Articles | Michael Daugherty, composer

Grove Dictionary of American Music Entry 

by Mark Clague (2013)

Mark Clague, Ph.D, is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theater and Dance, Associate Director of the American Music Institute and Project Editor and Contributor to the Second Edition of the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.

1.  Life.

Michael Daugherty’s aesthetic engagement with jazz, classical, and popular music was shaped by his upbringing. He grew up in a musical family saturated with popular music. His father Willis Daugherty (1929-12) was a professional jazz and country and western drummer, and his mother Evelyn Daugherty (1927-74) was an amateur musical theater singer and tap dancer. He is the eldest of five brothers who are all professional musicians.

At age eight, Daugherty began teaching himself keyboard, mimicking the family’s player piano as it churned through Tin Pan Alley song rolls; ten years of piano lessons followed in which the young musician was fascinated by Bach’s inventions and fugues and learned jazz and pop tunes by ear from the radio and phonograph records. When he was about age ten, his father taught him rock and jazz drumming. He also studied tap dancing, and painting, and considered becoming a cartoonist.

From 1963 to 1967, he marched with the Emerald Knights (on bass drum) and the Grenadier Drum and Bugle Corps (on tom-toms). Driven in part by the social activism of the sixties, he became the leader, arranger, and organist for the Soul Company (1968-72), his racially integrated, high school rock, soul, and funk band, which performed top 40 and soul charts that Daugherty transcribed from commercial recordings. In these years, Daugherty also accompanied the Washington High School Concert Choir in Cedar Rapids on piano, performed solo jazz piano at local nightclubs, and appeared as the pianist for Music Manor of Dale Thomas, a local, prime-time country and western television show that ran from 1969 to 1972. From 1972 to 1977, he played Hammond organ during the summers at country fairs across the Midwest for popular music stars such as Bobby Vinton, Boots Randolph, Pee Wee King, and cast members of The Lawrence Welk Show.

Beginning in the fall of 1972 Daugherty attended the University of North Texas College of Music in Denton, where he studied with composers Martin Mailman and James Sellars and played jazz piano in the Two O’Clock Lab Band. The 1974 premiere of his Movements for Orchestra earned Daugherty a composition scholarship, and he graduated with a BM in composition in 1976.

That fall Daugherty moved to New York and studied serial techniques with composer Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music (MM 1977). NewYork offered the young composer a wealth of new sounds and opportunities, including crossing paths with composers Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Morton Feldman. A Fulbright Fellowship allowed Daugherty to study computer music for a year at Pierre Boulez’s Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (1979-80). While in Paris, he met Luciano Berio, Gérard Grisey, and Frank Zappa and attended music analysis classes offered by Betsy Jolas at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris.

Daugherty moved back to the United States in the fall of 1980 to attend the Yale School of Music (DMA 1986), where he worked with composers Jacob Druckman, Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Earle Brown. Music theorist Alan Forte and pianist, editor, and Ives archivist John Kirkpatrick advised his 1986 dissertation, “Mahler-Ives/Goethe-Emerson,” which explored the philosophical underpinnings of originality and artistry. Daugherty also continued his work in jazz, directing the Yale jazz band and studying with jazz bassist and horn virtuoso Willie Ruff. Daugherty served as assistant (1980-82) to jazz pianist and arranger Gil Evans, helping reconstruct Evans’s charts for Miles Davis’s 1958 recording of Porgy and Bess. In the summer of 1981, he studied with Mario Davidovsky at Tanglewood and met Leonard Bernstein, who encouraged him to integrate classical and popular musics. The next summer, he attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany. There, Daugherty met Karlheinz Stockhausen and formed an experimental music duo with his son Markus Stockhausen on trumpet and electronics and Daugherty on synthesizers (1982-84).

In 1982, Daugherty was admitted to the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg, Germany, for postdoctoral studies with György Ligeti; while there, he worked as a jazz pianist in nightclubs in Hamburg and Amsterdam. Ligeti challenged Daugherty to fuse his eclectic musical lives, drawing on American mythologies and using MIDI technology, which facilitated Daugherty’s more intuitive jazz and rock-based procedures in classical composition.

Daugherty returned to the United States in September 1984 and improvised music for silent films on synthesizers, such as the Yamaha DX-7. In 1986 he began teaching composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he forged a growing reputation with “Snap!” and “Blue Like an Orange” (1987) plus “MXYZPTLK” (1988), “Oh, Lois!” (1989), and “Lex” (1991), which later became three movements of his Metropolis Symphony. In September 1991 he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan, winning fame for the completed Metropolis Symphony and Dead Elvis (1993) and for two works composed for the Kronos String Quartet–Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover (1992) and Elvis Everywhere (1993). His opera Jackie O (1997), commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, would prove an artistic turning point, inspiring a more lyrical compositional voice.

2.  Style.

Daugherty’s aesthetic reacts against the abstraction typical of the postwar academic composition prevalent during his training. Early works, such as Snap! and Dead Elvis exhibit terse modernist counterpoint with complex, often aggressive ironic textures. Writing for voice in the opera Jackie O served as a catalyst for the development of extended works, increased lyricism, and musical riffs on Romantic traditions of expressivity in later orchestral works such as MotorCity Triptych (2000) and Ghost Ranch (2005) or the solo concertos Fire and Blood (violin, 2003) and Trail of Tears (flute, 2010).

