen to the music. And that’s it.

PC: You’re description—interestingly enough, there’s a foundation based in Milwaukee called the Argosy Foundation, which was funded by the Abele family, who made their money through Boston Scientific, and they have something called the Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund. And I think you will appreciate their description of what qualifies: “Contemporary music is defined as concert music intended for concentrated listening, that has been composed within the last twenty years.” So it’s the idea of concentrated listening that seems to capture your definition.

MD: One thing to think about, that I think about as a composer in the twenty-first century, is timing. American timing—our attention spans are changing as technology gets faster, as everything becomes faster. So part of my goal as a composer is, how can I keep the interest of the audience during a piece of music? And so the timing is very important, knowing how long to go on, how long to do one idea, when to change that idea. And that changes. And I think that one of the challenges for composers today is how to keep the audience focused. One of the ways I do that is by these icons, these titles I use. Since most people don’t really know much about classical music, or contemporary music, how can I get that listener involved in my piece? Well, if I have a title like “Sunset Strip,” for example, people think, “Sunset Strip? Oh, yes, that’s Los Angeles.” And then they think of the 60s, and they think of Whisky A Go Go, and the different nightclubs, and LA, and so forth, all of the sudden their imagination starts to go. Then they can become involved in the piece of music I’ve written. So part of the reason I have these titles and these ideas is to get the audience to somehow come into the piece and get involved in the creative process as well.

PC: Let’s listen to an example of an iconic figure rendered in music from the GRAMMY winning album Metropolis Symphony, and in particular, the fourth movement of that symphony, Oh, Lois.

[Oh, Lois plays]

PC: Oh, Lois, the fourth movement from Metropolis Symphony, the GRAMMY winning album composed by todays guest of Sirius XM Pops, Michael Daugherty. Michael, I grew up watching Superman on television, and Lois Lane was a familiar figure to me from my youth. Tell us, first of all, how Superman inspired you, and then how you chose to name a movement after Lois.

MD: When I was asked to write a piece for the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, at the time it was the 50th anniversary of the creation of Superman, and there was an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art where they had all the original comic books, framed, with the images. And I thought, wow, it’s interesting that the artwork from Superman is now being presented like a Van Gogh. And I was a great lover of those comic books, especially the ones from the 50s and 60s. I loved the artwork, I loved the fonts, I loved the colors. And also how you have this myth, and you can continue to spin these creative stories around it. So I thought it would be great to write a story about the myth of the Man of Steel. And Oh, Lois, or Lois Lane, is the person who’s always getting in trouble, and has to be rescued, of course.

PC: It’s Linked on Sirius XM Pops, and my guest today in the studio is Michael Daugherty. I’m Peter Cummings. Michael, I want to not focus solely on American icons, and solely on your classical roots. I’d like to also talk a bit about Jazz, because in many ways your roots are in jazz, and you’ve had an impact in the world of jazz. And I’m interested in understanding your involvement with the Miles Davis and Gil Evans project that produced the Porgy and Bess track. I know there’s some interesting history there I’d like to hear about.

MD: When I was a student at Yale in 1982, my graduate assistantship was to conduct the jazz band, and on the faculty was a professor named Willie Ruff, who had played French horn with Gil Evans on the recording of Porgy and Bess. And he told me that Gill Evans was looking for somebody to help him reconstruct his arrangements that he did for Miles Davis, but he doesn’t have any money. Would that interest you? I said, sure, so I called up Gil Evans, came to New York about once a month, went to his apartment in the downtown west side, and I met with Gil Evans. What I had to do was—he had sketches, but the original arrangements, Miles Davis had taken them and locked them in a trunk, and wouldn’t let anybody see them. So, Gil Evans wanted those to be performed again. So, I had to listen to the recording and transcribe, like I did back in high school, back in Iowa when I was transcribing James Brown and Blood Sweat and Tears. I had to transcribe these arrangements. Then I would bring them to Gil Evans, who would then correct them and say, “Well, I think I did this, I did that.” But he really was, probably, the greatest orchestrator of jazz. I learned so much. He would play the piano and say, check out this chord, or whatever. So that was an amazing experience.

[Summertime plays]

 PC: Summertime from Porgy and Bess, with Miles Davis and Gil Evans performing. It’s Linked on Sirius XM Pops. My guest in the studio today is Michael Daugherty, and this is Peter Cummings. Michael, you and I collaborated, in a sense, during the time that I was the chairman of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and you were the composer in residence. And a project that was produced during that time that I think has enduring value is the Fire and Blood project, the great violin concerto that you composed, that was inspired by the Diego Rivera murals in the Detroit Institute of Art. I have a fantasy about you strolling through the museum one day, looking at those murals, and all of the sudden an idea pops into your head about a composition. I don’t know whether that’s the way it happened, but tell us how it did happen.

MD: Well, I’m a visual guy. I get my ideas, as we talked about before, driving a car, which is a visual experience. But also looking at things. I have an amazing collection of old post cards from Los Vegas from the 50s. I collect matchbooks of the 50s and 60s. I like looking at things, particular objects which bring back memories. And the Diego Rivera mural in Detroit is pretty amazing. When I walked in there, and saw this amazing mural, which is huge, and it’s four walls where he painted the Ford Motor Plant in 1931, I started hearing music. And it’s funny that even Diego Rivera said that someday someone would compose a symphony. So the first thing I did was check: has anybody written a piece inspired by these murals? No one had. I was shocked, actually. And the violin seemed to be a good instrument because of Mexican culture—that’s an important instrument. Diego Rivera had just married Frida Kahlo in 1930, so when he came to Detroit for two years to work on the project and paint the murals, Frida Kahlo, the amazing Mexican artist in Rome, also come. And her story is also a very interesting story, and when she was in Detroit in 1931, she almost died of a miscarriage, and that’s where she began to paint her paintings. Diego Rivera’s murals are gigantic; her paintings are very small. When you see them, they’re very small. But in them there are snapshots of he life and her emotions. So the second movement of Fire and Blood, a concerto for violin and orchestra, which was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony and was recorded by Naxos, is about Frida Kahlo longing to go back to Mexico.

[Fire and Blood Plays]

PC: It’s Peter Cummings on Linked at Sirius XM Pops. We’re in the studio with Michael Daugherty, and we’ve been discussing a whole range of musical influences, from James Brown to Gustav Mahler, if you could imagine those two musicians being discussed in the same hour.

MD: Only in the 21st century.

PC: And there are a few other influences that I’d like to discuss with you, Michael. One is, I know you spent some time at Tanglewood during the Leonard Bernstein Era, and that he encouraged you to incorporate contemporary musical, or contemporary American influences or contemporary influences into your music. Is there any of his music that served as a model for you, or did he just put you on to something that you were already leaning towards?

MD: I think I was leaning towards that. But I think, when you hear a great artist like that encourage you to go in a direction that you think you want to go to but you’re not quite sure you have the confidence yet, I think that really helps to have a great artist say, “No, that’s a great direction. You should do that.” So I think it was very nice to hear him say, it’s okay to incorporate American pop music, and to write melodies, and to not be afraid of that. Because we still have a lot of composers that don’t write melodies. They don’t write grooves. They’re still very much caught up in the abstract music, which I like a lot. And Gyorgy Ligeti, whom I studied with in Hamburg, Germany for two years, was probably one of the most famous avant-garde composers. But even though his music’s very complex, it’s very appealing. So, you can get an audience involved in music. You can write any kind of music, but I think that clarity and conviction is very important.

PC: Michael, I would like to thank you again for joining us in the studio today, and congratulate you on the success you have achieved with the Metropolis Symphony and Deus Ex Machina. We’ve taken a fascinating journey starting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and ending with your GRAMMY triumph. And I’d like to fade out, so to speak, with a Ligeti piece, Etude for Piano No. 2, and see if we can find that clarity and conviction you refer to. Thanks again for coming.

MD: My pleasure.

[Etude for Piano No. 2 plays]