In this series, I interview musicians currently pursuing doctoral degrees. I hope their stories will give readers insights into the joys and challenges of pursuing this degree.
I recently interviewed Brittany J. Green, a composer and educator currently pursuing a PhD in composition at Duke University. Brittany previously earned an MM in composition from East Carolina University and a BM in music education from the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. Among her accolades are the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Charles Ives Scholarship (2022), ASCAP Foundation’s Morton Gould Award (2021), and New Music USA’s Creator Development Grant (2021).
ASN: Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. To start, can you tell me what led you to your current doctoral program?
BG: When considering a doctoral program I looked for programs that had a composer on faculty I wanted to be mentored by as well as programs that were fully-funded. If possible, I also looked for locations that I’d like to be in either because I already had a support system or network there or because they were places I’d like to live and build a career. This narrowed my choices down to about 5 or 6 programs. I applied to 4 of these programs and selected the one with the best offer (funding, opportunities, and facilities access).
Perks that made my current institution stand out were the diverse composition styles of the composition faculty, being fully-funded a livable wage in the area of the institution, opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations due to the other programs offered in the university, the ability to take classes outside the composition track and music department, and the overall encouragement and support of interdisciplinary work at the institution, access to recording sessions of my work by professional ensembles, and opportunities to apply for funding for projects and conference/festival attendance.
ASN: Can you give us an overview of the program? For example, how many years of coursework, expected scope of the dissertation, and GA/TA duties.
BG: Our program is a 5-year program, though students can take up to 7 years to complete. The first 5 years are fully-funded, but you can apply for funding for year 6. This funding includes tuition and all students fees, a 12-month stipend, and health and dental insurance. The program is a masters en-route program, so the first 2.5 years are spent in coursework, but you can transfer in some credits if you already have a master’s degree. The remaining 2.5 years are spent on the dissertation.
During the course of the program you have 4 required exams before defending your dissertation:
- The first is a language exam that is taken at the beginning of your first semester. This is a university-wide requirement. Composers are allowed to select a computer language for their language exam if it is relevant to their music.
- The second is a diagnostic exam taken at the end of the first semester. This exam tests piano proficiency, music history, theory, and aural skills.
- The third exam, taken at the beginning of the fourth semester, is the qualifying exam. For this exam, you are tested on several lists of composers. The first list is an expansive list that covers music history from early music through the 20th century. The second list is a list of 3 composers of interest and the final list is a list of several works by one composer of choice. This exam consists of a written portion which consists of essays and score identification, a presentation on the principal composer from the third list, an oral exam covering all composers on all three lists, and a composition portfolio of works composed while in the program.
- The fourth exam is the preliminary exam. For this exam, you submit a proposal for the dissertation and a seminar proposal/syllabus. There is a written exam based on the proposal which consists of a composition and written prompt and an oral exam. You also submit an updated composition portfolio.
The dissertation consists of an article length paper and a “large-scale” composition. Large-scale can mean a large ensemble, a long chamber piece, an album, electronic work with demanding tech needs – whatever is relevant to your work.
You do not TA the first year of the program, but typically TA in years 2-5, though there are some fellowships from the Graduate school that allow you to take a year off from a TA position. TA positions range from instructor of record positions for the new music ensemble, theory, and aural skills courses, to assisting with a wide range of undergraduate courses from ethnomusicology, musicology, and composition. There are also some non-teaching TA positions like assisting with special projects faculty are conducting. Each semester students submit their TA preferences and TAships are chosen based on these preferences, seniority, and departmental needs.
ASN: What were some of your favorite courses in your program?
BG: Some of my favorite courses have been Sound Studies, Track and Field (a seminar about composition with field recordings), and Music and Intersectionality.
ASN: Those all sound really interesting! Did you have any big takeaways, insights, or artistic breakthroughs from those classes?
BG: My favorite thing about Sound Studies and Music and Intersectionality is that they taught me different ways to think about music, sound, the way we engage with it, and what we can learn about ourselves and society through the ways in which we make and listen to sound and music. As a scholar, lessons learned in those seminars have been foundational to my research. As a composer, it has also pushed me to stretch myself artistically and think deeper about what I have to say as an artist and interesting ways I can say it through my compositions. Track and Field introduced me to a lot of new electronic works that use field recordings and pushed me to expand the way I engage field recordings in pieces. Two of my favorite pieces that I’ve composed have directly come from what I learned in Music and Intersectionality and Track and Field.
ASN: What has been the biggest challenge during your studies?
BG: I think my biggest challenge has been balancing everything. Between coursework, TAship, composition projects, and keeping time and space for family and friends, it can be overwhelming. I think the hardest thing about getting a PhD is learning how and where to trim time in order to make time for everything. It is a constant negotiation.
ASN: Can you give me an elevator-pitch for your dissertation?
BG: My dissertation will explore concepts of power, censorship, coercion, and invisible systems of control. Performers will be provided a series of gestures, sounds, and prompts to perform and/or respond to via improvisation. The ordering and grouping of pre- composed gestures and sounds will be determined by a program built in Max/MSP. Each performer will be instructed to perform and respond as prompted by the program, however, performers will have the option to ignore the program’s performance instructions by discreetly turning it off and simply responding to what they hear from the ensemble. Ensemble members will not know whether or not other performers are following the program’s instructions or improvising on their own. Performers may even find that the material they choose to improvise sounds the same or similar to the material dictated by the program, blurring the lines between free will, coercion, and obedience.
ASN: What do you like to do outside of being a student/musician? How do you unwind?
BG: I love to check out local spots (restaurants, bars, arcade and entertainment), travel, have bonfires with friends, and play video games.
ASN: Thanks for sharing your experiences, Brittany!
Brittany’s new piece shift. unravel. BREAK was recently premiered in the Copland House’s CULTIVATED SPACES series. Check out the piece on YouTube below. (Music starts at 3:43 after a message from Copland House Artistic Director Michael Boriskin and the composer.