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.

Something to Hang Onto

FRANK J. OTERI: The way you title pieces already gives people associations before they hear a single note. There’s obviously something else going on in your music besides the notes. So what does your music mean to you and how do you convey it?

MICHAEL DAUGHERTY: The titles of my pieces, which are provocative, have to do with what motivates me to write the piece and also what I’m feeling. It’s what the piece is all about emotionally. But then the notes are the notes. Those are very different. The music is abstract. When I’m actually writing the music, I’m dealing with themes and motives, and I’m working with those in an abstract way. Let’s take a title like Ghost Ranch, a recent piece I wrote for orchestra, which is inspired by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her paintings are abstract but realistic at the same time: You see an image of a mountain, a cactus, or a cross, but within the image itself there are abstract elements. I think that maybe the titles present a realistic aspect to the pieces, something you can hang your head on, especially if you don’t know anything about music—which is most people—or anything about contemporary music—which is almost everybody.

FJO: You write rather detailed program notes, too.

MD: The reason I spend a lot of time with program notes is, first of all, usually I have those thoughts in mind before I’m composing the piece. So I really have written the program note before I write the piece. I’ve thought about the piece for many, many months. And also, because of programs like Meet The Composer, it became the norm that the composer had to get in front of the audience and say something about the piece. Lots of the conductors I’ve worked with—like David Zinman, Marin Alsop, or Leonard Slatkin—frequently want you to come on the stage with a microphone in front of three thousand people, and you have to say something. I think those experiences made me realize that I really needed to articulate what the piece is about. Usually when you do those pre-concert talks, you don’t talk about the piece in musical terms because most people cannot relate to musical terminology. So I’ve come up with other ways to talk about my music.

FJO: So, let’s say someone comes to this music without knowing your program note—maybe if someone hears it on the radio. How important is it for you that people know what the program is?

MD: The program isn’t necessary for the music. But for any work of art, whenever I go to a museum, I always look at the title. You can look at a painting from a distance, but I always will walk up to it and see what the title is. There is a tradition of titling your art, whatever it is. A movie always has a title. There was a period in modernism where things were totally abstract, so you’d say “Composition No. 1” or “Untitled.” That was a particular period of time which was interesting, but I’m somebody who grew up with television and recordings. An experience which informed me a lot was looking at the cover of a record album: It was just as important as the music itself. Rock groups especially. Like any Beatles album, or Frank Zappa, or Blood, Sweat & Tears. Even classical albums. You’d see Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and there’d be a picture of some woman in a bathing suit coming out of a birthday cake.

FJO: The Westminster Gold series.

MD: They were absurd, provocative covers. But the idea was that they were trying to get you to look at the record. The combination of the visual and the artwork is something, at least when I was growing up, that was quite important to my generation.

FJO: Many of your earlier pieces almost nostalgically reference pop culture artifacts—Superman, Liberace. And even the more recent works invoke some important personage or event in recent American history—Rosa Parks, Jackie O, or U.S.-Cuba relations. But perhaps those associations aren’t always readily perceptible in the music. I couldn’t hear Old Blue Eyes in Sinatra Shag.

MD: The way that piece came about is I was working with a group from Milwaukee called Present Music, and we were doing a workshop in Seattle at the time. During a break, I was in some sort of alternative shop with postcards, and there was this postcard of Nancy Sinatra with white boots on from the ’60s. I saw that postcard, and I thought, “Yes, this would be an interesting piece.” I was thinking of Sinatra—Nancy Sinatra—and then shag carpets. This was before the Austin Powers film came out so the terminology for me meant shag carpets. But then what I did with that is I took the riff of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” sort-of, and played around with it a little bit.

A piece like Le Tombeau de Liberace, or Sinatra Shag, or Hell’s Angels, those kind of pieces are very different from Rosa Parks Boulevard or the Ghost Ranch piece or Fire and Blood—the violin concerto inspired by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo—so you have different kinds of pieces for different occasions. With Le Tombeau de Liberace, many pianists will now dress like Liberace and bring a candelabra on stage. Or Dead Elvis, where the bassoonist will dress like Elvis. Those are particular pieces from a particular time. But I really feel like a movie director: I’ll do a western film, then I’ll do a gangster film, a comedy, and then a drama. The great directors of films and the great actors could move between these genres. That’s the way I view it. I like to mix it up.

FJO: So how important is that visual element for you in a piece like Le Tombeau de Liberace or Dead Elvis?

