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Michael DAUGHERTY (b.1954)
Trail of Tears, for flute and chamber orchestra (2010) [23:00]
Dreamachine, for solo percussion and orchestra (2014) [34:20]
Reflections on the Mississippi, for tuba and orchestra (2013) [20:45]
Amy Porter (flute)
Dame Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Carol Jantsch (tuba)
Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller
rec. 2015/16, EMPAC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York; Troy Savings Bank Hall, Troy, New York
NAXOS 8.559807 [78:20]

Every time I hear American music I find myself with the same thought; how amazingly inventive it is. American composers so often come up with such original ideas it quite takes your breath away. That goes for all three of Grammy Award-winning composer Michael Daugherty’s works that make up this disc. Trail of Tears treats the subject of the forced relocation of Native Americans following President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1838. Just reading the background in the accompanying booklet which the composer has written is enough to enrage the reader or at the very least to bring tears to the eyes. In 1838 15,000 Cherokee men, women and children were rounded up, stockaded and then in 1838-9 marched 800 miles from their lands east of the Mississippi river to Oklahoma in that year’s bitter winter; during the five months it took over 4,000 of them died. This terrible injustice was also to befall members of four other tribes and all in the name of the profit which ranchers would make when they later grazed the Indians’ lands. In today’s world it brings to mind on the one hand the treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar as well as the expulsion and fleeing of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their land in 1948 to create the state of Israel, an event Palestinians call the Naqba or catastrophe. Equally it reminds us of the vast number of refugees desperate to reach Europe from wars caused in the main by the very countries they are aiming for and that do all they can to prevent them getting in and, currently, the thousands making their way to the USA from poverty stricken countries in Latin America and the measures the US are taking to ensure they cannot enter. The fact that nothing seems to change makes this music all the more powerful and relevant today.

The first movement begins with thoughts of the past, inspired by Geronimo’s memory of being “…born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun”. It concludes with an agitated representation of the Trail of Tears death march which segues into the second movement, ‘Incantation’ reflecting on the passing of loved ones and the “hope for a better life in the world beyond”. The last movement is entitled ‘Sun Dance’, in which Daugherty reimagines this essential and most meaningful of all the religious dance ceremonies of 19th century plains Indians and, which in yet another monstrous edict from the US government, was banned on Indian reservations for a hundred years but which is once again practised there. Daugherty brilliantly evokes a dance which, while “reconnecting with the rituals of the past might create a path to a new and brighter future”. The flute is the perfect instrument with which to represent these native people whose life, which had remained the same for centuries, was so violently disturbed by the arrival in America of the ‘white man’. The whole work gives us all pause for reflection over the actions of one people towards another and that seeking a way of living side by side in peace is by far the better solution.

Dreamachine is the result of the commissioning of a work from Daugherty by the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln, for Cologne’s Eight Bridges Festival in 2014. The theme of the festival was Humans and Machines and the concerto is designed to pay tribute to the succession throughout history of those who have dreamed up fantastical machines to transform our lives and particularly by images that “connect humans and machines in surprising ways.” The work is divided into four movements inspired by different elements with the first being the flying machines of Leonardo de Vinci (1452-1519) and ‘Da Vinci’s Wings’ has the marimba evoke the incredible inventions the great artist and inventor imagined and that he felt might possibly take man on a flying journey. Daugherty has the music swoop, dive, hover and flutter in a tribute to the great man’s imagination.

‘Rube Goldberg’s Variations’ is a thoroughly enjoyable and witty movement that recreates in music the amazing world of Rube Goldberg, cartoonist, engineer and inventor (1883-1970) who sounds very much like Britain’s W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944) who was described as imagining “whimsically elaborate, some might say ridiculously complicated, machines to achieve simple objectives”. This funny little movement uses all kinds of interesting instruments to represent the “popular cartoons depicting complicated gadgets performing simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways”.

‘Electric Eel’ is yet another cleverly constructed movement that draws its inspiration from the work of scientist and artist Fritz Kahn and musically described one of his drawings that has a light bulb “plugged” into an electric eel and Daugherty has the music describe the eel’s snake-like progress through the turbid waters, gradually becoming brighter as its light source becomes ever more incandescent until it climaxes in a white hot burst of light that having reached its zenith fades back into the opaque darkness. Daugherty’s use of the vibraphone perfectly describes the twisting and undulating motion of the eel while the orchestra creates a musical canvas of murky waters through which the eel effortlessly moves.

The final movement of this extremely satisfying work is entitled ‘Vulcan’s Forge’ and draws its inspiration from Mr. Spock, a brilliant idea for counterposing human logic against that of the Starship Enterprise’s almost robotic science officer. His predicament of having to decide whether to apply human emotion to the solution of life or death situations or his natural inclination to use his own machine-like reactions is described with the use of the soloist’s snare drum against the ‘human’ orchestra which creates a thrilling ‘battle’ between these two opposing forces. Glennie’s virtuosity is key to the success of this piece, but in such safe hands there is nothing but pure unalloyed joy mixed in with the excitement Daugherty makes so palpable.

The disc’s final work is a wonderful evocation of the progress along the mighty Mississippi of one of the classic steamboats that ply up and down the river. The work is a tuba concerto and a commission from the Temple University Boyer College of Music and Dance in Philadelphia. Cast in four movements, ‘Mist’, ‘Fury’, ‘Prayer’ and ‘Steamboat’, Daugherty uses the results of a journey down the Mississippi that he took in 2012 to recreate those he took with his father, to whose memory the work is dedicated. Having taken photos and notes to inspire him the composer has managed to create a thoroughly compelling musical picture of being on these unique boats. The tuba is the perfect instrument to weave the canvas and gradually paint the picture that begins with the boat emerging from the mist to commence its journey. In the second movement Daugherty was inspired by the writing of William Faulkner and describes the river when it is in turmoil and flood as it was in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, captured in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Again, the tuba is perfect for creating a turbulent atmosphere as it cuts across the orchestra.

‘Prayer’ has the river calm and majestic as viewed from a high point where the river seems to wind its way endlessly through the scenery from sunset to starry night with the use of glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes and piano evoking church bells in the valley, and then the composer brings back echoes from the first movement to underline the timeless nature of the river’s currents. This almost filmic work ends with ‘Steamboat’ which recreates tales from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi that told of the gambling boats that plied their trade from Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri to New Orleans. Taking inspiration from Zydeco, “a music genre that evolved in southwest Louisiana by French Creole speakers which blends blues, rhythm and blues, and music indigenous to the Louisiana Creoles and the Native people of Louisiana” (Wikipedia) Daugherty has his tuba soloist play a “second line” of, as the composer explains “syncopated rhythms that propel the concerto to a virtuosic conclusion”.

With this disc we have three hugely enjoyable contrasting works each 100% successful in achieving everything the composer set himself to do, and which take the listener through a whole range of emotions from righteous anger, through fascination, amusement, reflection and thrills. I defy anybody to say that they did not have an edifying experience on listening that uplifts as much as it informs. This is a disc that makes you want to invite a friend to listen with you and watch their reactions to a very human and humane composer’s work which will never be too far from my CD player.

Steve Arloff
Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Robert Cummings

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