Inspired by both Dvorák and Ives, his music often finds inspiration in the people (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackie Kennedy, Leopold Stokowski, Rosa Parks, Diego Rivera, Paul Robeson,), places (e.g., Detroit, Las Vegas, Niagara Falls, Sunset Strip), and popular icons (e.g., Elvis Presley, Liberace, Route 66, Superman) of the United States. An avid collector of 1940s-60s Americana (autographs, books, figurines, matchbooks, movie posters, and postcards), Daugherty,’ with his now-characteristic appeals to American myth, makes a sincere attempt to create not narrative but an multilayered emotional framework for listeners: “Titles are welcome mats, keys to open a door,” he says. Additional compositional influences include Bach (counterpoint), Mahler (orchestration), Thelonious Monk (motivic construction), Gil Evans (writing for winds), and Esquivel (orchestration).

Although fluent in serial techniques, Daugherty prefers aural working methods that draw upon his experiences, both in rehearsal and in the recording booth, with jazz and popular music. He often begins composing with improvisation and collaborates with instrumentalists to explore frontiers of timbre and technique. As ideas take form, he auditions acoustic drafts of recorded or electronic sounds, splices these into patterns both sonic and visual, mixes and balances the resulting acoustic tapestry, and only in the later stages of his work converts the results to notation using MIDI and music notation software.

Drawing upon the “head” structures of modern jazz, he often organizes his music in “blocks” with distinct melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic signatures. These blocks are then developed in time and texture through a process of chunked “polyphonic multitracking” (instead of linear transformation) in which musical formations change instrumental forces and shift contrapuntally against other blocks, exhibiting contrast and cross-pollination.

-Mark Clague (2013)



Composer Background by Timothy Salzman (2001)

Timothy Salzman is Ruth Sutton Waters Endowed Professor at the University of Washington, where he serves as conductor of the UW Wind Ensemble

To say that a composer’s style is unique merely states what should be true of every composer, and yet when confronted with Michael Daugherty’s music one feels compelled to make this claim. Enzo Restagno, Artistic Director of Settembre Musica in Torino, Italy has written:

To observe The American landscape in Michael Daugherty’s company is an unforgettable experience which I had during a long nocturnal walk through the streets of New York. Naturally we talked about music, but our talk was interrupted every minute because he kept stopping ecstatically outside a show window or some public building. He wanted to call my attention to some gadget or individual abounding in symbolic value. Clothing, menus, items for everyday use, gestures, posters, billboards, photographs, and architecture, all inspired lengthy observations endowed with great insight, but, at the same time, an affectionate irony. Like the energy that radiates from the icons housed in our European museums and art galleries, Michael Daugherty’s music successfully releases the poetic power of American icons.

It is in part this fascination with the vernacular that sets Daugherty’s music apart. By using sophisticated compositional techniques to develop his melodic motives combined with complex polyrhythmic layers, he has created a style that is bursting with energy and truly unique. Niagara Falls for symphonic winds will be the principal work considered here, though general background and performance considerations would apply to Desi and Bizarro for orchestral winds, Motown Metal for brass ensemble, Timbuktuba for euphoniums, tubas , and percussion, and UFO, Rosa Parks Boulevard and Red Cape Tango for symphonic winds.

Daugherty’s connection to American culture infuses his work at every level. The inspiration for much of his music comes from icons of the American pop culture. He acknowledges his debt to pop culture, saying:

For me icons serve as a way to have an emotional reason to compose a new work. I get ideas for my compositions by browsing through second book stores, antique shops, and small towns that I find driving on the back roads of America. The icon can be an old postcard, magazine, photograph, knick-knack, matchbook, piece of furniture or roadmap. Like Ives and Mahler, I use icons in my music to provide the listener and performer with a layer of reference. However, one does not need the reference of the icon to appreciate my music. It is merely one level among many in the musical, contrapuntal fabric of my compositions.

The Metropolis Symphony and Bizarro are based on the Superman story; Desi is inspired by the television character Ricky Ricardo. One hears urban Detroit in the industrial sounding Motown Metal and the courage of an Afro-American civil rights icon in the emotional charged Rosa Parks Boulevard. UFO is inspired by the unidentified flying objects that have been an obsession in American popular culture since 1947.

Not surprisingly, Niagara Falls draws its inspiration not only from the falls themselves, but most importantly from the pop culture that surrounds this natural wonder.

“My parents went on their honeymoon and I’ve visited there many time as I have in-laws in Syracuse so we stop at Niagara Falls on the way. Niagara Falls is a destination for honeymooners and its also one of the biggest capitals of tourist traps in North America. I think that to even write a piece inspired by this sort of concept is still uncommon in concert music. Yet when I am writing the music I am extremely serious about putting the notes, the dynamics and the articulations, the timbre, the structure and the counterpoint. When I compose, I think in a very structural logical way as Webern and Bach did.”

Daugherty’s melodic material–usually short motives that are repeated in sequences or canons–frequently comes straight from jazz or Latin musical idioms with strong syncopation. Often the accompanying figures are rooted in big band jazz, whether the closely harmonized scale fragments typical of a saxophone section or the explosive interjections by the brass. All of this occurs over rhythmic ostinati or grooves in the bass and percussion sections–the classic rhythm section of pop and jazz.

-Timothy Salzman (2001)