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Michael Daugherty Discusses his Creative Process with Robert Raines

Interview with Robert Raines, December 17, 2013


(In this interview for a new publication by Oxford University Press, Daugherty discusses his compositional process, and his use of technology in composition.) 

RR: Let’s begin by talking about your creative process. What inspires you to compose? Do you have a particular regimen that you like to follow and a particular time you like to compose?

MD: For me, composing music is not a job or duty; it is an honor and delight. I have to be “inspired” to compose music.  Before I write a note of music, I need to have the concept and title in place for the composition I am about to create in place.  For example, I have composed music inspired by people such as Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Kennedy, Elvis, Georgia O’Keeffe; by places such as Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, Route 66, and Sunset Strip; and by icons such as Superman, the American Gothic painting by Grantwood, UFOs and Mount Rushmore.   Knowing my subject matter gives me an emotional framework and a reference point from which to begin the creative process.

I have no particular work schedule I follow, but I tend to be most engaged and able to concentrate during the evenings. That’s probably because I grew up playing in rock bands and jazz groups where the gigs were always at night. What also appeals to me about the evening is that there are no phone calls, emails or other distractions. During the night I can really get into my zone and focus. My motto is “you have to turn off to turn on”.

I usually get a surge of energy between 10 PM and 2 AM and that is when I go downstairs to my studio where all my instruments, computers, books, music scores and collectibles----postcards, knick-knacks, autographs, photographs----are situated. My studio is the “world according to Michael Daugherty”, where I feel safe to think, let my imagination run wild and create anything my heart desires.

RR: Do you work on more than one piece at a time or do you concentrate on one piece? 

MD: I can only focus on composing one work at a time. However, I remember visiting Luciano Berio, in the summer of 1990, at his country farmhouse near the village of Radic'ondoli, Italy. In his composition studio, there were three massive orchestral works-in-progress on large manuscript paper, in Berio’s hand, on a long, antique wooden table.  I asked Berio, which orchestras had commissioned each work. He replied, “the first score is for the Berlin Philharmonic, the second score is for the BBC Orchestra (London) and the third score is for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.”  I asked Berio how he managed composing three different works at the same time and he replied “I compose for a while on one score and then compose for a while on the next score, and so forth”. So it appears that some composers can work on more than one composition at the same time!

RR: When you are developing a new piece do you keep notebooks, or do you use a computer to capture ideas as they come to you?

MD: I am always thinking of musical ideas and they come to me when I least expect them: when I am swimming, walking, driving my convertible, gardening, etc. Whenever an interesting title, subject matter, or musical idea comes to mind, I will write it down on a sheet of paper, send myself an email, or record it by speaking or singing into the voice recorder of my iPhone. I also have an area of my studio where I keep future ideas such as interesting articles I read in a newspaper or magazine; a book; a knick-knack I picked up when I was traveling.

RR: Do you compose at the computer or at the piano?

MD: I use every available technology to compose my music. One of the criticisms of using MIDI, computers, sampling and other digital technologies is that this will compromise and influence the compositional process in a detrimental way. My father always used to say, “Everything in moderation”. I use computer/digital technology in conjunction with older forms of technology such as pencil/manuscript paper, playing the piano or an instrument (like bongos). One could argue that composing at the piano, a technology used by my many composers in the past, was equally as compromising. Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky, and many other composers, composed their music at the piano and that certainly did not do them any harm!  As far as computer/digital technology I use composition software like Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Sibelius, etc. But like any “technology”, it can be a creative collaborator, or it can be a crutch, create roadblocks, and get in the way of creative thinking and experimentation. In the end, it depends how well you know the technology you are using and to what degree you are in control of it (not the other way around). If you have mastered the technology at hand and know all the in’s and out’s, then technology can be a powerful creative and composition tool.

Technology was also a great tool to learn about music when I was growing up. When I was kid growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the fifties and sixties, I learned how to play piano by pumping the pedals of our player piano and watching how the keys moved to tunes like Alexander’s Ragtime Band. When Ligeti introduced me to composer Conlon Nancarrow in 1984, we had something to talk about! In the seventies, to create the charts for my high school jazz-rock band The Soul Company, I transcribed the music by hand listening to vinyl records!

What ear training that was!

RR: Does the use of digital technology affect the outcome of your music? In other words, would the final version of a piece be different if written at the piano versus using a computer?

MD: I think every technology has a certain bias that is built into it. What I like to do is use all the

technological means available when composing. Sometimes, I will compose directly into the computer software by either playing my Kurzweil Synthesizer to enter the notes, or by “step timing” the music one note at a time. From time to time, I will compose music with pencil and paper and then enter it into the computer. I always compose for solo instruments and cadenzas in this manner.

