Graduate Program in Composition
The field of composition today is complex. The graduate program in composition at Princeton offers a course of study designed to enable each of its students to understand the field and to contribute to it in a productive, resourceful, and individual way.
The department currently has six composers. Steve Mackey, a composer and electric guitarist, has lately emphasized experimental music theater and orchestral music with and without soloists. Dan Trueman co-founded the Princeton Laptop Orchestra and performs on a range of instruments (including the Hardanger fiddle) with a number of his own ensembles. Dmitri Tymoczko is interested in the intersection of classical, rock, and jazz, as well as the compositional applications of theoretical ideas. Barbara White's music and writings concern the interaction of sound with film, dance, and theater; the cultural and intercultural contexts of musical materials; and the porous boundary between everyday experience and the "special" realm of art. Ju Ri Seo seeks to create coherent and complex musical structure by way of allusions to traditional music, sonic ambiguity with microtones and composed resonance, and simple materials that often take a surprising course. She writes for all instrumental forces, including electronics, for both professionals and amateurs. Donnacha Dennehy is a composer and founder of Dublin's Crash Ensemble. In the last few years he has become very interested in writing for voices and has started concentrating on larger scale theatrical works including his first opera, The Last Hotel (2015).
Plan of Study
Princeton offers a very open curriculum in which students are free to pursue their own individual compositional interests. At the core of the program is the student's own creative work, carried out in regular consultation with members of the composition faculty. Students are not required to attend weekly composition lessons with a specific teacher; instead they are encouraged to meet with a range of faculty members as they feel appropriate. In addition to these consultations, there are a variety of ungraded seminars, two or three of which are given each term, chosen by students and faculty on the basis of current interests and needs. There are no specific curricular requirements, but all students are expected to take a variety of seminars during the first two years. These courses have three principal aims: (1) to develop and sharpen the skills each student needs to realize his or her compositional intentions; (2) to expand each student's conception of what is musically possible; and (3) to develop a sense of the context in which the student's own work exists by studying and writing about other music. Although the number of students enrolled in the program is small (three to five are enrolled each year), the diversity of their backgrounds and interests can be remarkable. The lively exchange of ideas among composers of markedly different approaches is an essential feature of the program. Because of this, students are required to live in Princeton during their first two years of study.
By the end of the first year of study, the student is expected to complete at least one composition and a short paper that engage musical concerns central to the student's development. In response, the faculty discusses goals and strategies for the second year and establishes specific areas of emphasis for the general examination. In both years, compositions are normally written with currently available instrumental and electronic resources in view. Students are expected to help prepare performances of at least some of their work.
Performance and Performers in the Composition Program
Hearing a new composition realized is a critical part of a composer's education. The Princeton Sound Kitchen (PSK) utilizes outstanding performers, chosen not only for their technical mastery but also for their abilities as sympathetic and resourceful collaborators. The ensemble generally presents two kinds of concerts: "freelance" concerts in which the instrumentation is determined by student compositions, and which typically feature a number of different performers and ensembles; and "ensemble" concerts in which a specific group (such as So Percussion, the Brentano Quartet, or Eighth Blackbird) is invited to play a collection of student works. Between four and six concerts are presented each semester. It is expected that each graduate student working in instrumental and vocal music will have at least one composition prepared by the ensemble each year. In addition, composers have ample opportunity to consult with ensemble members prior to or in the course of actual composition. The Princeton University Orchestra makes several hours of rehearsal time available each semester to graduate orchestration class members for readings of students' orchestrations; it also performs student compositions. The selection of a student work for performance by the orchestra is determined by the conductor of the University Orchestra and the composition faculty. The New Jersey Symphony also reads and records student works, typically every other year. The Princeton Laptop Orchestra (Plork) performs cutting-edge interactive electronic music, collaborates with musicians such as Matmos and Laurie Anderson, and plays numerous concerts both at Princeton and beyond. In addition, the department sponsors "ffmup" (Free Form Mash Up), an informal concert series featuring electronic and instrumental improvisation, and other musics not conducive to the formal concert hall. Students are encouraged to present additional concerts on their own and to participate in all University and music department performing ensembles.
Funding and teaching
Graduate students receive full funding (tuition plus a stipend for living expenses) for four years. Fifth-year students are required to pursue outside funding opportunities, but funding is also available for the department. Students normally teach during some but not all of their first eight semesters; fifth-year students can only receive funding from the department if they are also teaching.
Each student is asked to demonstrate, before taking the general examination, a working knowledge of some ancillary discipline relevant to his or her concerns as a composer: a relevant foreign language, or a relevant computer language or some other discipline that the case may suggest. The language requirement is normally satisfied by examinations administered by appropriate campus departments as part of intensive reading courses. The language requirement must be passed before a student can be admitted to the general examination. Students are urged to satisfy the language requirement during the first year of graduate study. It is the student’s responsibility to confer with the DGS about the status of their language exams.
The general examination, normally taken at the end of the second year of study, is designed to establish the candidate’s readiness to undertake the Ph.D. dissertation. The examination has two parts: part one focuses on the candidate’s original second-year work (a composition and a paper), including a recording of the composition; part two explores the larger issues and contexts of this work by establishing the candidate’s command of a substantial repertoire. In a given year, for example, part two might emphasize a particular modern work, Beethoven’s late chamber music, and post-World War II European semi-improvisatory music; in another, the emphasis might be on Impressionist orchestral music and the American “experimental” tradition. In some years students are asked to design a syllabus for a graduate seminar on a particular topic, such as "Music and Politics."
The requirements for advancement to candidacy for the Ph.D. are the successful completion for all required course work (with no incompletes) the first-year paper and composition(s), and the language requirement, as well as passing at least half of the general examination.
Dissertation and Final Public Oral Examination
After the successful completion of the general examination, the student begin the process of consultation with faculty members that leads to the candidate’s formulation of a Ph.D. dissertation proposal and selection of an appropriate faculty adviser. This proposal, completed during the third year of study, should describe in detail the goals and strategies of a twofold dissertation project, involving both a substantial composition and a substantial piece of prose. During the two post-generals years of study, Ph.D. candidates remain eligible to enroll in graduate courses. The dissertation, followed by a final public oral defense, completes the requirements for the Ph.D.