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.

Teaching and Being Taught

FRANK J. OTERI: For the past twenty years of your life, you’ve also maintained a career as a composition teacher. How do you keep those two parts of your life in balance?

MICHAEL DAUGHERTY: I’m fortunate to be at a really great school. Michigan is a pleasure to be at because the students are really good, and I get to work with both graduate and undergraduate students. And Ann Arbor’s a cool town, so I like living there. My mother was a school teacher back in Iowa. My father was a dance band drummer and a department store manager, but he also taught Sunday school. Everybody wanted to take his class. So education is something that I always thought of as very important, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have some teachers who were very important to me. I enjoy it, and I like to give back what I’ve learned. I like to share the things I’ve learned and the things that I shouldn’t have done, as well.

FJO: You studied with some really celebrated people—Ligeti, Druckman, also Davidovsky and Charles Wuorinen, who write music that is very different from yours.

MD: I was somebody who sought out teachers who I thought would be a challenge to work with, and I didn’t necessarily understand their music. I was down in Texas when I was 18 to 22, and at the time the cutting edge was New York and people like Elliott Carter, Wuorinen, and Davidovsky. I couldn’t understand what this music was; it seemed so complicated. I could improvise music that sounded like it, but I couldn’t write it down. I couldn’t figure it out.

Then I came to New York. Being from Iowa and coming from Texas, no one is going to take you seriously. People would say, “Who are you? You went to North Texas State?” I had to fight my way up. My mother passed away when I was 18, and I have four younger brothers, so I’ve been on my own financially since that point. I had to support myself, so I worked all sorts of odd jobs, from ushering at Carnegie Hall to playing at piano bars to playing for dance classes. During the years I ushered at Carnegie Hall, I heard all these great concerts—Von Karajan conducting Berlin, Vladimir Horowitz’s last concert, one of Sinatra’s final concerts. And, at the same time, Boulez was conducting the New York Philharmonic, so there were all these world premieres, and I would go to the rehearsals. I would sit with the composers and follow the scores. Anyone could go, but there weren’t that many people who went. I always felt it was important to hear the music live, so I would go. In lots of the music I was hearing, I had no idea what was going on, but I really wanted to understand it.

And then I ended up at IRCAM in Paris because I wanted to understand computer music. If there was something I didn’t understand, I was determined to figure out what it was. That’s just the way I was. So I had to go to IRCAM. And I did learn about computer music. Then I wanted to know more about the European scene, so I worked with Ligeti for two years, and I went to all these new music festivals. Then I went to England for a year – and I got to know Oliver Knussen and the whole England scene. And I went to Holland and got to know Andriessen and all this music by Dutch composers. When I lived in Europe I kept hearing how terrible American music is and that the only great American composer is Morton Feldman or Charles Ives or Gershwin. It was a really interesting experience to be overseas where everything I did was considered not important because the only important things were happening in Europe.

I was a good listener but I was getting a lot of different opinions from people of what was good and what was bad. And when I got back to the States I was teaching out in Oberlin, which is a very isolated area, and I had to come up with my own ideas. I was really forced to ’cause I was in isolation. That’s when I wrote some of my first pieces like Snap and Dead Elvis and I kind of went into my own world.

But [it was after] having [had] all of these teachers and all of these amazing experiences. I remember at IRCAM having a conversation with Berio at the cappuccino machine and Boulez would come by; or going to lunch with Ligeti and Boulez in Paris one time; or hanging out with Markus Stockhausen, Karlheinz’s son, for a week because I got to know him at this festival of Stockhausen’s music. To be a composer, I felt I needed to get to know these people. And that included American composers, too, like Druckman. And Davidovsky: I went to Tanglewood one summer, and he was the composer there. The music I write now probably a lot of those people wouldn’t like, and there’s nothing I can really do about that.

What I try to do as a teacher is embrace all the music of the students I work with; no matter what kind of music they write, I’m supportive of that. And that’s how Druckman was. He was very supportive of his students no matter what kind of music they wrote, if it was authentic music and music they really believed in. He seemed to be cool about that, and that left an impression on me. And Leslie Bassett—who was at Michigan for many, many years and whom I replaced—was also that way. I thought that was a good model as a teacher. I want my students to be as different from me as possible.