'Metropolis' composer reveals hidden identity as musician of myths

January 02, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Michael Daugherty thinks he's Superman.

No, the 39-year-old composer does not suffer from delusions of grandeur just because his 40-minute "Metropolis Symphony," based on the comic-book hero's exploits, will be performed by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony this Thursday and Friday in Meyerhoff Hall and on Sunday in New York's Carnegie Hall.

Daugherty says he identifies with Superman because he believes many composers since the conclusion of World War II had to be Clark Kents in order to survive in the world of academic music -- with its mathematically precise tone rows, tersely argued thematic developments and abstract textures.

"It was the age of the Darmstadt school -- when composers such as [Karlheinz] Stockhausen and [Pierre] Boulez dominated musical thinking and saw the works of [Anton] Webern as the future of modern music," the composer explains during a recent telephone conversation from his home in Ann Arbor, where he teaches at the University of Michigan. "It seemed to me -- especially in American universities -- that many composers concealed their true identities, just as [Superman] did."

Daugherty was an enormously successful Clark Kent.

He earned a Ph.D. at Yale and, along the way, spent a year in Paris composing computer music at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique) -- created in under the directorship of the composer-theoretician Boulez for interdisciplinary training and research in composition, electronic and computer techniques, acoustics and instrument building -- and two more years in Hamburg working with Gyorgi Ligeti, the Hungarian avant-gardist.

But something funny happened on the way to the future.

"The turning point was when I was a fellow at Tanglewood in 1980," Daugherty says. "I was in an environment in which [the avant-gardist] Mario Davidowski was the composer-in-residence and I decided I didn't want to continue writing in the style that successful young composers were using."

So, it was "Bam!" "Zap!" and "POW!" to academic music.

Although Daugherty had received classical conservatory training, he was -- in his private hours -- a jazzer, a rocker and a folkie. At home, he's as likely to listen to James Brown and Miles Davis as Monteverdi and Mahler. And just as the great European composers of the past used the idioms of folk music in their compositions, Daugherty began to use the idioms of American folk music -- the pop music beloved by average listeners -- in his concert music.

His recent compositions include not only the "Metropolis" Symphony, but also titles like "Desi" (a Latin big band tribute to Ricky Ricardo from "I Love Lucy"), "Dead Elvis" (which combines rock licks with the "Dies Irae" from the Roman Catholic requiem Mass), "Elvis Everywhere" (for string quartet and three Elvis impersonators), "Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover" (for string quartet and tape) and "Le Tombeau de Liberace" (a piece for piano and orchestra that in its title and its music pays homage to Ravel as well as Liberace).

Daugherty's clearly a young man who's infatuated not only with popular music, but also with popular culture.

"What I do doesn't really sound like pop music," Daugherty says. "What I try to do is use American myths and fables as a point of inspiration -- just as someone like Mahler used the work of Goethe or Nietzsche -- to write music that is complex and difficult. Incorporating something that's well-known -- be it a myth or mythic personality -- provides an opening to the ordinary listener to music that he might not ordinarily listen to."

A tape of a performance by the Albany Symphony of the "Metropolis Symphony" last October proves Daugherty's point. The audience erupted in cheers as they might have for a performance of Brahms or Tchaikovsky. But it is not only so-called ordinary listeners who are attracted to the composer's work.

"Michael's not afraid to use any old thing that comes along," says BSO music director David Zinman, who encouraged the composer to write the symphony and to whom -- along with the Baltimore Symphony -- it is dedicated. "He's creating his own technique as he goes along, and the effect of his music is often deeply moving."

The symphony is in five movements:

* "Lex," a musical tribute to one of Superman's arch enemies, Lex Luthor, which features the concertmaster playing a fiendishly difficult perpetual motion motif in which he is (musically at least) pursued by a percussion section that includes four police whistles placed quadraphonically on the stage.

* "Krypton," which refers to the exploding planet from which the infant Superman escaped and in which there are antiphonal fire sirens and a recurring motif in the orchestra that quotes the Christmas classic "Silent Night, Holy Night."

* "Mxyzptlk," a quirky scherzo that pays homage to the mischievous imp from the Fifth Dimension who regularly wreaks havoc in Metropolis.

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