Gee’s Bend for Electric Guitar and Orchestra

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            It’s hard to know just where to start with this work and composer.  Suffice it say that Michael Daugherty and his musical style springs directly from the heart of contemporary American culture.  He now occupies an esteemed position as Professor of Composition in the music school of the University of Michigan, and has written compositions for just about anybody and everybody in the “official” world of classical music culture—major orchestras, music schools and conservatories, distinguished performers, enterprising conductors—you name it, he is clearly the current darling of progressive concert music.  He has a “Zelig”-like persona whose musical roots and subsequent musical education seems to have touched just about every base.  But his background could not be more prosaic—in the best sense of the word.  He grew up, like the average American kid, surrounded by the pervasive influence of television, rock and roll, rampant commercialization, cathartic political events, in short, just about everything condemned by European intellectuals as typical of the depravity of American society.  Growing up in a musical family of middle class tastes, he played in rock bands, accompanied country-western performers on the Hammond organ at county fairs, carried the bass drum in marching bands, studied at North Texas State, played jazz piano, as well as cocktail piano at a lounge on the Jersey Turnpike.  That’s plenty, right there.  But, wait!  There’s more.

            After moving to New York, where he hobnobbed with such avant garde intellectuals such as Milton Babbit and Pierre Boulez, he moved to Paris where he studied electronic music, later studying in Germany with Ligeti and Stockhausen and, well, you get the idea.  He’s touched almost every musical base from the ridiculous to the sublime—American populism to European intellectualism.  Along the way he received a doctoral degree from Yale, writing on Ives and Mahler.  His personal musical style is accordingly broad; some compositions hold their own with the most received, academic style and others are eclectic, to say the least.  He has built a reputation in the latter mode for compositions like “Dead Elvis” (the solo bassoonist is in the costume of the “King”), orchestra compositions inspired by Superman, Jackie Onassis, Hell’s Angels, and other icons of American pop culture.  But, withal, he is a thoughtful, polite, articulate, and flexible teacher of young composition students.  Not at all an enfant terrible.

            Gee’s Bend was inspired by the story of the black ladies in the small town of the same name, who—aided by an article in The New Yorker--came to enjoy national recognition for their inspired and imaginative quilting, garnering shows at major American art museums, including the Whitney Museum.  The little village has a long and sad history, is located in an isolated portion of southern Alabama, and the milieu and story provided ample specific inspirations for the composer.  Cast in four movements, the concerto’s first movement, “Housetop,” takes its name from a popular quilting pattern, and utilizes the psychedelic electronic distortions associated with the rock legend, Jimi Hendrix.  The second movement, “Grandmother’s Dream,” is a gentle, atmospheric evocation of the old ladies’ memories of their difficult past, and hope for the future—expressed through their art.  “Washboard” evokes the traditional quilting bees that rely upon collaborative art, and so does the music in this third movement, with some marvelous “funky” solos from members of the woodwind section (they will have fun with this stuff).  The last movement, “Chicken Pickin’, ” refers to both poultry and guitars-especially the virtuosity of southern guitar greats—from Bo Diddley to Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Woven in all this are some allusions to familiar spirituals.

             It’s all quite different from the usual symphonic fare, that’s for sure, but the composer is earnest, talented, and brings a distinctive perspective to our “classical” endeavors.  In his own words:  Gee’s Bend intertwines “American guitar rock and southern folk music with contemporary classical music to create a colorful and unique tapestry of sound.”  That it does.


--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan