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William Dougherty: Interview

WilliamDoughertyWilliam Dougherty is one of the winners of the 2015 Commissioning Project, and we will be premiering his piece, the new normal, at our concert this Friday, Feb 24 at the Universalist Unitarian Chapel. Here, guitarist and Executive Director Giacomo Fiore interviewed William about his new piece, his background, and upcoming projects. Learn more about William’s music at his website.

GF: the new normal, the piece you’ve written for the Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project, uses a variety of sound sources for the fixed media part. Can you tell us about how you went about selecting them, and what they have in common?

WD: In the new normal I used collage as a method, connecting short samples of six different musical passages.Each of the two movements features three external sound samples as its source material. Some of the samples are heard in their original forms in the fixed tape part while others are filtered, stretched, and/or orchestrated and performed by the instrumentalists. The first movement contains samples of a recording by 20th century ethnomusicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax of Black prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in 1947 chopping wood and singing Old Alabama. The harmonic backdrop for the first movement comes from Ahi Troppo, ahi troppo e duro, an aria from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1608 Ballo delle ingrate (Ballet of the Ungrateful). In the aria, a women damned to Hades because of her lack of love, laments her return to the underworld after having felt for one last time the sun and fresh air of Earth. An orchestrated sample of Japanese noise artist Merzbow’s 1996 album Pulse Demon also features prominently in the first movement. The second movement similarly uses an ancient song for its harmonic backdrop. In this case it is a small section of Henry Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Marya work written and premiered at the funeral of Queen Mary II of England in 1695. The harmonic material comes from a passage titled In the midst of life we are in death. The non-voiced pops, clicks, static, and beeps of police radio recordings from recent mass shootings and murders of unarmed Blacks by police officers are layered to create dense heterophonic textures. And a recording of Simon Loeffler’s 2012 work b for 3 musicians, 3 neonlights, effectpedals and a loose jack cable also features prominently in the second movement.


In short, the new normal is my response to the violent and worrying events of the summer of 2016 (when the piece was written)—a particularly dark time in the world. I chose these external sound sources intuitively for the web of layered meaning they might conjure in the mind of listener. But my intent is not to make identifying the sound sources the main focus of the work. I believe the layers of intertextuality that listeners will build in their minds regardless of whether or not the sound sources are specifically identified, will far exceed those of my own imagination. So, on a more abstract, less referential level, I also chose these specific sounds for their evocative, purely sonic properties.

GF: the new normal employs tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament. What’s your approach to intonation?

WD: I have a deep interest in non-tempered tuning systems, believing that there exists certain expressive possibilities in pitch intervals and harmonies outside of the realm of 12-tone equal temperament—especially in those derived from the harmonic series. I choose not to limit the expressive capability of my music, so I look beyond the confines of 12-tone equal temperament, especially when excellent new music practitioners (like the players of Wild Rumpus) are easily able to execute specific microtonal deviations from the tempered scale.

GF: The way I look at it, you have both just or quasi-just tunings going on in the new normal (in the guitar part), as well as other microtonal divisions of the octave in the strings, and fixed pitched instruments that cannot accommodate either. How do you bring these different tuning “worlds” together, from a compositional standpoint? 
WD: I like when two or more different tuning systems collide. I find it less exciting as a compositional exercise to strive for a “perfect” tuning—one that attempts to preserves the simple whole number ratios between intervals of the harmonic series, for example. After all, each tuning system has its flaws, its upsides and downsides. As you say, certain microtonal divisions are not even possible on certain instruments! So rather than restrict myself to one tuning system, I enjoy bringing out the clash of two or more unreconcilable ones. I find that the interaction between these systems and their respective pitch collections can often bring out the most compelling sonorities.

GF: What was your path to becoming a composer?

WD: I grew up playing the piano, starting lessons at the age of five. While I hated practicing, I loved to improvise. In addition to the hours I spent sitting at the piano creating long, drawn out improvisations, I also began making quite detailed “compositions” on my father’s fancy Casio keyboard. (It had the possibility of recording eight individual tracks, which was pretty amazing for me at the time). I picked up percussion in high school, playing in the marching band, drum set in the jazz band, and also singing in the choir. As any good stereotypical high schooler, I also self-taught myself the electric guitar and started playing in a band, recording songs with friends in my parent’s basement. Meanwhile, I began taking a class in music theory and composition led by my enthusiastic high school band director. This was the first time I discovered the underlying structure behind the music which had all along been such an important part of my life. The idea that building sounds was a craft that one could study and never exhaust was deeply inspiring to me. And the quasi-mystical “otherness” of music also appealed to me. I still find it amazing that after being able to articulate all the structural elements of a piece of music, one by one, that there is still an undefinable “other” that makes certain moments in music so moving to me. After a mentorship at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and many months putting together an ambitious portfolio of compositions, I decided to enroll at Temple University as a music composition major.

GF: Tell us about your experience participating in the Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project. What were some of the most beneficial elements in the process? 
WD: The Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project has been a great experience so far. Players have been really responsive and helpful when I’ve reached out for advice or guidance on technical and artistic questions. Despite some of my atypical request (like asking the percussionists if they’d be willing to play electric guitar), everyone I’ve been in touch with has been very receptive and enthusiastic, which is often not the case. Having an openness for dialogue is a really important part of my compositional process, especially early in the process, and so I appreciate the players of Wild Rumpus keeping an open mind and taking the time to help bring to life my artistic vision.

GF: What other projects have you got cooking right now?

WD: I’m currently working on a piece for solo zither and sine tones for the Austrian zither player, Martin Mallaun, to be premiered at the 4020 Festival in Linz in May. The piece uses small speakers placed inside the body of the zither to create an autonomous layer of resonance that emanates from the traditional alpine instrument. The work is inspired by Austrian illustrator, printmaker, and  author Alfred Kubin’s dystopian novel The Other Side (Die andere Seite).


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