Leaping tall buildings with Daugherty's music Superman: Having thrown off the constraining garb of academic music, the composer uses pop themes that draw listeners into his concert works.

Classical Sounds

February 23, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Michael Daugherty thinks he's Superman.

No, the 42-year-old composer does not suffer from delusions of grandeur.

It's true that the recording of his 42-minute "Metropolis Symphony" (Argo 452 103-2), based on the comic-book hero's exploits and performed by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony, opened last week -- the week of its release -- at No. 18 on Billboard's classical best-seller list.

But 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 says. "It seemed to me -- especially in American universities -- that many composers concealed their true identities, just as [Superman] did."

Daugherty -- who is the son of a dance-band drummer and grew up playing keyboards in jazz, rock and funk bands -- was an enormously successful Clark Kent.

He earned a Ph.D. at Yale and, in the late '70s and early '80s, studied abroad. He spent a year in Paris composing computer music at Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique and two more years in Hamburg working with Gyorgy Ligeti, the Hungarian avant-gardist.

Using idioms

But something funny happened on the way to the future.

"Ligeti told me, 'You're a jazzer, a rocker and a folkie, you ought to use that stuff,' " Daugherty says.

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

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), "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) and "Jackie O," which will receive its world premiere in March at the Houston Grand Opera.

Myths and fables

"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."

According to Baltimore Symphony music director Zinman, to whom the "Metropolis Symphony" is dedicated, "Michael's not afraid to use any old thing that comes along. He's creating his own technique as he goes along, and the effect of his music is often deeply moving."

That's certainly true of the concluding movement of the symphony, "Red Cape Tango," which depicts Superman's fight to the death with his nemesis, "Doomsday." The composer uses an elegiac melody as a tango and combines it in ways that are both startling and emotionally affecting with the "Dies Irae" melody. It's a pop-flavored abschied that bids farewell to an era with an almost Mahlerian or Straussian sense of sadness and nostalgic longing.

"It could have been that I knew a project I had worked on for more than five years was ending," Daugherty says of the mood created by "Red Cape Tango." "Something inside me resisted having to let go.

"But sometimes you have to ask yourself why it is that certain myths endure and why they disappear," the composer continues. "Superman was created in the 1930s by two Jewish kids from Cleveland who were the children of immigrants. One of the most compelling elements in the myth is the necessity of concealing your true identity. This metaphor of being afraid to show who you really are is no longer true in an America that is so emphatically multi-ethnic.

"I find it interesting that when Superman was brought back to life recently it was as four different characters with different ethnic identities and powers," Daugherty continues. " 'Red Cape Tango,' I guess, is not only about the death of Superman, but also about the death of a central American myth."

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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