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A Tapestry of Sound and Community

Portrait of William Dougherty
Photo by Lou Jones

With his work in progress Hearing Philadelphia, William Dougherty hopes to compose social relationships as well as music.

Growing up, William Dougherty, the 2023–2024 Rieman and Baketel Fellow for Music, studied piano and joined every musical ensemble he could, from jazz band and choir to wind ensemble and drum line. His interest in all musical forms led him to study music theory and composition, which he says “was absolutely eye- and ear-opening to me.” Now an independent composer, sound artist, and writer, Dougherty creates multi-genre works that celebrate music’s power to move and bring people together. We spoke to him about his approach and his current project.

Radcliffe Magazine: How would you describe your music?

William Dougherty: How I typically describe it to people who I’m meeting for the first time—let’s say at a party—is that I write experimental music. It’s an extremely broad term, but what it means for me is essentially music composed for instruments and/or electronics that is attempting to push boundaries in one way or another—questioning what music is, what it can do, and what it has been.

I’m interested in exploring new sounds, new ways of making sound, and new ways of relating to other people through sound. In general, you could say that this usually results in some noisy bits and melodic bits. There’s some beautiful consonant harmonies; there’s some dissonant harmonies. There’s some rough textures; there’s some rhythmic bits. It’s really a mixed bag.

RM: And as an independent composer and writer, what does your typical day look like?

WD: Well, there’s the ideal day, and then there’s the typical day. The typical day is basically writing e-mails upon e-mails. I’m the editor-in-chief of openwork, an interdisciplinary journal, and I’m also coediting a special issue of Contemporary Music Review, a scholarly journal. And with the project that I’m doing here at Radcliffe, there’s a lot of coordinating of different ensembles, venues, and community organizations—meetings, phone calls, and tracking people down. I also have a number of composition students who I teach over Zoom and in person, and so there’s usually a lot of teaching too.

It’s not glamorous, being a composer in the 21st century. It’s not sitting with a feathered pen by candlelight and composing nonstop for many hours. Those days where I get to just compose the whole day and don’t worry about anything else—those are dream days, and they happen infrequently.

RM: What led to your Radcliffe project?

WD: The perception of the work of a composer is usually that they get a commission, say to write a piece for a string quartet. They notate the score, give it to the string quartet to perform, and then the instrumentalists try to interpret the composer’s musical ideas through the notation. I call this the normative way of classical music making. But this perception is sort of a mythology—it’s always been more loose than this. Composers are often working very closely with a community of musicians, dialoguing and learning from them. And so the notation doesn’t always express exactly what the composer intended. Over time, the interpretation of the score changes radically as well—and this is beautiful and essential. So in recent years, some of my work has been highlighting this fact: that musical notation is not cut and dry, that the creative compositional process is and has always been collaborative and community-based, despite seeming—in musical literature and music history textbooks—like a very top-down hierarchy. So I’ve been trying to, let’s say, explode or question this way of working.

I created a sound installation that was particularly important to me and my work while in residence at the American Academy in Rome during Covid. Everything was shut down, and writing a score in my little studio for an imaginary ensemble to play didn’t make sense. This way of working seemed more and more incompatible with what I wanted my music to do. So I dreamt up a way for people to interact with my music and one another more meaningfully and in a more equitable and communal way.

I worked with a volunteer organization at a local park called the Amici di Villa Sciarra—the friends of the Villa Sciarra Park. They had a guard house that they were converting into a children’s library, and I asked them if I could make a sound installation in this space. I created In dark times will there also be singing? A computer screen invited passersby to sing a song from more joyful times. The computer would record them, and then it would play back a song of someone who had come before. Anyone could do it, and they were having a musical connection with a stranger. This was so important to me, especially in a time when so many people were isolated and suffering.

I wanted to use my music to create a more inclusive space of healing. So I created a collage of these recordings, found their harmonic centers, and wrote a string quartet of long sustaining chords that served as the sort of roux of a gumbo that holds the recordings together. I invited all those who participated to an outdoor performance of the work, and it was such a beautiful and meaningful experience.

In Dark Times Will There Also Be Singing

The participatory sound installation In dark times will there also be singing? took place in Villa Sciarra Park in 2020. This video was made in part by Monkeys VideoLab and the American Academy in Rome, through a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation and the support of the Amphion Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. Video courtesy of William Dougherty

RM: So you’re bringing that collaborative and community-based approach to your current project?

WD: Yes, and to my hometown Philadelphia. I love Philadelphia. I have long familial ties to the city and deep affection for its diverse communities and its scrappy, working-class reputation. Over the last three years, though, Philadelphians from all parts of the city have experienced historic levels of gun violence. Thousands of people are suffering from a crisis that has claimed more than 1,500 lives in this time. While gun violence impacts every Philadelphian, it disproportionately impacts low-income Philadelphians and Philadelphians of color. And it seems that everyone has just sort of accepted this as a tragic status quo.

