Dreamachine: connecting man and machine

Ravel loved mechanical toys and collected music boxes. Conlon Nancarrow wrote pieces for player piano. Even Beethoven used cutting edge innovations for his time, in the form of the pianoforte and metronome. Machinery has long fascinated composers, and never more so than today.

So there’s something very apt about Dreamachine, a piece for solo percussion and orchestra by American composer Michael Daugherty, which the RPO and Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie will perform in Reading, Cambridge and London this June. Commissioned by the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln, this four-movement work is inspired by images that, in Daugherty’s words, ‘connect man and machine in surprising ways.’

And surprising, they are. The work opens with a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci’s wooden flying machines, followed by a tribute to Rube Goldberg, the American cartoonist, engineer and inventor, whose cartoons feature witty contraptions that perform simple tasks. The third movement is inspired by Fritz Kahn’s drawing of a light bulb plugged into an electric eel, while the finale ‘Vulcan’s Forge’ refers to the Roman god of fire and to Mr Spock, the half-human, half-vulcan science officer in Star Trek.

‘I’ve always been a big Star Trek fan,’ Daugherty says proudly. He has tried hard to make the most of the sci-fi-esque subject matter: the last movement, especially, is full of algorithmic processes. But, he assures, this piece isn’t a dry mathematical exercise. ‘There’s drama, and even humour – for example, when you have a big orchestral tutti, followed by just a little ‘ting’ on the triangle.’ Not everyone finds it funny, he admits: ‘when we did it in Germany, there wasn’t a laugh in the house.’ Still, he says, in peppering his music with cultural references, he is ‘opening the door to the listeners.’

For Daugherty, accessibility is crucial. A lot of his works have profiled well-known historical figures, from Abraham Lincoln to John F Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline Onassis, and they’re often very tuneful, unlike most of the contemporary music we hear today: ‘I find that more and more younger composers are turning to the modernism of the seventies, where you found no references to modern culture, no melodies, no toe-tapping rhythms. I guess I’m kind of a lone wolf.’

Interesting, then, that one of Daugherty’s main supporters was the arch-modernist composer György Ligeti, with whom he studied in the ‘80s. ‘Ligeti was the one who told me that avant-gardism was dead, and that I needed to move on and do something different,’ Daugherty explains. ‘He also hated anyone to compose like him. He was very turned off by that. So, I more or less got my marching papers from him.’

That said, there is one similarity between Daugherty and Ligeti: a tendency to challenge musicians. In Dreamachine, Daugherty explains that the solo percussionist has to have ‘real chops’. But it’s not just about playing the notes, he says, ‘it’s about seducing the audience, the way you move on stage, like a great actor.’ So it’s lucky that Glennie is quite so talented: ‘She can improvise brilliantly. She’s a fantastic jazz drummer. Plus, she has a great Scottish sense of humour.’ And what is a ‘Scottish’ sense of humour? ‘I’m not sure exactly,’ laughs Daugherty, ‘but she certainly has a sense of humour. I’m assuming it’s Scottish.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

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