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BWW Interviews: Composer Michael Daugherty on 'Reflections On the Mississippi For Tuba and Orchestra'

Michael Daugherty is one of America's most successful modern orchestral composers. Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he has also been an NEA and Guggenheim Fellow, among other fellowships, and has been Composer-in-Residence for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony as well as several others. The composer of "Metropolis Symphony" (1988), inspired by Superman, he has been influenced by such diverse inspirations as popular culture - his opera, "Jackie O" (1997) - and Georgia O'Keefe in his orchestral work "Ghost Ranch" (2005).

We caught up with him shortly before the premiere of his new work, "Reflections On The Mississippi For Tuba and Orchestra", to be performed in Philadelphia by the thrice-Grammy-nominated Temple University Symphony Orchestra with soloist Carol Jantsch, principal tubist of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center on March 24, 2013.

BWW: You're from a musical family, as so many musicians are. Can you tell us about your family's musical background?

MD: My father was a drummer. Our household was surrounded by popular music, and we grew up watching Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason. I didn't grow up with classical music, but that's true of many composers. I wound up writing for orchestra and wind ensembles because I love the timbre.

BWW: You're from the Midwest, and you live and teach in the Midwest. Do you find that affects your sensibility, as opposed to being an entrenched New York or Los Angeles composer?

MD: I live in the middle of America, so I have all American influences hitting me simultaneously. It's the best of all worlds. It's only an hour flight to New York from Detroit. I have instant access to what I need.

BWW: When I think of your work, "Metropolis Symphony" immediately comes to mind. This new work has a completely inspiration.

MD: Yes, I hope so. That was twenty years ago. What you do when you're fifty-eight is different from when you're twenty-five, for actors and for composers. This piece is a reflection on my growing up - good memories of it. Some composers focus on bad memories but there's enough of that in the world.

And when I wrote "Metropolis", most orchestral music was atonal and non-melodic so it was shocking at the time.

BWW: The Mississippi has fascinated more than one writer and more than one composer - Twain, Ferber, Hammerstein, all come to mind. What is it about the Mississippi?

MD: It's a river that spans the entire North and South. It's the middle of America. I think because it goes through so many states, and so many cultures, and was for so long the only way to go from north to south... and then, it's travel. Travel inspires the imagination. I went back to the Mississippi for a week this summer, with a boat, and went up and down the byways, working on this piece.

BWW: What suggested the tuba to you to express your intent?

MD: I'm interested in exploring underused and unused timbres, and the tuba is the most underemployed in the orchestra. Carol [Jantsch] and I workshopped this extensively. We wanted to show off the versatility of the instrument. There are some very haunting melodies here. The first movement is slow. I'm dispelling stereotypes about tuba - the piece is slow, it's tuba melody.

In a way, I've cast the tuba against type, like Robert De Niro playing a priest. That's why this piece is really going to work.

BWW: A number of your works are drawn from popular culture - "Metropolis Symphony", "Jackie O", "Dead Elvis". This isn't. Is it a shift of focus for you, or simply part of the diversity of your work?

MD: I've done a number of pieces inspired by painters - Georgia O'Keefe's "Ghost Ranch", for example, and a piece on Mount Rushmore. I'm interested in American history and culture as well as popular culture.

BWW: Do you find yourself dealing with audiences and listeners who have a set idea that classical music is one traditional set of composers and sounds?

MD: I get the feeling that audiences really want to hear new works. You have to mix it up - a new composer and a repertory work together in a performance. I'm very fortunate, because I'm played frequently. I try to re-frame popular and idiomatic sounds - these are things people do recognize.

BWW: You're known for your program notes, which are extensive. But if someone were to miss them, to only read this, what do you want them to know about "Reflections"?

MD: I think they need to listen to the beautiful melodies I've written and listen to the sounds. They'll be delighted to hear Carol Jantsch playing these beautiful sounds on the tuba. And they need to know the title. People know things by their titles. It gives them a framework to understand what they experience.

BWW: Do you have any last thoughts?

MD: We think the tuba's loud, but it's not. It's a very mellow instrument. Saxophone and trombone cut right through an orchestra, but tuba doesn't do that. People will make some discoveries.

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