My Composer Interview Project

At the recent Teaching Music History conference, I presented a research project that my Music History III (1900-present) students complete every year. In this post I will describe the project and speak briefly to my objectives. I have had great results, and I encourage anyone who is interested to give it a try.

In the first week of class, I pair students with professional composers whom I have recruited to participate in the project. Each composer has previously submitted a piece of music and agreed to be interviewed by phone or Skype. Here is the assignment—complete with my deadlines for the coming semester—that I distribute and review on the first day of class:

 Music History III Research Project

  1. Listen to the pieces of music linked at the end of this document. Choose three that you think are especially interesting and/or enjoyable. Submit your choices, along with a 100-word reflection for each choice in which you explain what you find attractive about it. Due August 28.
  2. Based on your selections, I will assign you a piece of music and give you the contact information for the composer.
  3. Prepare for your composer interview.
    • Read his website thoroughly. Google her. See if you can find any additional information about the piece.
    • Prepare a list of questions (although also be prepared to move beyond it). What do you want to know about this person’s biography? Her interest in composition? His reasons for composing this piece? Her ideas about this piece? We will also brainstorm questions in class. Due before your interview, October 2 at the latest.
    • Give some careful thought to how you are going to document this interview. (Don’t forget to get permission from the subject.) I recommend putting your phone on speaker and recording on your computer, but be sure to test it out first.
  1. Complete the interview via phone or Skype.
  2. Reflect on your composer interview. What did your composer tell you? What did she NOT tell you? Do you feel like he had any sort of agenda? Was she downplaying any issues, or overemphasizing others? Is there more to know about the piece? Was he trying to push a limited interpretation? Etc. Write a 300-word reflection. Due October 9.
  3. Outline your paper. You are free to structure the paper however you please, but keep the following things in mind:
    • You must craft a thesis and state it in your outline.
    • You must include details about your composer, but please restrict yourself to information that enhances our understanding of the piece.
    • You must discuss the context in which the piece was conceived, composed, and premiered.
    • You must place your composer and the piece in the context of recent compositional trends and the New Music scene. What does this case study tell us about art music composition today?
    • When you discuss the music, have a clear idea about what points you want to make about it. Refer back to your reflection from Step 1. Why is the piece interesting? Due October 16.
  1. Draft your paper. This is a conference-style paper that you will read aloud before an audience. It should be about 3000 words. Remember, the introduction is really important. You need to do three things: capture your audience’s attention, tell them what you’re going to do, and explain why they should care. End with your thesis statement. Due October 30.
  2. Revise your paper based on feedback. Due November 13.
  3. Create a PowerPoint or Prezi to go with your paper. Include images. Limit the text you display on screen—outline what you have to say clearly and simply. Decide which excerpts from the piece you want your audience to see or hear, and then embed video and/or sound clips into the presentation. Due November 20.
  4. Rehearse your 20-minute presentation for our afternoon symposium. You will read your paper and display your slides, complete with audio or video clips. The symposium is Saturday, December 3, 2-5 pm.

I explain to my students at the outset that this is a substantial and ongoing assignment that will require their attention throughout the semester. The progressive deadlines—most of which are accompanied by feedback, either by email or in person—are meant to keep them on track and ensure a polished final product. This is the first year that the presentations will be public, but I have been very happy with the quality of work produced in the past and I expect to assemble an appreciative audience. I also encourage students to submit their papers to undergraduate research conferences both on and off campus, and I hope that the symposium experience will increase their confidence. In addition to the presentations, I plan to arrange for performances of some of the pieces discussed.

My top objective for this project is to promote awareness of living composers and their work. At the very least, I want my students to know that there is a diverse and vibrant New Music scene, and that the history of art music does not end with the survey sequence. It is my hope, however, that my students will make personal connections with the assigned composers and develop a lasting interest in New Music. I am in the middle of completing a survey-based study to assess the project’s success in achieving these ends, and I intend to publish my findings next year.

This project was first inspired by my concerns about our textbook, the Oxford History of Western Music: College Edition. I chose this text, and I’m terribly fond of it. I worry, however, that it leaves my students with the impression that contemporary composition is in a state of hopeless disarray. We start the semester by reading the last chapter, which offers a whirlwind tour of recent compositional trends. While the textbook offers necessary context for the research project, it inevitably endorses a problematic view of recent history. The (mostly old) composers are included because each has contributed something to the development of art music, with the implication that we must value progress above all else. At the same time, the inclusion of recent works in the Anthology promotes a canonic view of contemporary composition, whereas I see canon disruption as being a great strength of the New Music scene.

My research project serves as an antidote to the text. The pieces represent a wide range of styles and ideologies, while the composers offer a variety of perspectives on their craft. One of the pieces on my list was composed as an exercise by a woman who is primarily a musicologist; another was premiered by the New York Philharmonic after its author won a prestigious competition; and another was commissioned by a college choir from a composer with an academic post. Some of the works have political or personal content; some are intended to be weighty and groundbreaking; and some are simply beautiful. My roster of composers also introduces diversity into a curriculum dominated by White men. Anyone who implements a project like this one has the opportunity to seek out underrepresented voices and promote a broader concept of the “composer” in Western art music.

If you are interested in implementing this project, you are welcome to use all or part of the assignment included above. I continue to refine the assignment as I seek to inspire deeper engagement and better presentations. I designed this project for use with small classes in an undergraduate-only program, but it could be adjusted to suit a variety of circumstances. Please let me know how it goes!


I was already a fan of this assignment when you presented it at TMHC, but now I’m a huuuuuge fan and plan to try this myself. I’m glad that you’re organizing a symposium where the students will present their work and that you encourage students to submit to undergrad conferences, since this most definitely counts as “original research” worthy of presentation to other musicians and scholars. My only criticism is that I think you’ve misdiagnosed your top objective: while the project undoubtedly increases students’ awareness of living composers and contemporary music, I wonder whether your students aren’t also developing a critical perspective on the writing of history. Can we make pronouncements about the present that will hold up in the future? Will the students’ interviews and papers become the indispensable primary sources of the future? When is it appropriate to perpetuate discourses often used to describe the music of the past (innovation, progress, importance) and when are we compelled to disrupt those discourses through our own historical writing? All of these questions get at the constructed nature of history, and I suspect that your students apply their knowledge of historical writing about the music of the past to their own writings about the music of the present. In short: I think the major objective of this project is to struggle with the challenges of writing history, and emerge victorious.

You spelled “yuge” wrong.

I’m constantly revising and expanding my goals for this project. The more I reflect on it, the more possibilities emerge. I designed it as part of a High Impact Practices workshop, with the simple goal of introducing original research into the undergraduate curriculum. I came up with this particular project for some of the reasons described above; others occurred to me later in the process. Thank you very much for your reflections. I totally agree, and I will think about how I can foreground the “writing history” aspect of the project. It’s always been on my mind, but I don’t think I have explicitly communicated those thoughts with my students. I hope that we can start this semester with a good class discussion about the last chapter of Taruskin & Gibbs, the nature of historical narrative, and the challenges of writing recent history. I’ll let you know how it goes.