Michael Daugherty
Michael on Route 66Images that InspireImages That InspireNiagara FallsJackie ORosa ParksDiego Rivera's Mural That Inspired 'Fire & Blood'Superman Comics Inspired 'Metropolis Symphony'

King of the Road:
Composer Michael Daugherty Takes
Inspiration from American Life

Michael Daugherty, professor of composition at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance since joining the faculty in 1991, is mentor to some of today’s most talented young composers. One of the most commissioned, programmed, and recorded composers on the international scene today, Daugherty, whose music has entered the orchestral, band, and chamber music repertoire, is considered one of the ten most performed living American composers, according to the League of American Orchestras. Two new CDs of his orchestral music, performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Nashville Symphony, were just released on Naxos. A DVD of his opera Jackie O, performed by Bologna Opera in Italy, came out in the summer on the Dynamic label.

Walking around Michael Daugherty’s Ann Arbor studio is like taking a stroll through the mind of the composer. It’s all there, all those cultural icons of Americana that inspired works like Metropolis Symphony, MotorCity Triptych, Sunset Strip, Jackie O, Dead Elvis. On a shelf, there’s a shiny model car, a turquoise and chrome 1957 Cadillac; on a far wall, a giant movie poster of Esther Williams, forever frozen in mid swan dive; Superman comics; an authentic, child-size Roy Rogers guitar from the 1950s.

“Visual images say a lot to me,” Daugherty says. “All these mementos I’ve collected over the years have special meanings and inspire my work.”

On those shelves, a visitor also sees the fundamentals of the hard work of composing:  reference books on music theory, orchestration, and musical notation; a complete set of The Grove Dictionary of Music; a vast library of music scores; intellectual inspiration from books on cinema, modern art, and architecture.

This native son of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the eldest of five brothers, grew up surrounded by music. His father, Willis, is a jazz and country & western drummer, his mother, Evelyn, a singer. Daugherty’s grandmother Josephine played piano for silent movies in Vinton, Iowa in the 1920s. All four of his brothers are working musicians.

Daugherty’s love of music began early and pulled him in many directions. He taught himself how to play piano by pumping the pedals of the family’s player piano and watching how the keys moved. In his early teens, he would check out the silent classic 8mm films of Charlie Chaplin from the Cedar Rapids Public Library, set up the family movie projector, and invite the neighbor kids over for a viewing as he improvised the soundtrack on piano.

In high school, he led a popular eight-piece rock, soul, and funk band, playing proms, weddings, and high school dances all over Eastern Iowa. He learned to play jazz by listening to vinyl records and transcribing the piano solos of Thelonious Monk onto manuscript paper.

Television and cinema certainly made an imprint on the composer’s creative world as well:  popular variety hours like The Ed Sullivan Show or the original Star Trek TV series. On Saturday afternoons, the five boys would go into downtown Cedar Rapids for a movie matinee at the palatial Paramount Theatre, to catch the latest James Bond or MGM musical.

By 1972, Daugherty was off to North Texas State to study jazz. But when he heard the Dallas Symphony perform the Barber Piano Concerto, however, he knew he wanted to compose.

Outside the academy, Daugherty made his way to New York, Paris, Tanglewood, Hamburg, London, to work with an astounding variety of 20th century composers of contemporary music:  Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Betsy Jolas, Roger Reynolds, Earle Brown, Bernard Rands, Jacob Druckman, Mario Davidovsky, Leonard Bernstein, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Gil Evans.

After finishing his DMA at Yale, though, Daugherty found himself at a stylistic crossroads. “While I was in Europe, I realized what I was missing and what was important to me,” he says. “I understood that the way for me to compose original music was to rediscover the uniquely American experiences I had lived.”

So he got behind the wheel of his 1972 Chevy Impala—traveling back roads and blue highways across America, searching for ideas and inspiration, combing antique stores, taking photographs, talking to people from all walks of life. “I found a way to combine my passion for American places, popular culture, and historical figures with the incredible education in contemporary music I had experienced.”

