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Bachelor of Music in Composition

The Cornish Music Department offers a Bachelor of Music in Composition. As a composition student you will study privately with a composition faculty member while following a course of study that includes theory, eartraining, rhythm, and piano—courses that have been designed to provide you with the skills you need to succeed as a practicing musician. Additionally, all composition students attend a weekly composition colloquium. Other required and elective composition classes include advanced harmony, counterpoint, 20th and 21st century techniques, orchestration, arranging, music notation, songwriting, electronic music, and digital audio recording techniques.

As a composition student you may explore jazz, classical, electronic, or other musical traditions from around the world as sources of inspiration. Exploration of multiple musical traditions is very much encouraged. Students who are admitted to Cornish as vocal or instrumental performance majors are also encouraged to try their hand at composition. In fact for those students who want to pursue in-depth studies both in composition and performance, Cornish offers the Composer/Performer concentration.

As a composition student you also have the opportunity for professional resident ensembles to perform your compositions in readings, workshops and special performances. In recent years ensembles-in-residence have included the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, the Corigliano String Quartet, the Jim Knapp Orchestra, the Seattle Chamber Players, the Saint Helens String Quartet and the Javanese gamelan ensemble Gamelan Pacifica.

Jim Knapp, Jazz Composition, faculty. Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis.

Digital audio recording studio. Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis.

Composition at Cornish

A long and distinguished tradition of innovation and creative exploration has attracted composers to Cornish since John Cage invented the prepared piano and staged the first electroacoustic music concert at Cornish in the 1930s. Experimentation is in our DNA, and that tradition continues today with our composition program, ranked as one of the most innovative in the country.

Past and current Cornish music faculty have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, nominated for Grammy awards, and recipients of Guggenheim Fellowships, the Prix de Rome prize, and MacArthur “genius” grants. Current composition faculty includes Janice Giteck, Jim Knapp, Jarrad Powell, Emily Doolittle, Jovino Santos Neto, Wayne Horvitz, Tom Baker, and Robin Holcomb. Individually they offer students not only a staggering array of stylistic and aesthetic choices but the collective wisdom acquired through years of study with such seminal figures in 20th Century music as Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Darius Milhaud, Louis Andriessen, Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, Lejaren Hiller, and Hermeto Pascoal.

Composition Seminars

A unique feature of the Cornish composition curriculum is the wide variety of practicum courses available to students. These “composition seminars” provide students with the practical skills they need to learn how to write for different ensembles and get the opportunity to hear their works performed by a professional ensemble. Seminars regularly cover such topics as composing for string quartet, orchestra, jazz ensemble, percussion ensemble, and electronic media. Examples of courses offered in the past few years include:

  • Composing for Jazz Orchestra From Duke Ellington to Carla Bley, Miles Davis to Dave Holland, jazz composers have developed their own distinctive approach to composing for the jazz orchestra. This course covers the theory and practice of composing and arranging for jazz orchestra. From a survey of the ranges and characteristics of instruments found in the jazz orchestra, to exploring texture, voicing, and form evident in scores and recorded examples, to an examination of the integration of improvised solos into a composition, this course covers it all. Students are expected to complete two projects: one composition for octet and another for jazz orchestra; a professional ensemble will rehearse, record, and perform each selection.
  • Composing for Chamber Ensemble In this class students have the opportunity to compose for a mixed chamber ensemble. Intimacy and refinement have long been hallmarks of chamber music. When a small group of musicians come together to play without a conductor the music can take on the spontaneity and subtlety of conversation. Chamber music has also provided fertile territory for composers to experiment and explore their most profound compositional ideas. In response, the instrumentation of chamber groups has remained quite varied and flexible. The new works created by the seminar students are rehearsed and performed by a mixed ensemble comprised of top professional musicians.
  • Composing for String Quartet In this class students have the opportunity to study the art of composing for string quartet. From the masterworks of Beethoven to the just intonation quartets of Ben Johnston, the string quartet continues to take on new life and inspire composers across generations and musical styles. Learning to write for strings is fundamental to understanding the instrumentation of modern chamber and orchestral music. The string quartet is a natural idiom for exploring multi-part writing, traditional and extended playing techniques, tuning and intonation, dynamic range and subtlety, melodic expression, and harmonic complexity. Students have the opportunity to hear their work rehearsed and performed by a professional string quartet-in-residence. Past resident ensembles have included the Corigliano Quartet and odeonquartet.
  • Composing for Voice This class focuses on composing for solo voice and voice with accompaniment. Composing for voice involves not only the use of melody, harmony, and rhythm, but can involve the understanding of language, poetry, and how story and meaning interact with music. The composer must also understand the range of the voice, its expressive and timbral capabilities, the types of vocal production associated with different styles of music, and the relationship between voice and accompaniment. The possibilities are limitless. Students compose for voice and have the opportunity to hear their music rehearsed and performed by professional musicians.
  • Composing for Percussion The 20th century saw the emergence of percussion as a significant resource for composers. Cornish was at the center of what Henry Cowell referred to as the “drums along the Pacific” movement when John Cage mounted his first concerts of percussion music here in the late 1930s. This seminar focuses on composing for percussion. Working with the Cornish ensemble-in-residence the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, students have the opportunity to explore compositional ideas like rhythmic structures, duration controls, metric modulation, and other techniques.
  • Composing for Dance From Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps to Cage’s Bacchanale to electronica and hip-hop, the world of dance has always been receptive to the most innovative ideas in music. This seminar focuses on writing music for dance and the process of collaborating with a choreographer. Composers work with choreographers from the Cornish Dance Department to create new works. Collaborative strategies are explored, as well as the stylistic and aesthetic innovations of modern and post-modern dance. The course also addresses issues of preparation of music for rehearsal and performance.
  • Composing for Orchestra Composing for orchestra may be one of the most daunting challenges a composer faces. The composer must master not only an understanding of the inherent possibilities but also the limitations. Composers must also develop a solid foundation in form, dynamics, and orchestration. This seminar focuses on composing for the orchestra. Working with the Cornish orchestra-in-residence, the Seattle Philharmonic, students have the opportunity to compose a work for orchestra then hear their work performed in a reading by the Philharmonic.
  • Composing for Electronic Media The emergence of electronic media is arguably the most important innovation in contemporary music in the last fifty years. The advent of recording technology and signal processing techniques has changed the face of contemporary music creation and dissemination. Musique concrete, microsound, phonology, sound art—many new terms have entered the music vocabulary as a result. This seminar focuses on composing for electro-acoustic and digital media. Students create new works while learning about the history and evolving technical and aesthetic concerns of the medium.
  • Scoring for Film & Video This hands-on course is an introduction to the equipment, techniques, and artistic issues one confronts when creating musical scores for film and video. Students analyze what makes an effective score, and learn about the music breakdown of the script, temporary tracks, editing, synchronization, rough and fine cut, spotting, mixing, and more.

Additional Performance Opportunities

As a composition student you also have the opportunity to collaborate with students in Dance, Theater, Visual Art, and Design. Cornish composers often supply the music for Cornish theater or dance productions or engage in innovative interdisciplinary exploration with students from other departments.

Every composition student has the opportunity of hearing their works performed at the end of each semester on our “Scores of Sound” festival. In your junior year you will prepare a 30-minute-long recital of your own compositions. Your final year culminates in a senior recital—an evening-length capstone presentation intended to showcase your very best work.

After Cornish

Cornish composition students are routinely accepted into many of the top graduate music programs in the nation including Northwestern University, Stanford University, the Juilliard School, New England Conservatory, Boston University, Yale University, University of Michigan, Mills College, California Institute of the Arts, and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Other composition students pursue innovative work in dance, film, television, interdisciplinary theater, video games, or other fields.