I find it productive to bring musicians to my home studio in Ann Arbor, where I have them read through music I have written. For example, let’s say I have composed a minute of music for a violin concerto. I will hire a violinist to come to my home studio to play the violin part along with the electronic orchestra performed by Digital Performer on my Apple computer. With the musician in my studio, I also experiment with timbral details of the instrument and explore extended instrumental techniques that one cannot easily realize using sampled or MIDI instruments. Or when I am writing a new orchestra or wind ensemble work, I will often bring in almost every member of the orchestra or band to play along live with the MIDI generated score. During the session, I will make enhancements to the instrumental parts, such as adding trills, harmonics, glissandi, mutes, etc., based upon what I hear from the live instruments performing the parts I have created on the computer. Or I might work the other way around; if I am working on a violin concerto I might have a violin player come to my studio and I will compose the violin part with the violin in real time. When you compose at the computer you get immediate feedback, which is a plus. When I work with the performers, I might also record them using a digital recorder and upload that recording into Digital Performer (my computer sequencing software), and then I will start writing the music referencing those recordings of the live players.

RR: How did you develop this process of composing with performers?

MD: I think that my method of working interactively with live instruments, in conjunction with computer technology, came about as a result of my residency at IRCAM in Paris during 1979-80.1 At IRCAM, composers Roger Reynolds, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio were composing new works for solo instruments performing in real-time with computer music.   These composers also collaborated closely with their soloists. This interactive and collaborative approach appealed to me, because this was the way I composed music with my rock bands in high school and jazz ensembles in college. Jazz arranger Gil Evans, whom I worked with in New York from 1982-84, also worked with musicians, like Miles Davis, when he created his arrangements. Since the 1980s at Oberlin, and the 1990s until now at the University of Michigan, I have been consulting and working with performers during the compositional process of my concert music.  As I mentioned before, I compose my music using MIDI and notational software such as Digital Performer and Sibelius. While the MIDI and sampled sounds are quite good, I find that I need to hear my music, with all its dynamic nuances, played by real instruments. I find working with real instrumental sounds, played by real performers provides me with expressive and timbral virtually impossible to obtain, at least for now, in the computer software world.

RR: That sounds like a fascinating process. And you have found this to be effective in a practical way?

MD: Most practical, indeed! There are almost no question marks for me at the first rehearsal, because I know every detail of how each instrument will sound in my composition. If a performer asks me a question at a rehearsal, I know the answer. I have found that it is important to be very prepared for the first rehearsal, just like the conductor or soloist. However, there are times in a first rehearsal where I might make changes in the tutti orchestration.  This is because I am always pushing the boundaries and trying new ideas in the orchestration of my music. Consequently, there might be a few surprises during rehearsals, which I need to attend to, and ensemble balances that need adjustment.

RR: So you feel that using technology has helped you to write more effectively for acoustic instruments?

MD: Well, there is another side to your excellent question. When I was a student composer from 1972 to 1984, the philosophy among many modernist composers/teachers was that you should not write music that was “idiomatic” to the instrument at hand. Writing idiomatically for instruments was somehow the equivalent of stepping backward in time. In my music, I try to discover the “energy zones” of the particular instrument for which I am composing. That is perhaps one of the reasons performers enjoy playing my music: I am aware what an instrument can do and cannot do; I am aware of the psychology of their instrument; I am aware of the technical aspects of their instrument. I try to create music, which makes the performer want to become emotionally, musically and technically involved.

RR: I’ll ask you a two-part question and let you riff on it. Do you feel that technology has, in a positive or negative way, affected composition students? I’m thinking specifically of  comments I’ve heard from some composer/educators who feel that their students’ ability to learn the nuances of individual instruments and to orchestrate properly has been hindered by a reliance on inaccurate computer playback. Second, and in a broader sense, do today’s composition students have a different approach to learning and composing as compared to the time when you were in school?

MD: For part-one, I think that MIDI playback has helped composers get a much clearer idea of the pacing and overall structure of the music they are writing, which is a good thing. One can also experiment with multi-tracking and polyrhythmic ideas. Way back in 1982, when MIDI and the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer first became available, it was composer Gyorgy Ligeti who encouraged me to incorporate the new MIDI and computer technology, along with my love for American culture and history, to compose “original” music.

