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Michael Daugherty Discusses Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater

Interview with Cedric Westphal, November 22, 2013
(Daugherty talks about the upcoming premiere of Fallingwater with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra)

CW: How did you get in touch with the New Century Chamber Orchestra. They previously commissioned your colleague at the University of Michigan school of music, Bill Bolcom, was he instrumental?

MD: There are a lot of good composers who live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is a famous city for composers, including probably the best composition department in the country for music . It's a great place with a lot of creative energy. I've had many performances in California recently. I've been at the Cabrilllo music festival as a guest thirteen times. Recently I was the composer in residence with the Pacific Symphony in Los Angeles. And I've written numerous pieces for the Kronos quartet. My hunch is that the New Century Chamber Orchestra is a collaboration, that's one of the reason why their concerts are so exciting and so successful. Everyone contributes to the ensemble. They perform without a conductor and everyone is a collaborator. I think many decisions are made through collaboration in that ensemble, and that's why they are so happy. They're happy musicians.

CW: What is musically inspirational about the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright?

MD: Falling Water is inspired by the life and architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. When I visited Taliesin in Spring Green WI, which is where Frank Lloyd Wright lived most of his life, I discovered in the main living room a piece of furniture that he had created for string quartets. It's a round piece of furniture, it's a large circular music stand made of wood designed by Frank Lloyd wright for string quartets to perform in his home. I knew I was going to write this piece, and I decided at this moment I started to hear music for strings and that's how Falling Water came into place. It gives me an emotional framework to write my music. This process seems to start off from an emotion, far form the intellectual process advocated by some of the avant-garde composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen or Ligeti you studied with.

MD: Well, those people are all dead.

CW: Not Boulez!

MD: Almost. In fact, it was Gyorgy Ligeti, whom I worked with, who said to me: "the avant garde is dead." Obviously, the music I write is intellectual, it's very sophisticated, it's extremely well written for the instruments. I have thirty years composing music, I know what I'm doing when I write a piece. But I have a very unique perspective on music and society which no other composer really has. My music is inspired by American culture, icons, historical figures and places.

CW: What makes it American, when we feel that the world of composing seems getting flatter and more global and detached from roots in folk music?

MD: I'm not afraid to write a great melody. My sense of pacing and structure is, I think, American, but I don't know how to define that exactly. All I know is that my music is performed around the world, and people seem to like it. Most people hate contemporary, let's face it. They don't listen to contemporary concert music, or contemporary classical music. Very few people listen to it, and very few people want to listen to it, quite frankly. That's just the way it is. I am writing for those people who don't want to listen to contemporary music. I think I can write a piece that people who don't listen to contemporary will take a listen to, and that the intelligentsia can listen to. And the great composers of the past have been able to do that.

This conversation is getting awfully philosophical . The composers that you mentioned, Boulez, Ligeti, almost nobody knows who they are anymore. The avant grade composers of the sixties in Europe were writing music which did connect to the public at that time. It was very successful music at that time. But that was then and this is now. I should just say that when you talk about Europe and America, it's so difficult to talk about these things, because each country is different in Europe. It's complex, try to talk about Adorno. I shy away from making broad generalizations. I'm sort like a Charles Ives or an Emerson: I do believe in the common good in the common man and woman. I do think about that when I write music. In the end, the music that one writes as a composer has to be the music that you believe in. That's the only way you can write music. There is not a lot of money involved, so that's what I'm trying to do. You try to make it as good as possible. Every piece, you try to write the best piece you can and make it as sophisticated as possible. Everybody has different opinions, as music critics in San Francisco do. Some people have a narrow, small minded sort of approach to what music is. It's too bad, but that's just the way it is. I think this piece is one of my best pieces. I wrote a violin concerto, Fire and Blood, that piece is closer to this piece, if you want to hear it.

CW: The NCCO featured your older work in a sort of retrospective during their previous performance, where your pieces had lots of different styles. Which one would be closest to what we'll be hearing in your new premiere?

MD: The new piece I've written is a different kind of piece from the other works you heard at the concert. Those were pieces I wrote when I was younger. Just like when you're an actor, there are certain roles you can play when you twenty five, thirty years old, and now I'm turning sixty. The kind of roles I'm going to be in now are going to be different. Falling Water is a different kind of piece. It has a lot of different levels. It has interesting harmonies and melodies. I think it has lot of structural things that I worked into the piece, kinda like a piece of architecture. People will be shocked to hear this piece, just as they were to hear my other pieces. Again, a lot of these pieces I wrote in the 1980s and 90s, that was a different time than right now. Those pieces I wrote were avant-garde then. They were different kind of pieces. There were pieces other composers were writing and I was trying to do original things, that's my credo: to try to be myself and be original in some sort of way. I think I've done that, I've written pieces other people don't write, or don't dream of writing.

None of the pieces you heard will be similar to Falling Water. One of the thing that Frank Lloyd Wright was interested in was organic architecture, where everything is related. The macro and the micro of every aspect in the architecture related to each other. One of the movement is very much like that, where all the material comes from a small motive, the macro and the micro of the piece are interrelated. Also, the other big thing with Frank Lloyd Wright was his interest in nature, and somehow nature and modernism combined in some sort way, they worked together. I've written some, I've taken some ancient Welsh music (because Frank Lloyd Wright was from Welsh ancestry) and I've woven that into the piece as well at different times. Frank Lloyd Wright spent his youth living on a farm in Wisconsin, where he became interested in nature. I've written nature-like music.

Finally, he designed a lot of churches and synagogues, the most famous being the Unity Temple in Chicago, where he founded the prairie school of architectural design. I've visited the Unity Temple, I spent a couple hours in there, I took some photographs. All the places I've written about, the first movement is about Taliesin in Spring Green valley, the second movement is about Falling Water, the third movement is the Unity Temple, and the fourth movement is the Guggenheim. I've visited all these places. The last one is called: Ahead of the curve, that was his greatest battle. He had to battle against the modernist critics of NY, he had to fight the artists and architectural critics. It took him twelve years to build it. He had to fight the city, the intellectual art critics and artists to get that thing built. His entire life was a struggle, a lot of it was his own doing, he was often a terrible person who abandoned a lot of people, who never paid his bills, who was a very arrogant egotistical person, but he was able to design this beautiful architecture somehow.

I should say it's about the string orchestra, the beauty and the power of it. Of all the orchestra instrument, strings are probably the most complex, as part of timber. It's funny, when you are proofreading a first violin part for an orchestra piece, it takes four times longer than proofing the flute part. Because in string music, there are so much details of bowing, all the different sounds the instrument can do, there's arco, pizzicato, Col legno, tremolo, sul ponticello, sul tasto, ricochet, on and on and on... There is so much detail that goes into a string part, because in a way, it's the most complex timber wise. I really exploited all the timbers and kind of sounds the instrument can do.