American Gothic CD

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American Gothic (2013) for orchestra was commissioned and received its world premiere by Orchestra Iowa under the direction of Timothy Hankewich, Music Director, at the Paramount Theatre, Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 4, 2013. The composition is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano/celeste and strings.

American Gothic for orchestra is a contemporary musical reflection on the creative world of Iowa artist, Grant Wood (1891-1942). Composed in memory of my father, Willis Daugherty (1929-2011), the music also reflects on the years I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With exceptional public schools, opulent movie palaces and a marvelous symphony orchestra, art museum, public library and community theater, Cedar Rapids is a splendid Midwestern center for the arts.

Music was an important activity in the Daugherty family. My father was the manager of the Seiferts downtown department store by day and a drummer with local dance bands by night. My mother, Evelyn Daugherty (1927-1974), was physical education teacher at Franklin Junior High School, who often appeared in community theater productions such as Gypsy. My grandmother, Josephine Daugherty (1907-1991), played piano for silent films in Vinton, Iowa back in the 1930s. They all encouraged the five Daugherty boys to pursue music. Today, my four younger brothers are all professional musicians: Pat (b. 1956), Tim (b. 1958), Matt (b. 1959) and Tom (b.1961).

I first became aware of Grant Wood when I was a ten-year-old boy enrolled in art classes at the old Cedar Rapids Public Library (now the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art). Prominently displayed in the room where we learned to draw and paint was Grant Wood’s original painting of his mother, entitled Woman with Plant (1928). I realized that Grant Wood was everywhere in Cedar Rapids: his paintings and lithographs at the Museum of Art; his farm mural at the old Montrose Hotel; his carved wooden Mourner’s Bench in the principal’s office at McKinley Junior High School; his stained glass Memorial Window at the Veteran’s Memorial Building. I often rode my bicycle past the artist’s studio at 5 Turner Alley, where Grant Wood created his most famous painting, American Gothic (1930).

My father was a fan of Grant Wood’s regionalist art. He was a tour guide at the Grant Wood Studio and he displayed reproductions of American Gothic along with Stone City (1930) at his home. Much like a character in the background of Grant Wood’s paintings from the 1930s, my father milked the cows and fed the horses every morning on the farm before walking several miles down a desolate gravel road to a one-room country grade school.

In 2012, I returned to Cedar Rapids to revisit the small towns of Eastern Iowa. I drove along the back roads and farms where my father grew up, and where Grant Wood found inspiration for the people and places captured in his art. All the while, I was collecting musical ideas and mental images to create an emotional framework for my composition.

I. On a Roll

The first movement features a rollicking melody with colorful orchestration, suggesting the vivid colors and dynamic curves of Grant Wood’s paintings of rural Iowa. Just as Grant Wood simplified elements of the Iowa landscape into a precisely placed compositional design, I have created an abstract musical pattern. Like the modernist geometric patterns imposed on rolling hills in Young Corn (1931) and in Spring Turning (1936), the music rolls along in a continuous ascending and descending melody that moves from one instrument to the other, from the tuba to the string pizzicato. The percussion crackles like the sound of the corn growing in row after row on a hot summer day.

II. Winter Dreams

The second movement evokes the bleak winters experienced by my father growing up in rural Iowa during the 1930s and scenes, depicted in Grant Wood’s black and white lithographs of the same time period, such as January and February. A haunting melody, played by alto flute and strings in harmonics, evokes a cold winter wind whistling “down in the valley”. The cellos respond with a melancholy countermelody accompanied by sleigh bells. The title of this movement hearkens back to a poem entitled “Grant Wood” by Jay Sigmund (1885-1937) where he exclaims, “ … time found a new son / Dreaming on the plain.” An Iowa poet and close friend of Grant Wood, Sigmund persuaded the artist to turn his attention from Europe back to Iowa for his subject matter and artistic inspiration.

III. Pitchfork

The title of the third movement refers to the pitchfork gripped by the dour farmer who stands alongside his spinster daughter in Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic. Many have speculated on the hidden meanings of this American masterpiece. Is it a tribute? A comic portrait? An allegory? A social satire? A political critique? A private joke? For me, this iconic painting reveals the ambiguities of American culture and Grant Wood’s dry wit. After all, he was a founding member of the infamous Grant Wood Garlic Club in Cedar Rapids, and a practical joker, like my father. For this movement, I have composed playful, toe-tapping music. A quirky melody in the woodwinds is punctuated by spiky chords in the brass section and bluegrass riffs in the string section. Like the gothic window in the background of Grant Wood’s painting, this movement is a window into my contemporary musical vision of American Gothic.

– Michael Daugherty