Route 66 by Michael Daugherty (and Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)

By Daniel Garrett

Michael Daugherty, Route 66
Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Produced by Tim Handley
Naxos, 2011

Is culture a puzzle?  I tend to think of culture as a kind of puzzle, with different artists and thinkers carrying a necessary piece of it: one may understand Oregon, Wisconsin, or Massachusetts; and another may understand how communities function or disintegrate.  One may see and portray the dangers of egotism or dependence on social approval; and another may be able to demonstrate the weakness of purely intellectual or monetary values.  Michael Daugherty’s work—as expressed in the collection that features his compositions “Route 66” and “Ghost Ranch,” “Sunset Strip,” and “Time Machine”—takes as its inspiration place and time.  The music has attitude, energy, and speed; and what is heralded asks for attention…  Michael Daugherty has invested much technique in these compositions, to engage and hold the imagination.  The Iowa-born composer Michael Daugherty studied at the University of North Texas, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale, and he has taught music at Oberlin and the University of Michigan, and worked with national orchestras, and received awards for his work, which includes the musical compositions “Metropolis Symphony” and “Raise the Roof.”  Daugherty has been able to avoid the daily nine-to-five grind that ignores or insults emotion, misuses intellectual energy, represses imagination, and stifles the spirit; and he has had the encouragement, recognition, and support that sustain accomplishment.  Consequently, the public has the benefit of Daugherty’s creativity.  I like what I have heard of “Route 66” and its companion pieces, and am glad that it contemplates and presents the perspectives and sounds of America transformed into art, but I cannot say that it touched me deeply, something that more listening and thought may achieve.

The composition “Route 66” was inspired by the “first intercontinental highway,” according to its composer Michael Daugherty in the album’s notes; and is intended to evoke travel by car from Illinois to California, with first solitude and simplicity and the transition toward a busier, more bustling and complex life.  The piece begins with a jaunty rhythm, exuding a lot of energy, and is full of twists and turns, not what one imagines as the starting point for a classical composition.  I guess that is the excitement of beginning a journey.  It has a certain drama, but that does not preclude comic elements.  An explosive, sharp sound announces change, and there are many horns, giving the music initially—to my ears—a nearly Asian aspect, and subsequently something resembling jazz, with notes climbing step by upward step.  I discern a very modern, if not contemporary, voice in the music.

Inspired by the American painter Georgia O’Keefe and her summer home in New Mexico, ‘Ghost Ranch,’ takes as its motifs bones, clouds, and a dark landscape.  The orchestra is divided into three ensembles to suggest the layers in a painted image, in the first movement.  In ‘Bone,’ the first movement of “Ghost Ranch,” there is  a sense of space, and within it hammering, and an echoing call, strings, and bells, and a flute that sounds like a bird.  Time is suggested by a pattern of rhythm; and there is a tumult.  (Is it always necessary to conjure a catharsis or climax?)  Horns suggest clouds in the second movement, ‘Above Clouds,’ which has—thanks to the orchestra  strings—an expanding, enveloping sound; and one imagines seeing, watching, the horizon during a long day, curious, a bit of suspense in the air, but mostly with recognition and reassurance.  Something may change but you cannot control it; you must accept it, and it probably will not kill you.  There is exhalation, a sighted flourish in the sky, but one remains calm, meditates.  The third movement of “Ghost Ranch” is ominous: ‘Black Rattle’ announces itself with a skittering of notes, and a series of long tones are set against that skittering, creating drama.  Something seems discovered or disturbed in the sound of cacophony.  Is someone or something walking or running away?  The blasts of sound could be movements in nature, or only wild imaginings, part of someone’s inner life; whichever, there are fast, short patterns of sound leading to a crescendo and beyond.

Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood is called “Sunset Strip,” and Michael Daugherty tries to recreate its atmosphere from dusk to dawn in the musical piece that has its name.  Lines of music—long, high—with shuttering horn notes, as fast as hummingbird wings, commence this part of the journey (‘7 PM’).  The music has attitude, energy, and speed; and what is heralded asks for attention, it not complete sobriety.  The melody fans out over tight, tiny beats, like a glittery display of objects, each one ever more striking.  ‘Nocturne,’ the second movement of “Sunset Strip,” is a beautiful meditation, with little explosions of thought; the sound of the horns akin to shining javelins soaring through the air in perfect flight.  The last portion, ‘7 AM,’ is somber, then jolted by a melodious exuberance, and I hear familiar elements, and an amusement that might be best approached with care, without presumption.  There are little salutations, and later a clapping sound—is it the sign of travel, community, or work?—shadowed by something slight, possibly personal reservation or thought, before exuberance returns.

Which is more satisfying: past, present, or future?  Whose past, and which future?  The subject is space and time in “Time Machine,” partly inspired by the questions raised in the book The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a composition requiring three conductors—Laura Jackson, Mei-Ann Chen, and Marin Alsop—with one orchestra, and the composition is divided into two movements, one for the past and one for the future.  The first notes of the piece—in ‘Past’—are the sound of hammering time, of many clocks; and then the listener perceives a swirling pool within which are flickers, glints of attention and movement.  However, I do not think of nostalgia, nor feel nostalgia listening to it.  It is difficult for music to be the past, though it may have been made there (almost by definition, art is the eternal present); rather, it is our memory of music, and the accumulated associations, that may place it in the past.  Here, Daugherty’s music is new to me, but once familiar with it, I may in ten years think of it and then think of the past.  However, an angular intensity in the second movement of “Time Machine”—in ‘Future’—does seem modern.  Why do I think of a particular time?  An established language—of sound; of image—has been developed to suggest the modern, and the future, and I am familiar enough with that language to recognize it (“angularity”).  If my statements form a contradiction, the contradiction stands.  (Does it—or is the swirling pool of sound in ‘Past’ a sign of memory, of the past, itself?)  Anyway, I also hear full mellow notes, notes like—what?  Raindrops, steps—moments.  A clash indicates, for me, a dynamic evolution that might be conundrum or crisis; and then something lingers, possibly a sadness.  Is the gravity forced?  The tempo moves and rises, and the previous pattern or mood is broken.  Different possibilities are suggested, like the bending of time—forward and back, complex and simple, so many possibilities that this becomes an elaborate construction.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth