Michael Daugherty: Icon Artist

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.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

As Diverse As Possible

FRANK J. OTERI: You grew up with all this pop culture and you even played in rock bands when you were younger. What would make somebody with your background become involved with, for lack of a better term, classical music? And in your mind is there a divide between pop and classical?

MICHAEL DAUGHERTY: Being a classical music composer to me means writing music for the concert stage, where people come and sit down and listen, and that’s really the structure where that’s done. It’s the only time when people focus totally on the music. There’s nothing else going on. And I really like writing for orchestra. And again, the only world where you sit down and listen to an orchestra playing alone without anything else is that classical music world.

FJO: You also write a lot for symphonic winds, which exists in a somewhat different place from the rest of the classical music world.

MD: The wind band world or the symphonic band world—whatever you want to call it—is really a very exciting world. It’s in the university—that’s been the tradition of it—and the level of playing has gone up tremendously as well to the point where probably any really good wind ensemble at any of the major schools—like Texas, or Michigan, or USC, or Eastman—are going to play at almost the level of a professional orchestra. And also what’s happening is that the band conductors at the universities want interesting music; they want to push the boundaries. So it’s a very exciting time. And I stepped in there just when it was really starting to take off. My first piece was Desi. I wrote it for a small college down in East Texas—Nacogdoches. Then it was played at a wind convention of the College Band Director’s National Association in Kansas City, and a lot of people heard it. And then Christopher Rouse heard about it, and he gave a cassette tape of it to David Zinman who decided that he wanted to play it. So it’s played by university bands and by orchestras, too—orchestras without the strings. If you want to use the saxophones and the euphoniums and all that, then it goes through the band world. There was a certain stigma at the time that if you wrote a piece for band, you’d write a different kind of a piece than if you had a commission from a major orchestra. But that’s not the case anymore. The band directors want the same piece you’re going to write if you’re going to get a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra.

FJO: Your Bells for Stokowski, a movement from Philadelphia Stories, which you wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra, also exists as a piece for symphonic band. And when I listened to the orchestra and band versions back to back, they sounded pretty much like the same piece. I think it really shows off your orchestration chops for band.

MD: Again, I think it’s important for a composer to be as diverse as possible. We forget that the Russian composers like Shostakovich also wrote a lot of film music. But I also really enjoy it because I like the university world. What I like about it is that it’s a breath of fresh air from the professional world. The young students are really into it and the conductor is really into it. You have a lot of rehearsal time and you can get the pieces recorded. So it’s a really positive artistic experience. It goes back to when I had a rock band in the ’60s. Playing was a lot of fun. No one ever said no; it was always yes, let’s try this, let’s try that. There weren’t all these rules that messed everything up like there are in the orchestral world. Although that is changing, too. Things are starting to loosen up finally because the professional orchestra world is realizing that it does have to change. But the [wind band] world is also an exciting world stylistically because you can do whatever you want. We haven’t talked about where I grew up. I grew up in Iowa, in the Midwest. The great wind ensembles are not on the East coast; they tend to be at universities where sports is quite big.

I think if a composer can do orchestra music and symphonic band music and chamber music, experimental music, crossover music with different media. When I say “crossover,” I think of that as different media being put together: like film and music, dance and music; [the other use of the word] crossover is something that really came out of Europe. It’s sort of a derogatory way to describe a calculated way to put together a pop artist and a classical music artist in a studio and see if they can come up with something. Anytime producers try to put things together they usually fail. Think of the great rock bands. Remember a band called Blind Faith where they put together Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood? It doesn’t work for somebody else to put things together; usually it grows on its own. There are some rare exceptions.

FJO: I’m a huge Broadway musical fan, and when I listened again to Jackie O recently, to my ears it had a lot of Broadway in it. To me, the way people sing in Broadway musicals sounds closer to what Americans sound like than the way most opera singers sound. Your opera didn’t sound like most operas. So I was wondering what you thought the dividing line was between opera and musical theatre. Is it a continuum or are they two separate genres?

MD: It seems like there isn’t much of a line anymore and there certainly doesn’t have to be. That’s probably because most young singers are trained in both genres now and are comfortable in both of them. But, again, with Jackie O, I really wasn’t consciously trying to write a musical theatre piece. I just wrote what I thought seemed appropriate for the libretto. If you have a happening at Andy Warhol’s loft, it would be kind of strange to write music that sounds like Berg. I wrote the music to reflect that, and I used my ear. It was a little brave to write some of the numbers that I did, especially within an operatic context. And it was one of those things that provoked different kinds of responses: some people loved it; some people hated it. I really like the piece—I think the libretto is really good—and it still gets produced about twice a year, so I still like it.

FJO: The man who wrote the libretto is a famous essayist, and he’s rather controversial.

MD: The libretto is written by Wayne Koestenbaum, and he’s a super-intellectual kind of guy who’s really very familiar with deconstruction and Derrida and all the latest trends in contemporary literary thinking. I didn’t necessarily understand everything he was saying in the libretto, but I thought that was O.K. because it’s very heady. There are lots of quotes that he uses. It’s kind of a collage of different texts. What’s brilliant about it is how he decides to put those things together. I don’t really collage in the music per se, but I thought it was really a challenge to write some tunes: melodies. It’s really easy for me to write abstract, atonal music. But it was really challenging to try to write a tune that was memorable but didn’t sound like a typical pop tune. So that’s what I tried to do. Some of the numbers are operatic, numbers like the “Flame Duet.”

FJO: Well, I suppose dramatically it had to be since it was a duet between Jackie O and Maria Callas.

MD: And when Aristotle Onassis sings, the music has a Greek flavor to it. Again, that’s drama, and to me a really good opera does that. I think that loosened me up a lot, and informed the music I write today.

FJO: There was a time when if another singer sang Norma, a role very closely associated with Callas, there’d be an uproar in the opera world, and there’d be people booing that singer. What was it like to make Callas a character in an opera?

MD: It’s very daring to me to have Callas as a character, or Jackie Onassis or Aristotle Onassis. But the visual arts have referenced personalities forever. Film has done that, too. Probably the thing that influences me the most is film, not film music per se, but the film. I like watching old films—the Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, and MGM movies from the ’40s and ’50s, especially. I like to see how the director cuts the film, how the director gets from one scene to another, the framing of the shots. I wrote an organ concerto called Once Upon a Castle, which is inspired by the Hearst Castle and Orson Welles. It’s interesting how Orson Welles framed his shots. Of course, we all know how innovative that was at the time. When I’m framing my music, I think about that, too: the angle I’m looking at the instruments. The way I’m listening to the instruments has to do with the way I’m looking at the instruments. That might sound a bit abstract, but it really is the visuals. Sometimes I’ll actually visualize the players on the stage, like I’m in the audience, and I’ll see the orchestra on stage, and I’ll think: “Oh, I’d like that person to play [points left], then I’d like that person to play [points right, etc.].”