That American journey, along with the liberating discovery that he had free rein to move among musical genres, boundaries, and narratives, brought forth a veritable fount of creative ideas flowing from his musical pen.

Memories of summer road trips in the family station wagon inspired what he calls ‘musical postcards’:  Route 66, Sunset Strip, Flamingo, Philadelphia Stories, Niagara Falls. The great political unrest and social change he witnessed in the sixties and early seventies planted the seeds for works like Rosa Parks Boulevard, Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover, Paul Robeson Told Me, and Bay of Pigs.

Pop icons of television and cinema informed works like Dead Elvis, Le Tombeau de Liberace, Spaghetti Western, Desi. His love of visual art and vibrant color engendered works like Fire and Blood, inspired by the work of Diego Rivera, and Ghost Ranch, from the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe

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Daugherty first came to international attention when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman, performed his Metropolis Symphony—inspired by the Superman comic books—at Carnegie Hall in 1994. After its London premiere, The Times of London called it “a Symphonie Fantastique of our time” by a “master icon maker with a maverick imagination, fearless structural sense and a meticulous ear.”

Since that time requests for commissions are a constant. In the summer of 2008, when the Spokane Symphony commissioned a work for a 2009 celebration of Lincoln’s bicentennial, Daugherty began work as he always does:  with the title and concept.

“I want to know what I’m trying to say,” he says. “I also think it helps the listener when they’re coming to a new piece of music—to give them an emotional framework. I view myself as a storyteller,” he says, “writing about people, places, and history through contemporary music.”

To find that elusive emotional connection between the music and meaning, Daugherty will typically immerse himself in the environment of the work he is composing. Finding inspiration for a work on Abraham Lincoln was no different. It was off to the battlefields at Gettysburg, the Lincoln Memorial—even following the 2008 presidential campaign trail all the way to the swearing-in ceremony, solemnized by Lincoln’s very own Bible. 

“Since I had missed Woodstock, I was not going to miss Obama’s inauguration,” he said. “When the time came around, I got in my car and drove to Washington, D.C. It was very exciting. And the Lincoln Memorial was the backdrop for the ceremony.”

What emerged was Letters from Lincoln, a powerful work based on the Gettysburg Address and some of Lincoln’s simple yet eloquent letters. Premiered in February 2009 by the Spokane Symphony with renowned baritone Thomas Hampson, that live concert will be released on CD by Koch sometime next year.

Time spent in the studio with students is equally integral to Daugherty’s musical and creative life. “I feel fortunate to work with many of today’s most talented young composers,” he says. “My students learn that a composition is about three things:  originality, concept, and details. I encourage them to find their own voice and reflect on what they’re trying to say in their music.”

Daugherty’s most recent project, Gee’s Bend, for orchestra and electric guitar, was inspired by the quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, not far from the site of Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to give up her seat on a bus, an act of defiance that inspired Daugherty’s Rosa Parks Boulevard.

Down in Gee’s Bend, the women of this African American river community produce stunning examples of their own Americana, quilts sewn by hand in techniques passed down through some six generations. Gee’s Bend, premiered by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in April, tapped the talent of former student, alumnus, composer, and electric guitarist DJ Sparr (MM ’99, DMA ‘03).

Meanwhile, back in his studio, the work continues on two new works: Mount Rushmore for chorus and orchestra and Trail of Tears for flute and orchestra. There at command central, surrounded by his books and artwork and curios, seated before a big-screen Mac loaded with all the latest compositional software, a Kurtzweil MIDI keyboard to his left, a tower of rack-mounted recording equipment to his right, Michael abides.

So where will he go from here, this spinner of tales, this traveler of blue highways, this maker of icons? To The Twilight Zone? Down in the Red River Valley? Up on Blueberry Hill? Only The Shadow knows for sure.