There’s something about classical music that brings out the mad scientist in Michael Daugherty. “What I like to do is take a lot of different styles, shake them up in a glass, and then see what happens,” says the composer, whose new piano concerto gets its Nashville Symphony Orchestra premiere this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
It should probably come as no surprise that Daugherty’s science-beaker approach to classical music has produced some, well, rather weird results. How else would you describe Elvis Everywhere, a work scored for the improbable combination of classical string quartet and three Elvis impersonators?
But the composer has also produced some classics, including memorable tributes to Superman (The Metropolis Symphony), I Love Lucy star Desi Arnaz (Desi, for Latin big band) and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (the opera Jackie O). Indeed, almost all of Daugherty’s works have indulged his long-standing fascination with the icons of American history and pop culture. On his website (michaeldaugherty.net), the composer explains his interests this way:
“For me, icons serve as a way to have an emotional reason to compose a new work,” Daugherty writes. “Like [composers Charles Ives and Gustav Mahler], I use icons in my music to provide the listener and performer with a layer of reference.”
The most recent icon to have captured Daugherty’s imagination is the locomotive, which receives a powerful and loving tribute in the piano concerto Deus ex Machina. “The title means ‘god from the machine,’” says Daugherty. “I got the idea from early 20th century futurists, who worshiped the machine and believed technology would eventually lead to a universal civilization.”
Lasting more than 30 minutes, the concerto is a monumental work scored for huge forces. (Among other things, the percussionist is called on to whack a metal railroad tie.) The first movement, titled “Fast Forward (Di andata veloce),” uses jagged melodies, mechanical velocities and polyrhythmic vibrations to suggest a train racing toward a modernist utopia. “Train of Tears,” the next movement, draws inspiration from the train that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body back to Springfield, Ill., following his assassination. (The movement incorporates the military bugle call “Taps”.) The finale, “Night Steam,” pays tribute to the last steam engines to rumble through the Shenandoah Valley.
“This concerto has a mechanical drive in the first movement, a wistful beauty in the second and a wonderful boogie-woogie feel in the finale,” says pianist Terrence Wilson, the soloist for this weekend’s concerts. “It’s a demanding piece, but it’s also very playable. The notes lie beautifully beneath the hands.”
“I know how to write idiomatic music for the keyboard,” Daugherty says. “I’ve had a relationship with the instrument my whole life.”
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1954, Daugherty grew up in a musical family and was the son of a dance-band drummer. There was never any question about vocation in the Daugherty household, since Michael and all four of his younger brothers became professional musicians. (One of those brothers, Tom, works as a sound engineer for Snoop Dogg.)
Daugherty started out his performing career playing keyboards in jazz, rock and funk bands, and he studied for a while with the legendary jazz arranger Gil Evans. But early on, he also caught the classical bug, which eventually prompted him to study electronic music with Pierre Boulez in Paris and composition with György Ligeti in Hamburg.
“I’ve always loved the orchestra,” says Daugherty, “and that’s what ultimately led me into classical music.”
Of course, classical music has been banished to the periphery of America’s cultural consciousness in recent years. So does Daugherty have any regrets about taking the musical highbrow route?“Not at all,” he says. “This is a great time for classical music. Thanks to iPods and computers and the entire digital age, composers are now in a better position than ever to reach their listeners. So classical music isn’t in an age of crisis—it’s in an age of empowerment.”
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Looks like a bunch of people jerking off all over their drinkin' buddies.
Mystery Twins should've gotten some love. They put their album out all by themselves and…
Damn,...I was way off. NO ONE said Diarrhea Planet for favorite local record.