Michael Daugherty weaves orchestral music and electric guitar in ‘Gee’s Bend’
The electric guitar is an instrument seldom heard in symphonic music, but it’s the keystone of “Gee’s Bend,” the latest musical offering from renowned Ann Arbor, Mich., composer Michael Daugherty. Electric guitar and orchestra commingle in the piece, creating a timbral and stylistic patchwork in which rock, folk and contemporary classical music converge. “Gee’s Bend” makes its west coast premiere at the Civic on Saturday, Aug. 13 as part of this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
Daugherty, a longtime festival favorite, found inspiration for the piece in the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala. One of the poorest areas of the south, Gee’s Bend is populated mainly by African American descendents of slaves from the Civil War era. The town’s residents are known for their innovative style of quilting, noted for its vivid colors and unusual patterns.
“The people of Gee’s Bend are survivors of a very long, troubling period of American history,” Daugherty states. “Through art, they were able to keep their heads high and have hope. One of the things I like about these quilts they make is the colors: They’re very bright, which is kind of like my music—I like bright orchestration. They’re very unorthodox, nonacademic and personal.”
Daugherty likens quilting to blues and jazz music. “It started out in small towns; it wasn’t commercialized,” he says. “Now the making of quilts and so forth—it’s very institutionalized, [but] they were doing these quilts on their own, just using scraps and not following any particular rules.”
“Gee’s Bend” is divided into four movements: “Housetop,” which takes its name from a popular quilting pattern; “Grandmother’s Dream,” which expresses the quilters’ optimism in the face of hardship; “Quilting Bee,” featuring washboard, electric guitar and a woodwind section representing a group of quilters; and “Chicken Pickin’,” which pays homage to a southern style of electric guitar playing popularized by the likes of Bo Diddley, Chet Baker and Duane Allman.
Boasting some hot leads from soloist D.J. Sparr, the piece is a showcase of the electric guitar’s capabilities. “This is really an electric guitar concerto—it makes no apologies for the instrument,” Daugherty says. “The electric guitar plays solos, actually plays rock licks. It’s a perfect piece for somebody who can read music and play rock guitar.”
The composer sees some metaphorical value in “Gee’s Bend.” “Cabrillo is sort of this patchwork of musical styles and idioms that [Music Director] Marin Alsop brings to the festival,” he offers. “It’s kind of like a quilt. Certain festivals might have a particular profile, but Cabrillo’s always been very open to lots of different patches, so to speak.”
Santa Cruzans can experience “Gee’s Bend” at Saturday’s concert, “Entangled,” which also features works by Zosha Di Castri, Robin De Raaff and George Tsonakis. Rounding out the night is the world premiere of Daugherty’s “Fever,” a tribute piece dedicated to Alsop, in honor of her 20th anniversary with the festival.
“Gee’s Bend” premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13, at The Civic, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $32-50. Call 426-6966 or visit cabrillomusic.org.