For part-two of your question: I decided long ago that when I was an older, established composer/teacher, I would not criticize the younger generation of composers. When I was a student composer, I remember hearing professional composers/teachers saying: “The young composers of today don’t know how to write counterpoint”; “ they don’t know the repertoire”; “the music they compose is too simplistic.” I now realize that every generation of composers develops a different way of writing music that is often not necessarily appealing to the previous generation. A melody that is considered “successful” to one generation may very well be “unsuccessful” to another generation. What is considered “well-written” counterpoint or sophisticated orchestration to one generation might be seen as “juvenile” to another generation, and so forth. 

When I am the company of young composers, I ask questions, and try to keep an open mind.

That was Gyorgy Ligeti’s “approach” when I studied composition with him in Hamburg. In 1984, I brought Michael Jackson’s pop music Thriller album, which had just been released to world-wide acclaim, to a composition lesson. He listened attentively to “Billie Jean” and commented, “This drum machine is very interesting. I think you could compose fascinating polyrhythmic music with this new technology.” By the way, I met Quincy Jones, who produced Thriller, in Los Angeles several years ago and told him this story, which he found amusing!

Concerning the use of technology in the composition process, almost every student, who studies composition with me these days at the University of Michigan, brings their laptop to their lessons. I have a large monitor that they plug their laptop into so we can see their large scores at full size. Then they plug their laptop, using the headphone jack, into my office stereo system so we hear the MIDI playback at full dynamic range. They play their orchestra, wind ensemble or chamber music composition, notated in Sibelius or Finale, on their laptop computer via MIDI.  After listening to what was composed that week, we carefully examine every detail of their music composition and make corrections and edits in real time directly into their Sibelius or Finale score file.  I might suggest: “What would happen if you took the violas down an octave here?”; “Why don’t we add pizzicato there?”; “I think it’s too heavily orchestrated----let’s play the passage again and just take the brass section out for these four bars.” By the way, in my experience,  student composers tend to over orchestrate their music (this is probably because MIDI instruments often sound thin and lack the depth of real instruments).  At each lesson, we also try ideas and various alternatives in real time. Student composers are often reluctant to make cuts in their music and I encourage them to only keep the music they cannot live without. In a lesson or seminar, I make suggestions and challenge, but I let each student make the final decision and respect a composer’s right to do what they think is best in their music.

I think the new technology is a great learning tool, and it has completely streamlined the creation of scores and parts: Students can generate a whole set of parts for a ten-minute orchestra piece, that looks fairly professional, in one day!  The down side is that they are using the built-in computer MIDI instrument sounds as their main reference as to what the actual instruments can do. As I stated before, when young composers are working with MIDI instrumental sounds, they tend to have too many instruments playing simultaneously. If you hear a real oboe play alone, it sounds acoustically fantastic, dense and complex. But if you hear a MIDI oboe play, it sounds terrible! So they think, “Well, I’d better add a vibraphone or some other instruments to make it sound more acoustically interesting.” I have to keep reminding my student composers to cross-reference what they hear coming from the computer with what the actual instrument is going to sound like on the concert stage. I also encourage my students to go to rehearsals and concerts, with full scores of the music being rehearsed or performed, so that can develop a meaning relationship between the music they are hearing and the music they are seeing on the printed page.

RR: It’s interesting to me that your background includes quite a bit of experience with genres other than classical concert music. You played in rock bands and attended North Texas State, which has a great jazz program. I hear these influences in your music. This openness to, and incorporation of jazz, rock, and other styles of music into mainstream concert composition seems like a fairly new development among composers.

MD: The only kind of music I can compose comes from who I am and what I’ve experienced. It is not for nothing that Mark Twain advised young writers to  “write what you are”. When I was a young composer, I was lucky that composers like Bernstein and Ligeti encouraged me to follow my creative muse.  I return this gift to the young composers I work with at Michigan.

What does “classical music” mean? To me, “classical music” means, among other things, music that is created with the greatest of care. Since great music occurs in all genres of music, then most music is “classical music”.

RR: What do you discuss with your composition students during lessons?

MD: In lessons, I offer the young composer contrasting new ideas and new possibilities to the music they are currently composing. If a composer tends to write a lot of fast music, I’ll have them listen to slow music; if they write a lot of slow music I have them listen to fast music. If they write tonal music, I might have them write something that is not tonal, and visa versa. If they are using a lot of technology, I might have them write something for a solo instrument, and not use the computer. If they only compose using manuscript paper, I might suggest that they might want to learn some computer skills. I teach them to explore alternatives and to keep an open mind.

RR: Why is composing music a collaborative process for you? 

