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Interview with Michael Daugherty for Pendulum New Music Series

Interview with Greg Simon, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, October 15, 2008

(This interview, with Greg Simon, was givin for the Pendulum New Music Series at the University of Colorado, Boulder).


Part 1:


Part 2:




GS: What do you see as concert music’s place in American Culture today?

MD: Well, yeah, you know, thinking about a composer and the music he or she writes and how it fits into the culture—especially living here in America—you know, that’s always a tricky thing, because every country you go to is different. I was recently a judge at the International Gaudeamus Composers’ Meeting, where I heard nine days of music by composers in their thirties. Twenty-seven concerts of music. And by and large the music that’s being composed in Europe tends to be music that’s atonal, arrhythmic—rarely is there a melody or something like that. And the endings tend to all be soft. You know, a triangle, and you wait for it to fade out. It’s interesting because many times in American music, the endings tend to be big or dramatic, with a big boom at the end. So there is a cultural difference between every place you go, and the kind of music that’s composed. But I think dealing with audiences in America—and musicians, going back to your question—I try to look at it in various ways. First of all, there’s the composer. There’s the conductor, if there’s a conductor involved. Then there’s musicians, be it an ensemble, an opera company, and orchestra, or whatever. And then there’s an audience. So what I try to do as I’m composing is put myself in the shoes of each one of those people. Sometimes I think of myself as a conductor, what it would be like to conduct the music I’m composing. Sometimes I think of myself being in the audience listening to that music. What would it be like if I heard that for the first time? Or, I think of myself as if I’m playing second oboe in the group. What would it be like to play the piece? What would it be like to be playing viola in the piece? So I put myself in the shoes of the musicians. In other words, I step out of my own shoes, and I think that that’s an important thing to do, because we get very self-involved in the music we compose. But sometimes you need to have some distance to the music you’re writing. So I find that’s important.

GS: Talking a little bit more about the music you heard at Gaudeamus: do you think there’s a place for that? At least in the minds of audiences, do you think that the standard audience member could potentially be receptive to music that’s a little more atonal, a little harder to access for them?

MD: Well I think, in the end, how much does one think about the audience when you’re composing? I think that what’s important is to try and be as clear as possible in what you’re trying to say. So, I think you can say anything in any particular language, using any musical means that you want, be it atonal, tonal, the most dissonant, or the most tonal, something that’s very romantic and expressive, or something that very minimal. So you can kind of go between these things. But in the end, you really can’t control the audience. You can’t control the history of how things are going to fit, I think. So what’s important for the composer is to find music that excites them. You compose that music, and then you find where that music can fit. To me, that’s a better way to go than thinking, ‘how can I make an impact as a composer?’ You try then to manipulate something. I think it’s better to just compose the music that you hear, that you believe in, and then you find the right place. So, if you’re writing music, lets say, that’s very atonal, very complex rhythmically, and you’re not using melodies and all that kind of stuff, probably you’ll have a better chance of getting the music played in Europe. So you might want to live over there. If you’re writing music and you love visuals, and you like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann, then probably you’d be better to move to Los Angeles and try to work in film. If you’re doing electronic music, you kind of figure out where’s the best place where I can do that. So I think that that’s the main thing—you have to write the music that excites you, and then you find the place where the music can fit the best. Generally speaking, what I’ve noticed is that when you’re writing for large forces, that the bigger the ensemble, the more different the attitude. For example, if you look at Beethoven string quartets, they’re very different from his symphonies. The language is different. They’re different ways of approaching music, and probably because string quartets are intimate.  He has written for a very elite audience of listeners—people who knew a lot about music. Symphonic concerts are written for large groups of people, some who know a lot about music, some who don’t know about music. So in a way, comparing the string quartets of Beethoven to the symphonies, you can’t really compare that. And I think it’s the same way—when you have a hundred people on the stage, it’s much different trying to deal with a hundred people than it is with five people. So what I find, generally, is that it’s perhaps more practical to write highly experimental music for small groups of people, and then when you’re dealing with large groups of people, to write music where one thinks in a more practical way. I’ll give you one example. I wrote a piece for three conductors and orchestra. And I had each orchestra in different tempos. One of the things I did was that I would have each orchestra have a percussion player who was like a click track, playing a woodblock, or some kind of instrument that would be actually playing the beat that the conductor of that orchestra was conducting. So the player could hear that click track. Now, that was a practical way to have three different tempos, you know, one of the things of writing for a very small group of musicians as opposed to writing for a large group of musicians. And it’s the same thing writing for voice. If you’re writing for opera singer, you can write anything. If you’re writing for choir, we all know it’s very different, because choirs are amateur, frequently. Just look at choir music: It doesn't look like opera music. So it’s the same thing with—look at string parts from Beethoven string quartets, look at the string parts from the symphonies. They’re actually quite different.

GS: Great. There was one other thing I wanted to ask you about—I wanted you to talk a little bit more about your compositional process, your creative process, I should say. You’ve talked a little bit about where your language comes from. Obviously, a big part of it comes out of your time as a jazz/rock/funk musician, and you clearly have a big interest in the American vernacular. A lot of your subject matter is also sort of derived from that American pop culture, and I’m thinking there’s a big spectrum of that, of course. I’m thinking of pieces like Jackie-O, Spaghetti Western, Desi, Metropolis Symphony, the list goes on. I guess my question to you, then, is what makes you—I don’t know if you know the answer to this, maybe—but what makes you excited enough about a particular subject, be it a public figure, a comic book character—what makes you excited enough about a subject to write about it?

MD: Well, I think, again, it’s important for each composer, whatever you’re writing, to be excited about that. So I pick subject matters that excite me. It’s usually something that I’ve experienced, or I grew up with. So, in each case, if I’m writing about Jackie Onassis, or Elvis, or Abraham Lincoln (which I’m doing right now), or J. Edgar Hoover, or whatever, it’s something that either I knew about, or I lived through, or something that means something to me. I think that’s important, if that’s what you want to do. As far as a work habit, or how do I organize myself, I’m not organized. The thing is, some composers get up at six and write every day. Some people write in the evening, whatever. I sort of write when the muse hits me, and I never know when that’s going to be. I tend to be most creative, I think, late in the evenings. Around ten o’clock, I think, all the writing hits me. Probably from the days I used to play jazz, I get the second wind around ten o’clock, and I’ll tend to work from about ten till two, often. And I like it because it’s very quiet, and I can really focus on what I want to write. Something about the nighttime brings out interesting thoughts, I guess. My studio is—I have a big table with an apple computer, two 21-inch monitors. On the left side I keep the music notation, and on the right side, a sequencer, which I use—Digital Performer program. Then I have a disc player to my right, I’ve got a rack of modules, I’ve got a mixer, and to my left I have an Alesis Masterlink, I think it’s called, so I can digitally record when people come over to my house. I have players come over and I record them. I have a television to me left. When I’m bored, I’ll turn on an episode of Star Trek at one in the morning, you know. I’ll turn on some old movie—I like classics, a lot. And frequently, I don’t have the sound on. But I’ll just have an image in the background, because sometimes it can be very lonely at nighttime. So, a flickering image of Humphrey Bogart in the background, you know, whatever. I improvise a lot, and then I take the ideas and then I translate them to MIDI. Or, players come to my house. I try ideas out, I record them. Sometimes, I then dump it over to Digital Performer and make sound bites, and I paste them into the sequence. Sometimes I just write ideas out, people come and play them, we modify them, and I make a CD of whatever I did that day. Then, when I’m driving around town, I play the CD. When I’m washing dishes, I play the CD. I drive everybody crazy around me, probably. But, you know, I’ll be listening to my pieces all the time, and I listen from a distance. Because, I find that, sometimes if you’re stuck on something, the best way to figure out how to get out of it is to not think about it too hard. So, I’ll play that, in the background. I’ll be doing something else and say, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ It’s too long, or it needs to be transposed, or whatever. So it’s constantly a back and forth, where I’m writing, and I’m also stepping away from what I’m writing and listening to it, kind of, from a distance—it’s like we talked about earlier—and getting feedback, to myself. And then I come back the next day, and I start again on the next part. So, I tend to write right up till the last minute. Some composers will finish their piece, you know, a month ahead. I’m never like that. I’m tweaking right up till the last minute. In first rehearsals, I generally make changes, very often. So I tell them, the music I bring to the orchestra, to get ready, because after the first rehearsal I might make some changes. And I don’t feel so bad. Abraham Lincoln wrote five drafts of the Gettysburg Address. Bernstein tweaked Symphonic Dances. Mahler re-orchestrated his symphonies until the day he died. So, you know, the idea of revising or tinkering or changing is not uncommon, and of course with the computer now it’s quite easy to do that. I don’t get it right the first time. Often I go back and make some changes, maybe if the tempo is wrong, or I have too many instruments playing, or whatever. I always know that when I get to a real scenario, I might have to make some changes. Again, it’s a constant feedback where I’m working with technology, working with improvisation, with notation, using my ear, not using my ear. Sometime I’ll just set up some structures, set up some algorithms, which you’ll hear in the piano concerto which I’ll play. And I’ll just see what happens. Sometimes I’m at the piano. So, there’s really no set way, it’s kind of moving between—if someone asks me, do you do this, that, or the other, and I’ll say, it’s all three. Because I’m constantly going back between the old fashioned way of writing (writing on paper), writing with technology, writing with players, and writing totally in the abstract.”