Interview with Michael Daugherty on Architecture, Philosophy, and Literature
EH: “Michael Daugherty’s music successfully releases the poetic power of American icons”, is a line from a description of your background. Your music is inspired and infused with Americana. How did you find your voice as a composer?
MD: When I was a young composer, I was writing music in the style of the ‘high modernists’, where melodies, rhythmic grooves, tonality, narratives and catchy titles were a no-no. I even studied computer music at Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris, which was the cutting edge of contemporary music at the time. I composed avant-garde music very well, but I never really connected with that music. So I decided to go on a journey to find what I wanted to express as a composer.
At Yale, I explored the writings of Emerson and Goethe and the music of Ives and Malher. Upon completing my studies, I moved to Hamburg to study with György Ligeti, who was considered one of the greatest living composers at the time. Ligeti was interested in helping young composers find their voice, and this was what attracted me. He encouraged me to incorporate my interest in American culture and pop, rock and jazz music, with the computer technology I learned at IRCAM.
Look at William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of whom lived in Paris during the 1920s. They had to leave America in order to write their ‘great American novel’. Being on the other side of the ocean for a time allowed me to see more clearly what I wanted to do in my own music. When I finally returned to America from my pilgrimage of the avant-garde, I began to compose music that was very different from the European composers. My music began to sound like Michael Daugherty from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
EH: On the subject of American icons, I’d love to hear your thoughts on two famous pupils of Nadia Boulanger: Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland.
Daugherty: Virgil Thomson was a great writer and critic, and I have many of his books. I’ve never been crazy about his music. He was very perceptive of other people’s music, however, and tried to understand what composers were trying to accomplish in their music, to understand their aesthetic. I’ve always loved early Copland, like the Piano Sonata, but these ‘abstract’ pieces are rarely performed today. In his later music, like Rodeo – which is performed all the time – you find his music based on quotations of other music. Surprisingly, Copland never took heat for all the borrowing and quotation.
EH: Did you ever think twice about critics who would frown upon the use of Americana and elements of pop culture, like Elvis and Superman ?
MD: Wasn’t it the villainous Blofeld who said to James Bond “you only live twice”? (laughs) Abraham Lincoln also said, “you can never please all of the people all of the time”. Yes, my music pushes emotional buttons, which is a good thing. When a music critic critiques a composer, it is in print or via the Internet, where everyone can see it. You are publicly exposed and undressed! Most people receive criticism behind closed doors, so it is more a private matter.
A composer is a sensitive soul who, in most cases, is trying to make the world a better place. But you also have to have a thick skin. Ligeti told me, “You will know you are composing the right music when your teachers don’t like it”. I find the majority of the listeners, musicians, and critics who hear my music are genuinely moved by it. Every time I attend a performance of my Dead Elvis or Metropolis Symphony, I am pleased with the joy, excitement and energy that my music brings to people.
EH: Over the past two-hundred years, there’s been a trend veering away from the performance of works by contemporary composers. Do you believe there is a crisis in the field of composition and how the public perceives new works ?
Daugherty: I suppose there is less ‘new’ music performed today in classical music. I am very fortunate that orchestras, wind ensembles and musicians, from all over the world, program my music on a regular basis. If there is a lack of new music being heard in classical music concerts today, the fault lies perhaps with the composers. But I do believe music that is composed at the highest level, regardless of the style, will be programmed eventually.
It seems the general public doesn’t know very much about living composers these days. I was a guest composer at the Dayton Philharmonic recently, and I took a bow on stage after my music was performed. At the intermission, I was out in the lobby and I had people asking me who I was and why I took a bow on the stage. Was I perhaps the sponsor of the concert that evening? This has happened not only in Dayton, but also in New York and Los Angeles.