MD: When I was growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I experienced music as a collaborative process; a group of people working together and playing music by ear. Nothing was written down and music was created “on the spot”.  This included when I played percussion in drum and bugle corps, playing piano in country and western bands or playing Hammond Organ with the Soul Company. When I studied composition and contemporary music at the North Texas State, Manhattan School of Music, IRCAM and Yale, all the music I was involved with was meticulously composed by hand on music paper. Composing by ear, as opposed to composing music on paper, are two very different worlds; but each offer interesting possibilities. I feel creative in both worlds and I encourage my composition students to explore both the improvisational and the notational; composing by ear and incorporating pre-composition strategies.

RR: Speaking of teachers, you worked with Gill Evans.2 I knew him briefly, and admire him very much. Would you share what your experience working with him was like?

MD: I didn’t really study with Gill Evans; I was invited to help him as an assistant for several years when I was pursuing my DMA in composition at Yale University. As part of my fellowship, I was the conductor of the Yale Jazz Band. I heard from Willie Ruff, who played French horn on Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain, that Gill Evans was looking for an assistant, although there was no pay involved. About once a month, I took the train to New York and went to Gil’s loft on the lower West Side to help him organize his life and music. By the way, John Cage lived in the same building and we bumped into him at the mailbox one day! Gil would tell me stories about the ups and downs of his musical life with Miles Davis, and the perils of the music business. He would also play the piano for me and talk about music. Gil would play a chord on the piano and say, “dig this sound, man”. He knew a lot about classical music and was up on all the latest modern music of Boulez, Stockhausen and Ligeti. Gil worked totally by ear; writing things down was difficult for him. He was not very interested in memorializing his ideas or cataloging his music, and only looked toward the future, like many jazz musicians of his generation. He didn’t even keep copies of important historical arrangements or compositions from his past!  Another thing I learned from spending time with Gill Evans was about the importance of understanding the business side of being a composer and arranger. Gil was a very impractical guy about business and naïve about money. When I meet him, he was completely broke. Many people, including Miles Davis, had taken him advantage of Gil by having him sign recording and arranging contracts that paid no royalties. I realized that, while it is important to focus on being a creative artist, one does need to be a practical and understand how to read contracts and how the copyright laws work. Ignoring this aspect of being a composer can really harm you down the road, and that’s what happened to Gil Evans. At the time, I didn’t realize how fortunate and important spending time with Gil was. He was a real creative soul and I feel honored to have known him.

RR: You’ve segued very nicely into my next question. What do you advise your students regarding the business of music: self promotion, dealing with websites, having your music played on the Internet? The new technology is great but there does seem to be a certain business acumen that a composer needs to have in order to survive.

MD: Composers today are more in control of their destinies than ever before, which is a good thing.  Whether a composer is represented by a publisher or is self-published, laptop computers and smart phones have created a balanced playing field where anyone in the world can discover and experience a composer’s music at the touch of a button.  For younger composers today, the creative process involves composing music, videos, websites, blogs and social media. Young composers have told me that when they “compose” they multitask and have their MIDI sequencer or Sibelius file, Facebook, website and e-mail all up and running simultaneously on their laptop! As far as the “business of music”, it is important to be savvy. However, I always tell my composition students, and myself, that the music has to come first.

RR: Your use of humor is refreshing, both in your titles and the music itself. Metropolis Symphony and Dead Elvis come to mind as examples. I find that sense of playfulness often lacking in contemporary concert music. Do you encourage your students to write a range of emotions including humor in their pieces?

MD: I’m open to the full gambit of human emotions, from pathos to comedy and encourage my students “to go where no one has gone before”. After a tragic event in his plays, Shakespeare often turns to humor: three buffoons will suddenly appear on stage telling off-color jokes. So, tragedy and comedy can work together in the theater, life and in music. I am huge fan of the old school comedians like Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball and Don Rickles. There is much to learn from their pacing, delivery and timing. I suppose there are “humorous” moments in many of my earlier works such as Metropolis Symphony, Dead Elvis, Sinatra Shag, Hell’s Angels and Le Tombeau de Liberace. I was composing a kind of music that wasn’t heard often at that time, especially in Europe, and using subject matter for “serious” musical composition that was considered by many as “forbidden”.  My goal was to be creative and original in these works and if some hear this music as “humorous” or “witty”, so be it.  Now that I am turning 60 years old in 2014, the tragic works are just around the corner!

RR: How do you approach the composition of a new piece? Do you improvise or use a compositional system?

