Folk songs, by Woody Guthrie and others, have been adapted to the world of concert music before, but in Guthrie's case, the partnership is an uneasy one; the simplicity and the absolute populism of Guthrie's music is at odds with the individualist ethos of classical composition. So how does composer Michael Daugherty manage his Woody Guthrie song cycle? His solution is bold and perhaps ingenious: for the most part, he doesn't set Guthrie's tunes at all, although This Land Is Your Land turns up in a couple of numbers. Instead, he writes words of his own and draws on texts from elsewhere in the progressive strain of thought, dating back to Mark Twain, that animated Guthrie's production. He matches these to two types of musical setting: elaborated traditional American songs and music in his own peppy, often satirical vein. Guthrie wouldn't have minded the humor a bit. Think of it as songs that Guthrie might have liked, were he alive today, and you'll get the idea. This Land Sings also marks a new departure for Daugherty, whose motoric, Stravinsky-meets-pop style doesn't completely disappear but is greatly toned down in the few numbers where it does appear. In the work's premiere, Daugherty introduced the songs himself, talking about their closer or more distant connections to Guthrie. Here, those explanations are relegated to the booklet/online notes. One might feel that "Silver Bullet" (No. 11), where the singer takes on the persona of the oppressor rather than the underdog, doesn't quite fit, and that it might have been eliminated and the spoken introductions restored, but it all adds up to something quite unlike anything anybody else has done before. Listeners are going to have their own reactions, but this is original stuff, ideally and flexibly performed.
Michael Daugherty: This Land Sings Review
by James Manheim