MD: It’s funny because in both cases it was the performers who began doing that. I never put in the score to dress like Elvis or to bring a candelabra on the stage. Same with Hell’s Angels where the bassoonists will dress like Hells Angels and in some cases even bring a motorcycle on the stage. But just like Ligeti has a piece for 100 metronomes—that is a very particular piece, but it doesn’t represent all the kinds of pieces he did. Composers from time to time will have a one-off piece, those are those pieces. But it’s really the performers who initiated all of that. I never said bring a motorcycle on stage, these are things the performers have done themselves.

FJO: But it gave these pieces another life. And you seem to be O.K. with people doing these things.

MD: It’s interesting how much performers can take liberties with pieces. When I was a young composer, Stockhausen was very big at the time. And he wanted total control of every aspect, from the lighting to what the performers wear, etc. But I think that once you work in opera, like I did with Jackie O, you see that it’s very flexible. Things are continually shifting and changing. So that loosened me up. After that, anything goes.

FJO: But this whole phenomenon of Elvis outfits and Liberace paraphernalia does suggest crossover in the sense of combining pop and classical elements.

MD: My intention has always been to write music that reflects my experiences. I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, and those are the years that are important to me, particularly the ’60s when I was a kid. I had very strong impressions of those years. Charles Ives would respond to Fourth of July parades, or hymn tunes, or the football games at Yale, or the experiences he had with his father. And those things informed his music. Again, with many composers their memories inform their music.

I think where it got complicated was in the modernist period of contemporary music. There was a desire to not remember things. If you lived in the Second World War, the memories you had probably weren’t that great. So there was a long period of the Darmstadt school where people wanted to forget the past and blow up the opera house and all that sort of thing. But look at Pierre Boulez. Those things change. Just like Sean Connery said he’d never play James Bond again and did. Never say never! Boulez is here this week conducting Mahler’s Seventh at Carnegie Hall. He’s not doing the 4X machine from IRCAM and all the stuff he was doing in the late ’70s. Things keep changing and shifting. “Blow up the opera house,” was a phrase that Boulez used a lot back then. But that didn’t happen.

Instead of blowing things up, what I do is I just tend to play off of them. And there are questions about what I mean in my music. Is it serious? Is it ironic? Is it sarcastic? Is it meaningful? Is it sincere? The fact that there are these questions when you hear my pieces, and that you really aren’t sure, makes it interesting. There are different layers. You can listen to it in different ways.

When Dead Elvis gets played in Europe—and I read the reviews from Italy or Germany—they go into these long critiques of the decadence of American capitalism as manifested by Elvis in Las Vegas. But when it’s played in Memphis or North Dakota, it’s a very different take because these people really love Elvis. For them it’s a tribute. The fact that it can read in different ways is good.

FJO: So you’re happy with either interpretation?

MD: You can’t really control how people are going to listen to the music you write. When you write the music you really want to write, fifty percent of the people are not going to like it and fifty percent are going to like it. So you have to accept that. When you’re a conductor you know that half the members of the orchestra are not going to like your conducting. Same with a composer: half the people in the orchestra are not going to like your music. But half of them do like it. That’s just human nature. You have to be able to live with those aspects and believe in what you’re writing. I’m spending all these hours down in my studio alone writing music, so I have to write music that gives me some sort of pleasure. I’m not thinking, “Oh, I have to write a minute of music today to fulfill this deadline.” I really don’t think that way. I’ve never been somebody who churns out the music or tries to fulfill commissions, take on too much stuff, and write as quickly as I can. I like the model more of taking a lot of time to write.

FJO: But it seems to me like you’re writing a ton of music.

MD: I enjoy writing. Writing music is the sort of the thing that keeps me going. It’s something that gives me great pleasure and helps me get through life during the good times and also the bad times. I don’t feel like I have to share what’s going on in my life with people; it’s not that sort of thing. But I do try to write the best I can every time, whether it’s a small piece or a big piece. I try to put the greatest effort I can into it. I don’t like to put anything out there that I just have tossed off; I’ve never been that way.

FJO: Your music has the potential to reach an audience that’s beyond the standard contemporary music demographic. How could you reach more people than that? Who do you want to reach with your music?

MD: Unless you have an experience playing a musical instrument, most people would not be that interested in hearing concert music. If you played an instrument growing up, even if you don’t play it now, then you kind of understand. I don’t think I’ve said one negative thing today, did you notice that? I’ve seen the answers that many composers give about the audience. Years ago, from hearing composers give gloom and doom predictions, I’ve vowed I would never do that. There are so many different kinds of audiences. I can’t imagine any artist who doesn’t want to reach as many people as they possibly can, but that can’t be the main reason you’re writing or doing anything obviously. It’s nice if it happens. My sensibility is such that I’m a good listener, I try to listen to what people say and I want to communicate in a way that’s clear to people. That said, I might be able to reach more people than others.