Being composed: The art of learning to write music

Music Composition Stephanie Leotsakos

At Princeton, composition is taught at the undergraduate and graduate level. Students have the opportunity to work with faculty — who themselves are composers producing and performing their own work; take a broad array of courses ranging from music theory to early and contemporary music; and perform and share original work with classmates and live audiences. Senior Stephanie Leotsakos (above) rehearses her senior thesis — an original chamber opera — on the harmonium.

When you go to a concert or plug in your earbuds at the gym, do you ever wonder how all those hundreds or thousands of individual notes made the journey from the composer's imagination to paper? What does composing music even look like? You might picture Mozart scribbling furiously with a quill pen in the film "Amadeus" — and get stuck right there.

At Princeton, where composition is taught at the undergraduate and graduate level, the tool of choice is likely to be a laptop. The seeds of inspiration grow out of a solid grounding in technique, a whole lot of listening, and plenty of opportunities to experiment with, perform and share original work with classmates and live audiences.

Below, four members of the Department of Music describe their creative process, the surprising upside of learning composition at a liberal arts university versus a conservatory, and the challenges and rewards of developing and performing new work. You can also view video clips of a work-in-progress by senior Stephanie Leotsakos and new works by Assistant Professor of Music Donnacha Dennehy and graduate student Yuri Boguinia.

You can click on any of the four portraits below to begin.

The undergraduate

Senior Stephanie Leotsakos of Sparta, New Jersey, is a music major with a concentration in composition and is earning certificates in vocal performance and teacher preparation. She has taken a range of courses in music theory, composition, conducting, contemporary music, species counterpoint/tonal syntax, orchestral music, early Christian music, as well as performance-based courses including "Princeton Atelier: Making Comic Opera." A soprano, she has performed with the music department's opera theater and is assistant student conductor of the Princeton Glee Club and Chamber Choir and a member of the student-run Princeton Opera Company. A violinist, she was also a member of the Princeton University Orchestra for two years and was president of the Princeton Undergraduate Composers Collective. As president of the Orange Pan-Hellenic Association, she also performs in public concerts with students in this group.

Music Composition Stephanie Leotsakos

Stephanie Leotsakos, a music major with a concentration in composition, rehearses her senior thesis — an original chamber opera that spans six time periods from the year 550 to the present — on the harmonium, one of several period instruments used in the work. (Photo by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

"For the first time, in my sophomore year, I chose several classes that had a composing or orchestrating element. After this first big step, my brain just lurched with new concepts and ideas, and all of a sudden I was writing them down. Before I knew it, I was focusing on composition.

"The diversity of the music program has been one of the highlights of Princeton for me. The amount of exposure and conversation between such an extensive range of subjects within the field alone has been really stimulating and enlightening for me as an artist and creator. Such diversity is of course in the spirit of the liberal arts education, but four years ago I could never have imagined how such an education would change me. I have especially appreciated the approachability of professors in all the departments with whom I have worked — who themselves are incredibly knowledgeable academics as well as active professionals in their respective fields. Their enthusiasm has definitely impacted my creative mind as well.

"My career goal is to become a professional opera singer, so I'm planning to pursue my master's in vocal performance next. I would love to continue composing and conducting as well.

"My senior thesis is a chamber opera — about 30-40 minutes long — titled 'OMG.' The idea stemmed from something my dad once told me: 'A person doesn't truly grow up until they lose their parents.' This stuck with me and cultivated thoughts of other important themes in life and history related to that, ones which even resonated with what I believe to be the underlying essence of Christianity itself. This comment then bred a much deeper theme: that 'Life requires faith in the necessity of death.' 

"During the summer after my freshman year, at a Hellenic Studies seminar in a remote monastery in Greece — the Monastery of St. John — I began to inquire about my own Greek Orthodox Christian faith as well as to ask some very reflective, even existential questions. I believe that it was here where the very beginings of what would become my thesis began. Thus, to represent the cross-temporal, cross-cultural and trans-historical nature of the themes I explore, the opera traverses six different time periods, beginning in the year 550 and ending in the modern day. Donnacha Dennehy, assistant professor of music, is my adviser and I have received generous guidance from many other faculty members as well.

"'OMG' will be performed at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 23 and 24, in Taplin Auditorium [in Fine Hall]. It is intended to be accessible to a wide audience. I encourage everyone to come! Additionally, my senior vocal recital will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 15, also in Taplin Auditorium."

