Metropolis Symphony | Michael Daugherty, composer

Metropolis Symphony
Argo/January 1997


Baltimore Symphony
David Zinman, conductor



As an American (northern part of the hemisphere), I feel sorry for Europeans. Sure, they’ve got great high culture and great folk culture, but the pop generally seems anemic, when it doesn’t imitate that of the New World. Of course, one can cite exceptions. Even Yankle-Doodle-Dandy me can. The French have Zizi Jeanmaire, Piaf, and Chevalier. Britain has Beyond the Fringe, Flanders and Swann, Monty Python, Noel Coward, P. G. Wodehouse, Sid Fields, and Morecombe and Wise (to list only a few stellar names), but it seems that it learned all its really good pop music from Ray Charles and Martha and the Vandellas. German pop makes me burp up nightmare memories of Heino and Annaliese Rothenberger in her Dinah Shore phase.

The culture of the United States in particular seems to generate a lot more noise than others. This has its good and bad sides. On the one hand, it drives several composers screaming into a cork-lined room. They become shut-ins, largely cut off from the genuine vitality of their own home town. The music becomes not simply not-popular, but bloodless and uninvolving. At the other end, the distractions and heavy promotion of the pop culture tend to make other forms of music disappear – and not just concert music. I’d put Doc Watson and Buddy Guy on my list of national treasures, although few of our own countrymen know the instruments they play or even recognize their names. A lot of raw talent winds up in pOp. Furthermore, those few classical composers who do dip into the electric stream of pop risk drowning in it. They lose an individual message and a sense of unity. The pop elements seem stuck on, like musical Post-Its, or temporarily put on, like Helen Traubel warbling “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.”

And yet, as recently as fifty years ago, American composers seemed far more at home “at home.” We had the examples of Bernstein, Copland, Gould, Siegmeister, and Moross – to name just a few – essentially following the path of earlier composers, scooping up the snappy vernacular and transforming it to the long arch of symphonic music. To some extent, younger composers’ infatuation with the European avant-garde, beginning after World War II, killed this off. Those few composers who tried to carry it on – Schuller, Russell, Baker, Mulligan, Mingus, Amram, Bolcom, and so on – did so with fitful success and more than a little uncomfortable self-consciousness, as if we had to learn all over again how to recreate our sprawl of a culture in music. It says a lot that Elliot Carter was far more hooked by Ives than by the culture which inspired Ives. Complicating all this was the revolution of rock, as if jazz alone weren’t a big enough mountain. Rock’s energy has, in the words of Wim Wenders, “colonized the subconscious” of the rest of the world. How to get that into the metaphorical Carnegie Hall? I have great hopes. The new crowd – Rouse, Larsen, Weigel, and Daugherty among them – have turned out pieces that assimilate in individual ways the buzz of the American vernacular with the concert platform. Best of all, they’ve done it without either sniggering up their sleeves or with a sense of holy mission. They write the way they do because of who they are, where they come from, and how they grew up.

An extremely interesting case, Daugherty recognizes the powerful attraction of kitsch and schlock in American pOp. He’s written works inspired by Elvis, Liberace, legions of cocktail pianists, the Supremes, and so on. He must overcome the problem – a big one – of how to use such primary material without taint. Can one use the language of a hack without becoming a hack? James Joyce faced a similar problem in Portrait of the Artist when he wrote an extremely long, extremely boring sermon, to satirize such things. I make it through that section, but just barely. To me, it’s the book’s huge defect. Daugherty has talent to burn. I consider him undoubtedly one of the most musical composers this country’s ever produced. The gambles he takes often pay off. Desi, a tribute to bandleader Desi Arnaz (although Daugherty was probably inspired by Arnaz’s Ricky Ricardo incarnation on the TV sitcom I Love Lucy), is a straight pop conga, written so well and so imaginatively that it becomes a brilliant piece of “classical” music. Even more amazing, Daugherty does it all without resort to any distancing device, like abstraction or irony. It’s poetry from pure pOp.

I come from Superman’s home town, Cleveland, Ohio, USa (actually the home town of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman’s creators; my dad grew up with both). You’d think I’d have a rooting interest, but I don’t. As a kid, I never found Superman all that involving. After all, once you make a guy super, with x-ray vision and super-hearing added to invulnerability, strength, and speed, it’s just about a given that he can beat anybody up and catch crooks in the act. Oh, sure, there’s Kryptonite – fatal to all native Kryptonians – but there’s a suspicious and unconvincing surfeit of that stuff, even given all the eentsy-weentsy pieces the planet exploded into. Space is a large place, after all, and too many pieces seem to wind up within driving distance from earth or walking distance from the fair city of Metropolis. However, Superman (or rather the idea of Superman) grew on me as an adult, long after I quit reading him. For example, if you can do anything, does that mean you should? Super-powers are a danger to oneself and to others. Like Odin, Superman becomes a god at a tragic price, the greatest being that he must give up the pleasures of the ordinary. One can carry on like this for days, unfortunately, but I just want to make the point that kid stuff isn’t necessarily just kid stuff. The pop triggers in Daugherty an ultimately meditative response.

