Michael Daugherty: Icon Artist
Whether Michael Daugherty’s music is channeling Elvis, Rosa Parks, Liberace, or Georgia O’Keeffe, it is extremely physical and fun to play.
It’s been a decade since I first heard Michael Daugherty’s music for the first time. It was the Argo CD of his Metropolis Symphony, a monumental orchestral work inspired by Superman. Back then, though I was a big fan of many older symphonies, I pretty much believed that the symphony was a genre that belonged to composers of an earlier time period and not to us. But, here was a sprawling, Symphonie Fantastique kind of piece that belonged undeniably to our own time— it’s wacky yet approachable, even funny at times.
The following year came the recording of the opera Jackie O I have to confess that at the time I wasn’t into it at all. But that had nothing to do with Daugherty’s music and everything to do with my complete lack of interest in the late 60s/early 70s jet set. I had too much exposure to them on the Merv Griffin Show which my family seemed to always be watching on TV when I was growing up. But long after my initial lack of interest in Jackie O., I found that I couldn’t get Daugherty’s tune for the ensemble tableau “1968” out of my head. And then came American Icons, a disc collecting a group of shorter works starting with Dead Elvis, a concertante work featuring an Elvis impersonator playing bassoon. Was this guy for real?
I only learned a couple of weeks ago—when I finally spoke to Michael Daugherty for NewMusicBox—that the Elvis impersonator schtick wasn’t his idea originally, and that his feelings about the whole thing are somewhat ambivalent. But that’s just a curious piece of contemporary music trivia, and only a small part of a much larger aesthetic approach in which compositional process and audience/performer reception are symbiotic but not necessarily synchronous. Daugherty is inspired by contemporary icons—who sometimes are figures from pop culture but these days are just as frequently painters or political figures. But even though those initial inspirations don’t always dictate the music he subsequently creates, they’ve become indelibly connected with his music through his titles and copious program notes. Daugherty is happy to have people walk away with associations after hearing his music that he didn’t necessarily intend since he believes that a composer ultimately has no control over how anyone else will perceive his or her music.
This makes Daugherty’s music extremely difficult to pigeon-hole, which is something he’s very proud of. In fact, in his view a composer should be as diverse as possible. That said, if there is any generality that can be made about Daugherty’s music, it is that all of it is crafted with an extremely physical approach to sound; when he orchestrates he’s thinking as much about where the sound is coming from as what the sound is, and he even frequently enlists musicians to read individual lines in an orchestral score while he’s in the middle of working.
Perhaps Daugherty’s most moving musical insights have to do with his approach to teaching, something I had been very eager to learn more about ever since I’d seen him in action as one of the composer mentors for the American Composers Orchestra’s new music readings a few years back. Daugherty’s quirky ecumenical approach to composition also applies to how he behaves in the classroom, something that rubbed off on him from his lessons with Jacob Druckman, Berio, Ligeti, and his own dance-band drumming father who was also the most popular Sunday school teacher in Iowa.