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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

Yet by no means do these quotations summarize Daugherty's effort at spiritual authenticity. Not only did he visit Mt. Rushmore several times before beginning work, but he made pilgrimages to Washington's home, Mount Vernon; Jefferson's home, Monticello; the Gettysburg battlefield; and the Dakotas, whose natural splendor inspired Teddy Roosevelt's creation of the National Park Service. And he read extensively.

"With Jefferson," Daugherty says, "you have these collisions between his ideals and practical reality -- and his ambivalent attitude toward slavery. Both Jefferson and Washington were reluctant presidents. Washington dreamed of becoming a farmer.

"Lincoln was the pontificator, on the mountain. Roosevelt was robust, masculine. He loved the wilderness and uncharted territories."

Daugherty distilled his texts from the writings of each man. From Washington, we hear: "I will move gently down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers." In Jefferson's words resound the terse essentials of the Declaration of Independence: "Tyranny, Liberty, Slavery, Dignity, Justice." Roosevelt celebrates "the hardy life of the open." And we are reminded in Lincoln's rhetoric of those who fought and died that democracy should not perish from the earth.

The trail that led Daugherty to "Mount Rushmore" can be traced to his Iowa roots. But he says his love of Americana bloomed only at long distance.

The product of a musical family in which everyone played an instrument or sang, Daugherty taught himself to play piano at age 8, then migrated to drums and played with rock, jazz and country bands while growing up.

After taking up composition at North Texas State University, he relocated to New York for studies with Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music.

A Fulbright Fellowship enabled him to go to Paris, where he won the notice and nurturing of celebrated avant-garde composers such as Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio. Later he worked with Gy├Ârgy Ligeti.

"I liked the music of those composers," Daugherty says, "but sometimes you have to be far away from something to see what really moves you emotionally. I realized the thing that meant most to me was my experiences growing up in America."

In 1980, Daugherty returned to the U.S. for doctoral studies at Yale University with Jacob Druckman. At Yale he also met and became fast friends with another bright young composer, Los Angeles native David Lang, who would go on to help found the seminal Bang on a Can Festival in New York City. Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion" won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

What first impressed Lang about Daugherty in their student days was the Iowan's size. He's well over 6 feet tall, broad shouldered and instantly approachable. "He was the Shaquille O'Neal of classical music," says Lang, who now teaches at Yale. "He was really into strange jazz and playing all sorts of weird music as a keyboardist. Now he's everywhere. He might be the most recorded American composer."

St.Clair, whose friendship with Daugherty goes back many years, offers a sort of inverted compliment: "Michael is not a composer who is long in the tooth. He deals with popular idioms, but his way of capturing them is distinctly his."

Indeed, Daugherty says he's surprised more composers haven't joined his pursuit of Americana.

"After all these years," he says, "I'm still the Lone Ranger."

Johnson is the music critic for the Detroit News.

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