The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series opens with a showcase of music by American composer Michael Daugherty. Watch the free performance at 6pm on Thursday 5 October. Read Daugherty's introduction to the works featured in the programme below.
Mermaid Avenue (2016) from This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie
In 1943, three years after composing "This Land is Your Land,” American singer-songwriter and political activist Woody Guthrie was ready to settle down. He and his new wife Marjorie moved to a modest house at 3520 Mermaid Avenue. Mermaid Avenue was located near Coney Island, the iconic amusement park located on the last subway stop from Manhattan on the Atlantic Ocean. The years Woody spent on Mermaid Avenue were the most stable and prolific period of his nomadic life. During his years at Mermaid Avenue, Woody embraced the yiddish culture which surrounded him, along with the carnival atmosphere of the Coney Island boardwalk and beach. But tragedy was just around the corner: in 1952, he was admitted to Brooklyn State Hospital, beginning a long battle with Huntington's chorea which lead to his untimely death in 1967.
Walk the Walk (2005)
Walk the Walk for baritone sax and percussion was commissioned by Opus 21 for a concert honoring pianist Joe Hunter (1927-2007) and the Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit studio musicians who played on all of the historic Motown releases from 1959 to 1972. Using a deconstructed fragment from the Temptations' My Girl as a compositional idée fixe, I take the listener through a world of virtuosic Detroit blues, rock, jazz and Latin Motown musical grooves.
Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover (1993)
Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover for string quartet and pre-recorded sound was commissioned by Kronos Quartet. The first performance was given by Kronos Quartet on January 23, 1993 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. My composition is about the man who directed the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation virtually unchallenged from 1924 until his death in 1972.
My composition opens with one of J. Edgar Hoover's favorite mottoes: “The FBI is as close to you as your nearest telephone.” This “reassurance” to the American public also served to authorize his systematic invasion of their privacy: for Hoover, the telephone became an instrument for playing out his lifetime obsession with collecting sensitive information for his so-called “secret files.” Throughout his 48 years as director of the FBI, Hoover ordered the wiretapping of the telephones of movies stars, gangsters, presidents, civil rights activists, politicians, communist sympathizers, entertainers, and anyone who opposed his own political and moral agenda.
For me, the motto offers an opportunity to listen in on Hoover’s voice, and to manipulate it for my own compositional purposes. The telephone, like the digital technology I have used, mediates voice so that it is both distant and near. I wanted to bring the dead voice of J. Edgar Hoover back to a posthumous life through technology, so that it may “sing” of its own death. I created the tape part by digitally sampling bits of actual historical speeches delivered by Hoover from 1941 to 1972, to such diverse audiences as the American Legion, Boys’ Club of America, and the FBI National Academy.
It was eerie to be the first person to hear these tapes since they were made available to the public. I composed string parts to “sing along” with Hoover, in order to convey my sense of Hoover’s grim, threatening, yet darkly comic personality. The part played by the string quartet is also inspired by sounds associated with the FBI, such as sirens, American patriotic songs, and machine gun syncopations. The quartet therefore creates another context for hearing Hoover’s own words: “I hope that this presentation will serve to give you a better knowledge and a deep understanding of YOUR FBI.”
Dead Elvis (1993)
Dead Elvis was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva and Chuck Ullery, principal bassoonist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It is more than a coincidence that it is scored for the same instrumentation as Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat (1918) in which a soldier sells his violin and his soul to the devil for a magic book. In Dead Elvis, the bassoon is Elvis (or perhaps an Elvis impersonator). Does this rock star sell out his Southern folk authenticity to the sophisticated professionalism of Hollywood movies, Colonel Parker and Las Vegas in order to attain great wealth and fame? Dead Elvis goes far beyond this romantic Faustian scenario. For me, the two clashing Elvis images (the hip, beautiful, genius, thin, rock-and-roll Elvis versus the vulgar, cheesy, fat, stoned, Las Vegas Elvis) serve as a sturm und drang compositional algorithm. Further, my use of the dies irae (a medieval Latin chant for the Day of Judgement) as the principal musical theme of "Dead Elvis" signifies yet another aspect of the Elvis myth: some people believe Elvis is dead, while others believe he is alive and well in Kalamazoo. Perhaps the question is not whether Elvis is alive or dead, but why the phenomenon of Elvis endures beyond the grave of Graceland. Elvis, for better or worse, is part of American culture, history and mythology. If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis.
Programme Notes by Michael Daugherty