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Composer Michael Daugherty hears the sounds of America

His newest work, for the American Composers Festival, is inspired by Mt. Rushmore. The place reminds him of family vacations.

January 31, 2010|By Lawrence B. Johnson
  • Composer Michael Daugherty's "Mount Rushmore," his newest work, was inspired by the national memorial and his memory of family vacations.
Composer Michael Daugherty's "Mount Rushmore," his… (Boosey & Hawkes )

Imagine a postmodern Aaron Copland or Charles Ives with a pop cultural twist, and you're primed for the music of Michael Daugherty.

A composer of his time and birthright, Daugherty is a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native and the musical embodiment of Americana. His canvas reflects a 20th century cultural mosaic dotted by the likes of Elvis and Superman and Jackie Onassis. At age 55, Daugherty is also the exuberant master of his craft, an artist whose sophistication and compelling appeal can seem utterly at odds with the often kitschy titles of his works.

Such is the quirky, sly, smart composer whose "Mount Rushmore" for chorus and orchestra will receive its world premiere this week at the Pacific Symphony's American Composers Festival, led by music director Carl St.Clair.

Daugherty, the Pacific Symphony's composer in residence for its 2009-10 season, was commissioned to write "Mount Rushmore" for the festival, themed “The Greatest Generation.” It will be performed by the symphony and the Pacific Chorale.

The new work is typical of Daugherty's creative process. Its inspiration harks back to childhood experiences, when the family would pile into the car for road trips that included a visit to the famous granite sculpture in South Dakota where presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are enshrined.

"Mt. Rushmore is a complex icon of American history," Daugherty says. "It means a lot of different things to different people. It can be viewed as a symbol for democracy, a travesty against American Indians in that it carved up sacred ground, or a huge tourist trap, or an icon you must visit.

"I've always been interested in those kinds of polarizing attitudes, from Superman to Rosa Parks to Abraham Lincoln."

Take the comic-book hero celebrated in Daugherty's earliest work for large orchestra, the 1988 "Metropolis Symphony." In this deceptively brilliant suite, with its funky movement titles such as "Krypton" and "Oh, Lois" and "Red Cape Tango," you'll find all the formative elements of the creative force Daugherty has become. You think you're in for parody but get dramatic invention. You expect something slight and cavalier, only to be first shocked, then absorbed by music of depth and complexity.

Assured craftsmanship and persistent seriousness shape the progress of Daugherty's compositions from "Dead Elvis" for solo bassoon and chamber orchestra (1993) and "Route 66" for large orchestra (1998) to the violin concerto "Fire and Blood" (2003) and the piano concerto "Deus Ex Machina" (2007), the last inspired by the disappearance of trains from the American landscape.

Yet the challenge of "Mount Rushmore" has drawn Daugherty onto uncharted ground. While he has one opera to his credit, the well-regarded "Jackie O" (1997), this is his first work for large chorus and orchestra. He admits he needed a compass.

So he went to the examples of Britten's "War Requiem," Verdi's "Requiem" and Poulenc's "Gloria."

"I was looking for what works in balancing chorus with orchestra," he says. "First of all the choir has to carry the piece. So first I wrote the choral part and workshopped that with piano, then added the orchestration."

Daugherty, who teaches composition at the University of Michigan, found a ready test bench in the University of Michigan Chamber Choir and a knowing advisor in its director, Jerry Blackstone.

The composer's home studio, just off campus on Ann Arbor's old west side, is surrounded by large elm trees on the outside and is resonant of his eclectic spirit within. Bookshelves are packed with antique-store finds, "Star Trek" collectibles and 1950s science-fiction movies. At the center of it all are the instruments of his trade.

"I work like a director in a film," Daugherty says. "I work off the energy of the actors or in this case the singers. A lot of composers rely strictly on technology, but the human element is very important to me. I do have my own little world -- my studio with my computer and MIDI gear, but in the end the music has to be performable."

John Alexander, artistic director of the 140-voice Pacific Chorale, calls the result "very accessible to the singers as well as to the listener. The colors Michael creates in the work come from a very inventive orchestration that continually weaves itself around the choral declamation of the texts."

Alexander also notes a strong resemblance in "Mount Rushmore" to Copland's approach to Americana, with its strong rhythmic intensity and vigorous melodies. And one can't help thinking of Charles Ives in Daugherty's colorful peppering of such period tunes as "Chester," "Yankee Doodle," " Rock of Ages," "Dixie" and, of course, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

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