The work that I’m doing here at Radcliffe is to explore how I can create a space for the voices of Philadelphians who have lost family and friends to gun violence to honor and memorialize their loved ones. The centerpiece of the work are conversations that I’ve had with family members who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence. These conversations are centered on what their loved one was like as a person. What were their hobbies and favorite foods? What were they like around the house? What were their dreams and aspirations? In these interviews, I wanted to create a space for family members to tap into these joyful memories, and for these remembrances to serve as a way for those who don’t have a direct connection to gun violence to feel that these could be their own siblings and parents, sons and daughters. Because the quicker that we get to that level of human connection and of empathy, the quicker this becomes completely unacceptable as a status quo.

RM: Are there other components to the work?

WD: There will also be a visual component—home video recordings of these folks, around their siblings, on holidays, and things like that. These will be curated by Shameka Sawyer, who is one of the people I interviewed for this project. Her brother Allen Taylor was killed in 2020. Shameka is a filmmaker who started the 5 Shorts Project—a program to teach young filmmakers of color in Philadelphia to edit and to shoot their own films. Shameka’s students will help curate the video recordings featured in the composition.

The piece will also bring together ensembles from all different skill levels and backgrounds, from all different zip codes in the city, to create music centered on these remembrances. It will feature the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts jazz band; three different choirs: a church choir, a choir of amateur singers, a university student choir; a professional contemporary saxophone quartet; and, we hope, a drum line. They will perform musical interludes or intermezzi—some newly composed and some drawing from each ensemble's repertoire—to tie it all together.

RM: Integrating all these different components sounds challenging. How do you manage such a thing?

WD: Well, it goes back to the question of what a typical day looks like for me. It’s a lot of coordinating with different ensemble directors and, just on a practical and human level, getting everybody on board and managing expectations. On the creative level—honestly, I’m not even there yet. But I’m going to trust in the artistic leadership of each of these ensembles, who are amazing artists.

I also plan to meet with the ensembles myself, to workshop with them and share the ideas I’m working on, so that it’s really a two-way dialogue during the creative process. I’m calling the project Hearing Philadelphia because it is so much about listening. It’s about what you know, where you’re coming from, and how I can meet you where you are to create something more than just me—a synthesis of all our skills, backgrounds, and experiences.

I’m weaving a tapestry, but I’m not creating the thread. The thread is already there.

In his compositions, William Dougherty combines instruments and/or electronics to push boundaries. Photo by Lou Jones

RM: It sounds like a lot for one weaver to accomplish. 

WD: Well, my Radcliffe Research Partners, Skyy Brooks ’26 and Braden Ellis ’25, have been amazing thought partners. They are both musicians from Philadelphia, and have connections with a lot of different communities, ensembles, and organizations. They’ve been just amazing in brainstorming and thinking through not only creative questions but also communal questions, questions of agency and authorship, and how we can best put together this work in a way that would be meaningful across different backgrounds and communities. And I hope that they’ll be in the performance too—Braden plays the upright bass, and Skyy sings.

They’re another part of the cornucopia of collaborators who are a part of this project, and I’m so just excited to have them helping. I couldn’t dream of a better fit for partners.

RM: Any other challenges to this work?

WD: The biggest hurdle now—and Skyy and Braden have been helping me with this—is getting the word out about this project so that we can find support for production costs: renting a venue, professional ensemble fees, and things like this. We want to do it well, at an extremely high level, and to make sure that it’s documented well. So we have to apply for grants to support all these things. We’re trying to do something that I think would have a huge impact in Philadelphia. Getting support for that should be easy, but it’s not.

RM: And what do you hope comes out of this collaboration?

WD: The principal thing I want is to create a space that is healing and meaningful for the families who have participated. I also want the concerts to raise awareness to those we’ve lost and to those who are still healing from this trauma. And, in terms of all these ensembles being in that space, I want to create a joyful moment of community music making. These ensembles are coming together from all different styles and genres and backgrounds, and they’ll be working together, making music together, and listening to and learning from one another. That’s also a huge goal of mine. I think it will be beautiful. I think it will cathartic and joyful.

In all honesty, I’m actually less concerned with how the final piece will sound and more concerned with the social relationships that are built through the work and the meaning that is drawn by the connections between me and the participating families, the families and the musicians, and the musicians and each other. This piece is as much composing sound as it is composing social and communal relationships.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ivelisse Estrada is the editor of Radcliffe Magazine.

Return to the fall 2023 Radcliffe Magazine page.

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