Michael Daugherty

Born 1954

Michael Daugherty



American composer Michael Daugherty is one of the most widely commissioned and performed composers of his generation. A great proponent and fan of popular culture, he is known for incorporating elements from his contemporaries not only in jazz and rock but also in film and comic books into his own compositions.

Daugherty grew up in an incredibly rich musical environment: his father was a dance-band drummer, his mother an amateur pianist and his four younger brothers all studied music and grew up to become professional musicians. At the age of eight Daugherty became fascinated with the player piano in his house, watching how the keys moved and he used this to learn many jazz and popular songs, genres that were also heavily represented in his father’s impressive record collection. His parents also exposed their children to many other aspects of contemporary culture, encouraging Daugherty to paint, play drums and basketball, and travelling all over the United States on vacation, allowing him to visit many of his country’s most historic landmarks and gain a lasting appreciation for the open road.

In his teenage years Daugherty worked extensively as a jazz pianist, accompanying choirs and playing solo in bars and nightclubs. He led and played organ in his own Motown cover band, meticulously transcribing the charts by hand from vinyl recordings of some of his heroes, including James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, and arranging them himself. His formal education began at the University of North Texas, where he received his bachelor degree in music composition, and continued through his masters at the Manhattan School of Music and his doctorate at Yale University. During this time he also traveled extensively, working in New York with the acclaimed jazz arranger Gil Evans, travelling to Hamburg, Germany, to study with master composer György Ligeti, and meeting withLeonard Bernstein, who encouraged him to continue with his fusion of classical and popular music.

Following completion of his doctorate, Daugherty was immediately invited to join the composition faculty at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory, where he taught for five years before moving to Ann Arbor to teach at the University of Michigan. By the late 1980s, several of Daugherty’s works were beginning to receive international attention. His compositionSnap! – Blue like an Orange (1987) won the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in 1989. Shortly after, he wrote the acclaimedMetropolis Symphony, based on the mythology surrounding the comic-book hero Superman, andDead Elvis (1993).  Meanwhile he was also writing pieces for smaller ensemble, includingSing Sing: J. Edward Hoover (1992) and Elvis Everywhere (1993), both written for the Kronos String Quartet with the latter also featuring three Elvis impersonators.

Daugherty’s style during these early works is in many ways typical of post-war composers, with its polyrhythmic modernist counterpoint and often-ironic tone, but where it differs is in his overt and often playful references to pop culture icons. Many of his works are explicitly inspired by real or imaginary people; such as Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, Rosa Parks and Superman, or places; such as Detroit, Las Vegas, Niagara Falls, and Mount Rushmore. These allusions to American mythology, reminiscent ofAaron Copland, can often be seen in his creative titles, which he calls “welcome mats, keys to open a door.”

For purely musical inspiration, Daugherty cites Johann Sebastian Bach, Gustav Mahler, Thelonious Monk, and Gil Evans as some of his main influences. Many of his works are organized into different “blocks” of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic material much in the way that modern jazz is, with material from each block morphing and cross-pollinating with the others in an often non-linear fashion. Much of his melodic material is highly syncopated and derived straight from jazz or Latin music, over rhythmic ostinatos reminiscent of pop music. Despite the many disparate elements in his music, Daugherty is insistent on it containing an immense attention to detail as well as an underlying logic, stating, “When I am writing the music I am extremely serious about putting the notes, the dynamics and the articulations, the timbre, the structure and the counterpoint. When I compose, I think in a very structural logical way asWebern and Bach did.” 

The opera Jackie O (1997), commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, marked a change in aesthetics as Daugherty began to write extended works in a more lyrical style with a hint of romanticism. Daugherty explores the relationship between “high” and “popular” culture in this work, a subject that is clearly very important to him. In 2000 the Detroit Symphony, one of many orchestras with which he was composer-in-residence, premiered hisMotor City Triptych, a three-movement symphony which makes extensive use of polytonality and polyrhythm to evoke the mechanical aspect of Detroit.   

Daugherty is still extremely active both as an educator at the University of Michigan and as a composer, with commissions and awards showing no signs of slowing in recent years. In 2010 the Pacific Symphony commissioned his piece Mount Rushmore a piece for chorus and orchestra divided into four movements to reflect the four American presidents; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, whose faces are carved into the mountainside. In 2011 the Nashville Symphony’s recording of his two works Metropolis Symphony and Deus ex Machina received three Grammy Awards, including the Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. He has also received the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra Composer’s Award (2005) and was named “Outstanding Classical Composer” at the Detroit Music Awards.

Header image courtesy of michaeldaugherty.net Long image: Michael Daugherty at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris in 1979