"This excerpt — the first scene in the opera — was filmed at my first rehearsal, so it is very much still a work-in-progress. A young woman, a rape victim, sings an ode, beginning with a lullaby, to the child growing within her. She reflects on the child as an eternal memory — choosing to embrace motherhood as this child is tied to her essence and her heart. She prays to God for strength and guidance. This particular scene is set in the year 550, Ravenna, Italy." — Stephanie Leotsakos, Class of 2016 (Video by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

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The faculty member

Donnacha Dennehy, a native of Ireland, came to Princeton as a visiting scholar in 2012 and joined the faculty in fall 2014. He has composed extensively for orchestra, small ensembles, solo instruments and electroacoustic instruments. His latest opera, "The Last Hotel," written with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2015, was performed at the Royal Opera House in London in October, and had its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse in New York in January this year.

Music Composition Donnacha Dennehy with Leila Adu

Donnacha Dennehy, left, an assistant professor of music whose latest opera, "The Last Hotel," had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2015, listens to a work-in-progress by doctoral fellow Leila Adu, who has performed her original piano songs and improvisations at festivals and venues around the world and on the BBC World Service and "Late Night with David Letterman." (Photo by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

"Trying to describe how to teach composition is one of the trickiest questions in the world because you're talking about something that's essentially creative — and how do you teach creativity?

"At the undergraduate level, basic music theory courses teach students the nuts and bolts of composition: notation, harmony, pitch and rhythm, those kinds of parameters. They also learn music history. Undergraduates know more music of the past and one thing that I think is really important is to immerse them in music of the moment or the last period so that they feel it is a living, breathing thing in which they are a participant. 

"In the course I teach called 'Advanced Workshop in Composition: Topics in 21st-century Tonality' I have the students write small compositions each week; I give them tiny little problems like a bunch of notes with no rhythms, then rhythms with no notes. Everyone shares their compositions. There are no right answers. It's more how their imagination takes it on. The variety of responses is amazing — and with variety of responses they teach each other. Then I bring in examples of music written in the last 20 years or so and it builds up a community of composers together. I think that that's a really good way of doing it when the composer is younger.

"At Princeton, you have this kind of brilliance in the undergraduate body who are doing liberal arts. They're going between different subjects, so often you get a very brilliant person who may not have the same sort of detailed information that someone who's gone through [a music] conservatory has. It can be amazing to see what influences they bring from other areas into music, and that can be a very creative thing.

"I had an undergraduate student majoring in computer science who wrote an algorithmic program that could do certain things in the composition for him, could filter certain choices. That to me was interesting and fresh. You also get a lot of students who are very linguistically talented who are doing work in creative writing. I notice a lot of cross-fertilization with people working with words here and wanting to work in musical theater — composing songs with music and strange new musicals and mini operas. There's a lot of cross-fertilization between the creative arts at Princeton; that's particularly strong.

"We have a great series for the graduate composition students called Princeton Sound Kitchen, in which professional performers come in from New York and elsewhere and work with the students for a week and at the end of the week there is a public concert. Graduate composers, particularly in their early years, are working towards these kind of performances. There are also performances of undergraduate work, and that's also important, particularly when you're not in a conservatory environment.

"I have found my time at Princeton to be incredibly productive so far as a composer. Teaching doesn't interfere negatively with my work as a composer. If anything, it can stimulate ideas, because the graduate students here are so talented and we have a very wide spread of styles and approaches. There is a kind of freedom and that freedom affects your own work. I think the creative artist is valued at Princeton, and that feels really good. You feel that you must be doing your work as well and that's great, because I'm a very driven composer."

"'The Last Hotel' is a dark story with dark comedy. A woman wants to arrange her own suicide at a hotel where lots of people have gone [for the same reason], so that's why it's called 'The Last Hotel.' A couple have traveled from England to assist her. This becomes apparent during this excerpt, which opens towards the end of the wife's first major aria. The wife is definitely the voice of conscience in her marriage. The husband seems more mercenary, interested in using the money involved in the transaction to expand his house. The excerpt ends just as the woman is about to rehearse her suicide with the husband-and-wife team. — Donnacha Dennehy, assistant professor of music (Video courtesy of Donnacha Dennehy)

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The graduate student

Yuri Boguinia, a Russian-American composer and a Ph.D. candidate in composition, earned his bachelor's degree at the Juilliard School. His music has been programmed at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Aspen Music Festival and Tanglewood Music Festival, among others. He and his brother Vladislav Boguinia direct the New York-based ÆON Music Ensemble, which performed with the Kronos Quartet the "Music for a Sustainable Planet" concert at the 2015 International Conference on Sustainable Development as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Committee.