There’s nothing like hearing music performed live in a concert venue. I think as long as we’re still hearing an orchestra, a string quartet, a nightclub act, jazz big bands, etc., performing music live, there will be an audience for ‘new’ music. I realize we’re entering a cyber-space era, where music is consumed more and more via technology. There was once a fear that film would replace theater, that television would replace film, records would replace concerts, compact discs would replace records, synthesizers would replace orchestras, etc. But that hasn’t happened. All the technologies continue to thrive side by side.
EH: Jazz has played a major role in your life: your father was a jazz drummer, and you have worked with the incomparable Gil Evans. What are the qualities and elements of Jazz that are indispensable tools for you ?
MD: You have to have a great ear to be a great Jazz composer or performer. I learned Jazz by ear, so I can play anything on the piano that I hear. And that’s how Gil Evans was. He was very intuitive and he had a great set of ears. He trusted his musical intuition. Many composers will often start with a composition process, which then results in a sound that is the result of that process. But I’ve always striven to compose music where I imagine the sound I want to hear first, and then find a compositional process using that sound. This is how Gil Evans worked, and how I believe Ligeti did as well.
EH: Speaking of Ligeti, I just spoke with pianist Jeremy Denk, who recorded his complete Etudes beautifully. What are your impressions of György Ligeti after all these years ?
MD: Actually, Jeremy Denk was a student when I was a young professor of composition at Oberlin College, back in 1988. He was part of the Contemporary Music Ensemble. My first piece written at Oberlin was called Snap! and there’s a recording of him playing in it! He must have been nineteen or twenty (laughs). He was very, very good, and very smart.
Ligeti, who was originally from Eastern Europe, was open to just about anything. For example, in 1982, the Michael Jackson Thriller album had just been released. I picked up a copy, loved it, and brought it to his composition seminar, which was held at his luxury apartment in Hamburg. Imagine me taking Thriller to Boulez! One of the exciting musical features of Thriller was that it incorporated the newly invented drum machine. I played a cut of Thriller for Ligeti, and he said, “The music is very interesting. You could write complex polyrhythmic music using this drum machine”. That left an impression with me.
Ligeti never put any roadblocks, he never said ‘no’ for the sake of it. When someone brought up an idea in the composition seminar, he usually said, ‘why not?’ Because I respected him very much, his attitude and openness gave me freedom to follow my own musical instincts. This freedom to be creative is something I try to pass on to my composition students at the University of Michigan.
EH: As mentioned earlier, your doctoral dissertation at Yale explored the “philosophical underpinnings” in relation with Mahler and Ives, Goethe and Emerson. What is the connection between the various art forms and one’s music-making ?
MD: To compose interesting music, it is useful to have an appreciation for all of the arts. In the nineteenth century, it was quite common to be well-versed. In the twentieth century, people became much more specialized. To find ideas and to recharge the creative batteries, I find it inspirational to consult film, architecture, art, theater, literature, history, television and poetry. If music is composed in a vacuum, or an ivory tower, it can become boring and predictable. I find life, and music making, to be much richer when I am ‘riffing’ and ‘bouncing off’ of the culture around me. Being diverse in one’s knowledge of the arts gives a composer the creative and multifaceted perspective to write music that has ‘personality’.
EH: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the solo violin concerto, Fallingwater, for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, which is set to be premiered this weekend in San Francisco with the New Century Chamber Orchestra.
MD: I was visiting Taliesen in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which is where architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked. In the main living room, I saw a circular music stand that he had designed for string quartets to perform at his soirees. I’ve always wanted to do a Wright piece, and this is a response to my love of string music and architecture – specifically, his organic architecture, where everything is spun off a particular idea, and his ideas of nature and architecture being combined. I think people will be surprised when they hear Fallingwater: the music is lush, there are beautiful melodies, it is tightly structured, and a tour de force for Nadja to play. I have composed an enticing, evocative, complex musical composition, which evokes Frank Lloyd Wright’s turbulent life, his love of nature and his concept of organic architecture.
EH: Mr. Daugherty, thank you for taking the time.
MD: It was my pleasure, Elijah. You’ve ‘made my day’!