The music of Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) borrows from all forms of American popular culture, from Barbie to Liberace. He is widely acclaimed as a gifted composer with a truly original voice. He is currently a Professor of composition of the University of Michigan, for whose excellent bands he has produced much original music. See more at his website.
Niagara Falls marked the beginning of Daugherty’s fruitful Michigan Band collaboration. He wrote it in 1997 on a commission from the University of Michigan Symphony Band and H. Robert Reynolds, music director. The work was premiered by that ensemble on October 4, 1997 at “Bandarama”, conducted by Reynolds at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Daugherty provides the following program note in his score:
Niagara Falls, a gateway between Canada and the United States, is a mecca for honeymooners and tourists who come to visit one of the most scenic waterfalls in the world. The Niagara River also generates electricity for towns on both sides of the border, where visitors are lured into haunted houses, motels, wax museums, candy stores, and tourist traps, as well as countless stores that sell “Niagara Falls” postcards, T-shirts, and souvenirs.
This composition is another souvenir, inspired by my many trips to Niagara Falls. It is a ten-minute musical ride over the Niagara River with an occasional stop at a haunted house or wax museum along the way. Its principal musical motive is a haunting chromatic phrase of four tones corresponding to the syllables of “Niagara Falls,” and repeated in increasingly gothic proportions. A pulsing rhythm in the timpani and lower brass creates an undercurrent of energy to give an electric charge to the second motive, introduced in musical canons by the upper brass. The saxophones and clarinets introduce another level of counterpoint, in a bluesy riff with a film noir edge.
Daugherty achieves a wide range of evocative sounds and colors throughout the piece. A dedicated organ part creates a spooky backdrop to the main melody while also suggesting 1950s kitsch. The saxophones are instructed to use only jazz mouthpieces, giving more edge and flexibility to their sound. Hand percussion like congas and bongos lends another element of kitsch to the piece. The overall effect is of something big and vaguely monstrous, with a distinctly American sound.
The University of North Texas Wind Symphony performs Niagara Falls:
This piece is mostly about the trappings surrounding the falls. However, a look at the falls themselves is instructive. For some video of the falls today, as well as some history, see below (imagine Daugherty’s music playing for a better experience!):