MD: I work in an intuitive fashion, often by ear. Why? When I was a kid growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I experienced music as a collaborative process; a group of people working together and playing music by ear. Nothing was written down and music was created “on the spot”.  When I studied composition at the university, everything was meticulously composed on music paper. Composing by ear, as opposed to composing music on paper, are two very different worlds; but each offer interesting possibilities. Once I generate material, I switch gears and turn to a rigorous compositional mode where I begin to structure the music. I utilize all the techniques I learned in the university, such as counterpoint, twelve-tone, set and Schenkerian theory, algorithmic procedures, etc., to extend and shape the musical material. I also create foreground, middleground and background layers, which I juxtapose, expand and compress in various ways. The way the music changes reflects the shifting of those blocks either forward or backward, taking them away, or speeding up and slowing down those blocks. Structurally, I tend to start from the beginning of the composition and write in a linear fashion to it’s end. The structure can be intuitive – I don’t work in prearranged structures. I feel creative in both worlds and I encourage my composition students to explore both the improvisational and the notational; composing by ear and incorporating pre-composition strategies.

RR: Do deadlines effect your compositional process? I’ve heard different perspectives from various composers. Do you feel they are good or bad for your creativity?

MD: Deadlines are always hanging over my head, but I don’t need deadlines to keep motivated or feel creative. I compose around three pieces a year, all on commission, so I need to be very organized in order finish on time. Balancing a personal life, creative life, teaching, and recreation time is a challenge for everyone. Let’s not discuss emails! I have to figure out how many months I will need to finish a piece, including time for copying and editing the score and getting it all ready for the first rehearsal.

RR: How do you work with notation programs such as Sibelius or Finale?

MD: First, I enter all my music into the Digital Performer sequencer program. Then I save the Digital Performer file as a MIDI file and then translate the MIDI file into Sibelius. I do a rough format of the score consisting of the notes and page layout. I print out the score and then add all of the details, such as articulations, slurs, dynamics into the score by hand. Then a copyist will enter that information using Sibelius to create a final score for me.

RR: So you’ve been composing using synthesizers and computer technology for a while?

MD: In 1982, I was introduced to the world of computer music first at MIT, where I attended a summer course in computer music, and IRCAM, where I spent a year composing computer music on mainframe computers. In 1984, I purchased a Yamaha DX74 synthesizer and a QX1 Yamaha sequencer. The sequencer had 8 independent tracks and I was able to work intuitively and compositionally for the first time. I eventually graduated to Apple computers and then Digital Performer around 1986. At the beginning, Apple computers had very limited memory, so there were many compromises one had to accept. Today, the technology is very powerful and the sky’s the limit. In my home studio, I have two thirty two-inch monitors, a Kurzweil synthesizer, a Yamaha Disklavier and a rack of MIDI sound modules.

RR: Some composers who create music for film and TV use very expensive and sophisticated sampling libraries. When it comes to composing, I personally find that these programs are very time consuming and I tend to not use them. Do you or your students use these more advanced digital sounds?

MD: Yes, I have a few composition students who use advanced sample libraries. They are expensive to buy, require a lot of computer memory, and can be difficult to use. An area where technology has hurt music is in Hollywood film scores. Film music has become relegated to click-tracks, sequencers, ostinatos, and very rigid tempos. Now days, the process of creating a film score starts with the creation of a “temp track,” often by using the types of sampled sounds you just mentioned.  Once the director or producer approves this track, the music will be orchestrated and recorded with a live orchestra. The music of the live orchestra is mixed with the sampled orchestra of the temp track and additional sound effects are added. That’s why there is such a dependency on click tracks by composer of film music today.

The wonderful music of John Williams is old school: you hear counterpoint, counter melodies, great orchestrations, changes of tempo and rubatos. I must say, I miss the old days of film music; the scores of Alfred Newman, Max Steiner and Bernard Hermann for example. That way of composing virtuosic film music may come back someday, but at the moment we are in a very technologically driven world of film music, that, in my personal opinion, has inhibited the creative possibilities.

RR: How important should success be to a composer? Is fame truly a measure of the worth of the music that a composer creates in his or her lifetime?

MD: Fame is a relative thing. It’s funny that an example of a composer that is cited as not being famous in his day is Charles Ives, which is simply not true. Composers of note from that era knew who Charles Ives was and were aware of his music. Here is what I’ve always thought is a realistic way to look at fame or success: If you want to create music that is not often performed or popular, audiences and performers don’t support, and as a result you aren’t recognized in your lifetime, then you need to accept that. And if other people write music that is incredibly successful, and everybody wants to perform it, you can’t begrudge those people. Because you made a decision – a conscious decision not to write music that would be popular to performers and audiences, and you should accept the consequences of that.

RR: What advice would you give to someone wishing to pursue a life as a composer?

My advice is to compose the music you want to compose, and then find the appropriate venue to have your music realized. And make sure to always leave a tip on your way out the door!