Thursday, December 30, 2010

Michael Daugherty: Contemporary Classical I Like

So I wanted to do a quick check in today and tomorrow before 2010 gets away from me entirely. Well, I ought to be able to admit it got away from me. But hey-- didja see all those game reviews I wrote in October...and then got burnt out. So in any case, tomorrow I want to do a little look back at my gaming in general for 2010 and what I want/have planned for 2011. But for today I want to go entirely non-role play. I'll come back to rpgs tomorrow.

I'm a fan of several streams of 20th century Classical Music, and some forms of experimental music where it moves over more into a kind of fusion or rock. For the latter category I'd cite my love for Godspeed You Black Emperor, Turning Machine, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Steroid Maximus, Russian Circles, and so on. I like a kind of wall of sound and more classical approaches-- probably why for Jazz I like things like both Brubeck and Medeski, Martin, and Wood. I think I really prefer my music in general to be a little transparently evocative. That means some dissonance and some emotional force to me. So I follow a lot of movie, TV, and game soundtracks-- many of which I use at the game table. I'd say about half of the film soundtracks are immediately forgettable, and about 2/3rds of the game soundtracks if not more. But every once in a while you hit something like ChronoCross or Shadow of the Colossus, either of which I could listen to again and again. My favorite classic composer, Shostakovich, often gets dismissed as sounding soundtrack-y but I consider that a compliment.

Which leads my to talk about some more contemporary classical music I quite like. I got spurred to this my hearing that Michael Daugherty received a Grammy nomination for a new recording of his Metropolis Symphony. I owned a previous recording of that plus a number of other pieces by him-- which I'd oddly just been listening to when I heard about this on NPR. So I thought I'd do a quick run down of his work that I've heard and a couple of the other people I tend to associate with him.

Metropolis Symphony/Bizarro Suite (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Zinman) This is an initially jarring piece of work. It uses a number of odd instruments including a siren and police whistle. It keeps moving forward as a piece-- though I can't really say that as a whole it gels for me. It remains fun to listen to. For some reason I'm reminded of those animated CBS Children's specials, like A Cricket in Times Square. There's something about the music that sounds the same to me. It is a loud and brassy piece. The Bizarro Suite on this recoding takes some of the themes of the symphony and reworks and inverts them. That's a nice touch.

Metropolis Symphony/Deus ex Machina (Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero) I haven't listened comparatively to this performance of the symphony versus the earlier one. Based on timing, Guerrero takes things a hair faster in the movements, except for the final one. The other piece on this, Deus ex Machina, is a kind of piano concerto. I haven't read any notes on it, but based on the titles and the sound it seems to be draw from the sounds of trains-- the mechanical rumbling, the movement, the turning of wheels. I really love it. The second movement seems to incorporate a variation on Taps that is amazingly lovely. It might be a Copland reference as well, I don't know. I'd recommend this recording of the two just because you get more here. I got mine as an mp3 downloard from Amazon for $5.

Spaghetti Western (from a concerto collection, University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Kiesler) This is a concerto for English Horn and Orchestra. I adore it. He lifts the feeling of the Ennio Morricone themes from movies like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But it doesn't feel like a direct reference or just an homage to me. It is a fun and listenable piece that pulls many flavors together.

Fire and Blood/Motor City Triptych/Raise The Roof (Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Jaarvi) I'll confess I haven't listened enough to this album to really pull together a solid and specic opinion beyond enjoying it. Its a live performance-- with the crowd applause after which seems to be “in” right now for recordings. I like it. Raise the Roof reminds me a little of the most animated John Adams works. There's also a really feeling of Americana here-- not the broad and majestic pictures which Copland creates, but one of solid and gritty early and mid-20th century America. Perhaps I'm ascribing too much-- I haven't read the liner notes (one of the drawbacks to buying mp3s through Amazon).

Philadelphia Stories/UFO (Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop-- with the amazing Evelyn Glennie on percussion) The first piece owes a great deal to Stokowski who, with Bernstein really helped shape classic music performance in the mid-20th Century. The third movement references him by name and I've seen it recorded by itself as a performance piece. Philadelphia Stories is fun, clean and listenable. On the other hand, UFO presents a real challenge. It is a kind of complicated concerto for solo percussion and orchestra which uses many, many different sounds-- at times supremely discordant. The final movement speeds through. I have a hard time wrapping my hand around it as a whole piece but I do enjoy listening to it.

Daugherty's a good ways away from some of the more narrow and completely dissonant forms in 20th Century music. He doesn't echo any of the minimalism of Philip Glass or even John Adams. There's more a Charles Ives in there-- but without being awful like Ives is. There-- I said it. He's more listenable that some other 20th century stuff (to me at least) like Boulez, Messiaen, or Carter. I will note that he's routinely criticized for being kitschy-- and that may be why I like him.

I've just about hit my self-imposed 1000 word limit-- so I'll deal with the other composers in another piece later. Tomorrow an rpg overview for 2010 and 2011; then my first game review of the new year on Saturday (I hope).


  1. Nice tips. I definitely want to check some of these out. And I remember getting introduced to Godspeed You Black Emperor but it completely slipped my mind these past few years. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Very interesting! And glad to see you back.

  3. This is a great post about Daugherty, and I like your blog. I mentioned it on my own blog ( but you should e-mail MD through his website (and he teaches at U of Mich, I believe). I met him once when I was the publicist for Naxos, and he's a good guy. I think he'd enjoy your post.

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