King of the Road
Michael Daugherty, professor of composition at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is mentor to some of today’s most talented young composers. One of the most commissioned, programmed, and recorded composers on the international scene today, Daugherty, whose music has entered the orchestral, band, and chamber music repertoire, is one of the ten most performed living American composers, according to the League of American Orchestras. Two new CDs of his orchestral music, performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Nashville Symphony, were just released on Naxos. A DVD of his opera Jackie O, performed by the Bologna Opera in Italy, came out this summer on the Dynamic label.
Walking around Michael Daugherty’s Ann Arbor studio is like getting a glimpse into the mind of the composer. It’s all there, all those American cultural icons that inspired works like Metropolis Symphony, MotorCity Triptych, Sunset Strip, Jackie O, Dead Elvis—and probably even some still to be written. On a shelf, there’s a shiny model car, a turquoise-and-chrome 1959 Cadillac; on a far wall, a giant movie poster of Esther Williams, forever frozen in a mid-swan dive; Superman comics; and an authentic, child-size Roy Rogers guitar, circa 1953.
“Visual images say a lot to me,” says Daughtery. “All of these mementos I’ve collected over the years have special meanings and inspire my work.” On his shelves, you also see the fundamentals of the hard work of composing: reference books on music theory, orchestration, and musical notation; a complete set of The Grove Dictionary of Music; a vast library of music scores; books on cinema, modern art, architecture, and other subjects providing intellectual inspiration; books about the work of Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler, Ralph Waldo Emerson and about film personalities like Humphrey Bogart and architects like Frank Gehry.
This native son of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a child of the ’50s and ’60s, the eldest of five brothers, grew up surrounded by music. Daugherty’s father, Willis, is a jazz and country and western drummer; his mother, Evelyn, a singer. His grandmother Josephine played piano for silent movies in Vinton, Iowa, in the 1920s. All four of his brothers are working musicians. There’s a framed photo of the five of them, with their father, prominently displayed on one wall of his studio.
Daugherty’s love of music began early and pulled him in many directions as a young man growing up in America’s heartland. He taught himself to play piano by pumping the pedals of the family’s player piano and watching how the keys moved. In his early teens, he would check out the classic silent 8mm films of Charlie Chaplin from the Cedar Rapids Public Library, set up the family movie projector in the living room, and invite the neighbor kids over for a viewing as he improvised the soundtrack on piano. In high school, he led a popular eight-piece rock, soul, and funk band, which played proms, weddings, and high-school dances all over eastern Iowa. He learned to play jazz by listening to vinyl records and hand-transcribing the piano solos of Thelonious Monk onto manuscript paper.
Television and cinema certainly made an imprint on the composer’s creative world as well. The Daugherty family, like so many others across America at the time, would gather around the television in the evening to watch popular variety hours like The Ed Sullivan Show or the original Star Trek series. On Saturday afternoons, the five boys would go into downtown Cedar Rapids for a movie matinee at the palatial Paramount Theatre, to catch the latest James Bond or MGM musical.
By 1972, the oldest Daugherty was off to North Texas State to study jazz. At a concert by the Dallas Symphony, performing Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, however, he had a revelation, which resulted in his later shifting his concentration to composing.
During his instructional years outside the academy, the drive to master the depths and complexities of composition would take him to New York, Paris, Tanglewood (MA), Hamburg, and London, to work with an astounding variety of 20th-century composers of contemporary music: Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Betsy Jolas, Roger Reynolds, Earle Brown, Bernard Rands, Jacob Druckman, Mario Davidovsky, Leonard Bernstein, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, and Gil Evans.
After finishing his D.M.A in composition at Yale, where he wrote his dissertation on the relationship between the music of Ives and Mahler, Daugherty found himself at a crossroads. “While I was in Europe, I realized what I was missing and what was important to me,” he says. “I understood that the way for me to compose original music was to rediscover the uniquely American experiences I had lived.”
So he got behind the wheel of his 1972 Chevy Impala, to see the U.S.—traveling back roads and blue highways across the country, searching for ideas and inspiration. “Combing antique stores, taking photographs, talking to people from all walks of life,” he says, “I found a way to combine my passion for American places, popular culture, and historical figures with the incredible education in contemporary music I had received.”
That American journey, along with the liberating discovery that he had free rein to move among musical genres, boundaries, and narratives, brought forth a veritable fount of creative ideas from his musical pen.