Metropolis Symphony contains five movements – “Lex,” “Krypton,” “Mxyzptlk,” “Oh, Lois,” and “Red Cape Tango.” Daugherty allows performers to play whatever movements they want, which indicates that he probably didn’t conceive of the work as a symphony. I don’t hear a particularly unified piece, so the question for me becomes how well the individual movements hold up.

“Lex,” of course, refers to Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind (offshoot of the Mad Scientist). Daugherty begins with a brilliant stroke – four referee (“police”) whistles, differently pitched and placed quadraphonically in the concert hall – capturing at once the circus colors of the comic book. The music takes off like a shot, with a rapid perpetual motion for practically everybody, especially a solo violin, representing the arch-fiend himself. The orchestration sounds both hi-tech and thin, with cool cross-rhythms interrupting every once in a while. There’s a decadence and mechanistic energy that would make it a good accompaniment to Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis, come to think of it. Daugherty also builds into the piece first-class musical slapstick. During the solo violin’s cadenza, each of the whistles interrupts, conjuring up the flight of the arch-criminal, turning every which way, with the police in pursuit. The movement ends on a tonally inconclusive note (the second degree of the scale), emphasized like the “home” pitch in a unison orchestral tutti, and then on a short burst from one of the whistles. Luthor is still at large.

“Krypton” uses several avant-garde techniques for purely illustrative effect in a portrait of the instable, doomed planet. We hear fire sirens, screaming glissandi, clanging bells (fire bells, according to the composer, played by two percussionists antiphonally), the rhythm (but not the tune) of the “Dies irae” chant. The orchestration is inventive, splendiferous, and effective and makes most of the emotional points. For example, the antiphonal placement of the bells demonstrates disaster everywhere you look.

“Mxyzptlk” was a nice touch from the writers of the classic comic books. They realized almost immediately that normal criminals were at a definite disadvantage when dealing with someone who could, if he weren’t careful, beat them into Jell-O – John Wayne pounding moppet Shirley Temple. A balding, pot-bellied Mr. Milquetoast from the Fifth Dimension (take two lefts at the corner gas station just after the Fourth Dimension), with a derby way too small for his head, Mr. Mxyzptlk nevertheless counts as Superman’s most worrisome foe. Superman essentially couldn’t touch him because of some law of Fifth-Dimensional physics, although Mxyzptlk could do whatever he wanted in our time and space. Mxyzptlk was an imp, a gremlin given to tricks designed to humiliate our Man of Steel. The only way to deal with him was to get him to say (or even spell) his name backwards. This pops him back to his home dimension and closes some sort of gate. There was a nice blend of cheap laughs, fairy-tale, and even a sense of underlying seriousness, like the joy buzzer that electrocutes. Daugherty comes up with a technoid version of Mendelssohnian fairy-music. Again, the orchestration does most of the work, with Daugherty building in “spatial” effects, representing the imp’s mischievous mastery of time and space. However, a slow section of Debussyian languor interests me most, since I have no idea why it’s there. It’s the mystery of a pretty straightforward movement, which – by the way – ends with a “pOp. “

“Oh, Lois” – a portrait of Superman’s friend Lois Lane, girl reporter – portrays the frenzy of her apparently thrill-packed typical day. Essentially, it’s too much of a good thing and betrays the fact that this “symphony” was cobbled together. As an isolated work, it’s spectacular. Daugherty intends a mini-concerto for orchestra and pulls it off. In the context of a multi-movement symphony, however, it’s not much of anything. By now, Daugherty’s methods – quick tempi, rapid figures, and glittering orchestration – have grown too familiar and too unvaried.

However, for the finale, “Red Cape Tango,” Daugherty pitches a curve. By far the longest movement, it is also the deepest emotionally. It depicts Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday. The “Dies irae” chant emerges full-blown as part of a seductive orchestral tango with variations (including a “Taps”), on the scale of Boléro. Daugherty manages to combine the shock of the cheap with Viking funeral. Daugherty recognizes that pulp can move you to tears and finds the genuine emotion in it – the music becomes a “refiner’s fire” that burns away the impurities. In a strange way, it also reminds me of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, finding that “child’s play” does indeed matter.

Bizarro constitutes yet another “Superman” piece, although separate from the symphony. Bizarro, an imperfect, Frankensteinian duplicate of Superman – his dialogue anticipated the “Tonto, Tarzan, and Frankenstein” bit of Saturday Night Live, but without the irony – seemed one of the writers’ lamer ideas. “Hey, let’s have a Superman, only he’s dumb.” Again, once you make a guy super, you severely limit the supply of gripping situations to put him into. In his liner notes to the CD, Daugherty points out the “no-strings” orchestration and reports his intent of taking off from big bands and rock. Yet the work succeeds on its own terms. An irregular rhythm of two dotted quarters and a quarter pervades the movement – in itself a cliché, but arrived at through contrapuntal, polyrhythmic strands, which lend considerable interest. Daugherty builds considerable canons in the orchestra on a theme closely resembling the military drill-instructor’s “tune” “I Don’t Know but I’ve Been Told.” I suspect this kinship as unconscious on his part. At any rate, the music conveys the confusion and the monomania of the Bizarro brain and manages to remain great, goofy fun.

Zinman and the Baltimore give animated performances which convey the skew of Daugherty’s vision and negotiate the hairpin turns of this music with grace and exhilaration. The sound is quite fine.

– Steve Schwartz

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