Music Composition Yuri Boguinia at piano

Yuri Boguinia, a Ph.D. candidate in composition, takes notes on one of his scores. (Photo by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

"I chose Princeton after Juilliard because I felt a great sense of freedom here. Composers are able to write anything they want and always have the guidance and support of the faculty and other students. The intimate size of the department was very important to me. The composition program really feels like a family.

"The department invites some of the best ensembles in the world to come and work with the composers here. This year, for example, I'm writing a quartet for the Jack Quartet — which The Boston Globe called 'superheroes of the new music world' — I'm so excited! Many of the collaborations that start here really blossom and go outside of the University to places like New York City. I think that musicians really like working with Princeton composers because everyone here writes in very different styles and on such a very high level.

"One of the challenges I faced here was rethinking some of my compositional techniques, particularly my approach to harmony, and [Professor of Music] Dmitri Tymoczko has really helped broaden my understanding of harmony and inspired me to think more creatively and push myself. 

"After I leave Princeton, I would like to teach composition and music theory at a university, continue composing and working with ensembles around the world, and continue my research in composition and music theory."

"This piece is called 'New York Variations.' It was composed and performed at the [New York-based] Bang on a Can Music Festival [co-founded by Princeton graduate student and 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe] in summer 2015. I wanted to capture the vibrant spirit of New York City. I imagined walking down a busy street and hearing the rhythms of the city intertwine. Somehow the chaos of New York has always felt very structured to me; perhaps it is the architecture of the skyscrapers or the grid-like layout of Manhattan. Also I feel that my perception of time changes when I am in New York, maybe because everything is moving so fast it always seems to me that time is moving faster. The passing of time and the feeling of nostalgia that accompanies it was on my mind while I was writing the piece.” — Yuri Boguinia (Video by Vladislav Boguinia)

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The department chair

Wendy Heller, professor of music and director of the Program in Italian Studies, is recognized as one of the leading scholars in the field of Baroque music. Having trained as a singer at New England Conservatory before receiving her Ph.D. in musicology from Brandeis University, Heller maintains a strong interest in performance. 

Music Composition Wendy Heller

Wendy Heller, professor of music and director of the Program in Italian Studies, is chair of the music department and is recognized as one of the leading scholars in the field of Baroque music. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Heller, Department of Music)

"The legacy of Princeton's composition program is extraordinary; it is all but impossible to tell the history of music in the United States in the second half of the 20th century without considering such Princeton luminaries as Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, Edward T. Cone, Peter Westergaard and Paul Lansky.

"Technological innovation has been a trademark of the program. With the establishment of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the late 1950s, Princeton became a major center for computer-assisted composition, and this tradition was carried on with Lansky's world-renowned electro-acoustic program. Over the years it's been exciting to watch as my colleagues find innovative ways to combine music and technology, and introduce students to new ways of making music, as with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), founded by Dan Trueman. Video, lighting and multimedia of all kinds is increasingly an essential part of many works heard and seen today.

"But perhaps what's more fascinating about the work of my composer colleagues is the way in which they move so fluidly between old and new technologies, often bringing their own performing skills to the fore. Dan Trueman's compositions are influenced by his fiddle playing; Steve Mackey is a virtuoso on the electronic guitar; Juri Seo is a pianist; Barbara White, a clarinetist, also plays and composes for the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. Our composers collaborate with a host of performings groups, such as Sō Percussion, the Edward T. Cone Performers-in-Residence at Princeton, or the vocal group Gallicantus, directed by Gabriel Crouch, which this fall performed new works by Trueman, Tymoczko and graduate student composers as part of the Princeton University Concerts series.

"Another trademark of the program is the guest composers who come to teach. In the fall semester we had Dutch composer Louis Andriessen here, one of the most respected and revered composers of our time. I was struck by listening to him speak [to our students] with such wisdom about the world beyond music — how important it is for young composers to read widely, immerse themselves in the visual arts and approach their craft with a deep knowledge of the context in which they are composing.

"What is so appealing at Princeton is the combination of a relatively flexible program from an academic perspective with lots of support for students' creative work, not to mention a terrific faculty, who are all busy producing marvelously brilliant and varied works all over the world.  

"The number of awards won by so many of our illustrious graduate alumni is impressive by any standard, and we even have two recent Pulitzer Prize winners, Caroline Shaw (who won while still a graduate student in 2013) and Julia Wolfe (2015), who came back to speak this fall in our Composition Colloquium Series. And there's the 2012 Grammy won by Steve Mackey.

"As a music historian, it's a privilege to teach at a place where so much of our music history is happening all around."