Memories of summer road trips in the family station wagon inspired what Daugherty calls musical postcards: Route 66, Sunset Strip, Flamingo, Philadelphia Stories, Niagara Falls. The great political unrest and social change he witnessed in the ’60s and early ’70s planted the seeds for works such as Rosa Parks Boulevard, Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover, Paul Robeson Told Me, and Bay of Pigs. Pop icons of television and cinema informed works like Dead Elvis, Le Tombeau de Liberace, Spaghetti Western, Desi. His love of visual art and vibrant color engendered works like Fire and Blood—inspired by the work of Diego Rivera—and Ghost Ranch, from the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Daugherty first came to international attention when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman, performed his Metropolis Symphony—inspired by the Superman comic books—at Carnegie Hall in 1994. After the London premiere of the same work, The Times called it “a Symphonie Fantastique of our time” by a “master icon maker with a maverick imagination, fearless structural sense and a meticulous ear.”
Since that time, Daugherty’s career has been on an upward trajectory as his works have been discovered and performed and commissioned. Constantly in demand as a guest of professional orchestras, at festivals, universities, and conservatories around the world, Daugherty appears at pre-concert talks, teaches master classes, and works with student composers and ensembles.
He has been composer-in-residence with a number of orchestras, including a four-year stint with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the directorship of Neeme Jarvi. In fact, the CD Fire and Blood, just released on Naxos, is a celebration of that residency, which Mark Stryker of The Detroit Free Press described as “a major chapter in recent DSO history and a key initiative of the latter part of Jarvi’s landmark 15-year tenure.”
In the summer of 2008, when the Spokane Symphony commissioned a work for a 2009 celebration of Lincoln’s bicentennial, Daugherty began work the way he always does: with the title and concept. “I want to know what I’m trying to say,” he says. “I also think it helps the listener when they’re coming to a new piece of music—to give them an emotional framework. I view myself as a storyteller,” he says, “writing about people, places, and history through contemporary music.”
To find that elusive emotional connection between the music and meaning, Daugherty will typically immerse himself in the environment of the work he is composing. He spent hours in the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example, taking in Diego Rivera’s monumental fresco Detroit Industry for his concerto for violin and orchestra Fire and Blood.
Finding inspiration for a work on Abraham Lincoln was no different. Back in his car, Daugherty was off to the battlefields at Gettysburg, to the Lincoln Memorial—he even followed Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign trail, all the way to the swearing-in ceremony, solemnized with Lincoln’s very own Bible. “Since I had missed Woodstock, I was not going to miss Obama’s inauguration,” he said. “When the time came around, I got in my car and drove to Washington, D.C. It was very exciting. And the Lincoln Memorial was the backdrop for the whole thing.”
What emerged was Letters from Lincoln, a powerful work for baritone and orchestra based on the Gettysburg Address and some of Lincoln’s simple yet eloquent letters. Premiered in February 2009 by the Spokane Symphony with renowned baritone Thomas Hampson, that live concert will be released on CD by Koch Records sometime next year.
Along with this “nonstop whirlwind of creativity,” as colleague and frequent collaborator Michael Haithcock, director of university bands, has called it, teaching composition in his studio at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance is equally integral to Daugherty’s musical and creative life. “I feel fortunate to work with some of today’s most talented young composers,” he says. “My students learn that a composition is about three things: originality, concept, and details—we go over each measure of the score, looking at every musical aspect in great depth. I encourage them to find their own voice, whatever that might be, and to reflect upon what they’re trying to say in their music.”
Daugherty’s most recent project, Gee’s Bend, for orchestra and electric guitar, was inspired by the quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama (aka Boykin), not far from the site of Rosa Parks’s historic refusal to give up her seat on a bus, an act of defiance that inspired his Rosa Parks Boulevard. Down in Gee’s Bend, the women of this African American river community, descendents of Civil War slaves, produce stunning examples of their own Americana, quilts sewn by hand using techniques passed down through some six generations. Premiered with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in April, Gee’s Bend draws on the talent of former student, alumnus, composer, and electric guitarist DJ Sparr (D.M.A. ’03).
Meanwhile, back in Daugherty’s studio in this quiet west Ann Arbor neighborhood, the work continues. There at command central, surrounded by his books and artwork and photos and memorabilia, seated before a big-screen Mac loaded with all the latest compositional software, a tower of rack-mounted recording equipment on his right, a Kurtzweil MIDI keyboard on his left, Daugherty abides.
So where will he go from here, this spinner of tales, this traveler of blue highways, this maker of icons? To The Twilight Zone? Down in the Red River Valley? Up on Blueberry Hill? Only The Shadow knows for sure.
New release from Michael Daugherty
Fire & Blood features three exciting works commissioned and premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) during Michael Daugherty’s four years as DSO composer-in-residence.
The title composition is inspired by Diego Rivera’s mural, Detroit Industry, at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Other works on the new CD include “MotorCity Triptych” and “Raise the Roof.”
For more information, please visit Michael Daugherty’s website.
Betsy Goolian writes feature stories and profiles for the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.