Icon Artist: Michael Daugherty

FRANK J. OTERI: You talked about how pieces gestate in your mind a long time, and we talked a bit about multiple versions of pieces. So how does music spring forth for you? Do you hear the totality of it when you’re writing? How soon do you begin conceiving the orchestration? Do you start with a sketch? What is your compositional process?

MICHAEL DAUGHERTY: First of all, I put myself into the role of the character. If it’s a piece about Georgia O’Keeffe, or Rosa Parks, or Elvis, or Fidel Castro, I read up on that person and I follow their footsteps. For example, I wrote two different pieces about Georgia O’Keeffe: Ladder to the Moon is about her New York days, and Ghost Ranch is about her days in New Mexico. I like to retrace the footsteps, so I went to Ghost Ranch, which is located about an hour and a half from Santa Fe. I stayed overnight at the Ghost Ranch, and then I took a tour that took you to where she actually painted her paintings. In Rosa Parks’s case, I was able to spend a couple of hours with her in Detroit and asked her what her favorite instrument was—she said the trombone—and I asked her what her favorite piece of music was, and she said, “O Freedom,” so I decided to use that as a backdrop to the piece I wrote. In Elvis’s case, I went to Graceland. Years ago I had a performance by the Memphis Symphony, and I went to Graceland and saw Bill Bolcom. And he said, “You and I are probably the only two composers who ever went to Graceland.”

Anyway, I immerse myself in these people and then I start to hear sounds. And for the actual music, I have a set-up at home with Macintosh computers. I have two very large monitors, and I have a Kurzweil keyboard out in front, a Disklavier to the right—which is a MIDI piano—and I have a rack of sound modules. Of course, this is sort of old-fashioned, because now you can have them all internally in your computer on a card, which I have to do at some point.

I set up my whole orchestra though MIDI from piccolo on down to the double-basses, and then I start to write layers. I write one layer and I listen to it, and then I add another layer. Just like when you’re shooting a movie, sometimes I’ll write the end of the piece first or I’ll write the middle first, and then later I go through and edit it. Frequently, once you finish composing the piece, that’s when you start writing the piece because then you have all the material, and you can go back to it. I usually rewrite a piece extensively. I like to step away from a piece for about a month and then come back to it. You need to be impersonal to your own music as though you’re hearing it for the first time. You need to be ruthless in making cuts. I try to make it so that I only have something that I need to have. I don’t try to pad the music to make it longer. I also try to make every layer of the counterpoint meaningful in some way, so it relates to motives. That probably goes back to Mahler: every layer of counterpoint will usually reference a theme and frequently themes in one movement will come back in another movement, and so you’ll hear it differently.

One of the things that interests me is how music relates to visuals in film and television. Take the music that Ennio Morricone wrote for spaghetti westerns. Spaghetti westerns—like Clint Eastwood’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, A Few Dollars More, and so forth—tend to be about three hours long, but he would only compose about fifteen minutes of music. But that fifteen minutes would get used over and over again. The visual would be different, but the same music would be put over the top of it. So the chunk of music is static, but you hear the music differently because the visual has changed. They did the same thing in the old Star Trek series. There were cues that were written for particular episodes, but those cues would be used in other episodes. I talked with one of the composers, Fred Steiner, who wrote many of the episodes. They had all these sound cues like “Anger” and “Love Theme.” They would keep using the same music but juxtaposing it over different visuals throughout the three years. Development happened by the juxtaposition of old material with new material.

I’ll frequently do that in my music. I might have, let’s say, “Layer A” and “Layer B.” Later on I’ll repeat “Layer A” exactly as it was but I’ll put a new layer, “Layer C,” on top of it. That’s how I deal with development. It’s not the development within the layer, but development occurs by different layers being heard at the same time.

FJO: You described a pretty elaborate electronic set-up for creating this music, so I guess that means you don’t do any handwritten sketches at this point.

MD: Well, it’s funny. There are certain advantages to writing by computers and with sequencers, and there’s also a certain advantage to writing by hand. For some things, like cadenzas, or if I want a free section, I’ll write by hand because there’s a different vibe to that. Again, there’s no set way, so I write by hand sometimes [even though I work] mostly by computer. And there’s a third element. I work with players continually. I don’t know how many composers do this, but I do this quite a bit. I have players come to my house—like a violin player, clarinet player, or bass player—and I will write a little bit and have them try it out. Or have them improvise ideas and I’ll record what they play and listen to it and then I’ll write some music. When I’m writing an orchestra piece, I’ll have a violin player come to my house probably about three or four times a week to play what I’ve written as though they’re the concert master of the orchestra. I’ll bring in a trumpet player. I’m constantly referencing instruments. Frequently, as they’re playing, I’ll say, “Hey, wait, why don’t you play this?” and I’ll write something right in the moment. “Play this against what I’ve written right now.” It might contradict what I’ve already written or just add another layer. I think working with instruments is very important. Most composers don’t do that as much as they should. I got that from Berio and all those pieces he wrote, the Sequenze. He wrote those with players, and he got a lot of feedback from the players. I remember when I was working with Jacob Druckman; he also wrote a series of works for soloists and electronics. He also worked very carefully with players. I’ve done that ever since in all my music. And I think that’s why players like playing the works, because I work with what the players can do, and I create energy because the music they’re playing lies on their instruments in such a way that they can really get into the music.

FJO: You play, too.

MD: I play piano.

FJO: So do you improvise things at the piano when you’re working on a piano part in a piece?

MD: Yeah, sure, I improvise. And, fortunately, when I’m writing for piano, I can be that person who comes in and tries the ideas out. I’ll turn on my disklavier and record, and I’ll improvise on it and listen back to it. But probably what I end up writing has nothing to do with the improvisation. It’s just a way to get going with things. But the physical element is important. That really helps me write my music.

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