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 Connor Elias Way, a composer and Roger Sessions Doctoral Fellow at Princeton University. Connor received his MM in composition from the Peabody Conservatory and his BM in composition from Georgia State University.
ASN: What led you to your current doctoral program?
CEW: I started thinking about Princeton shortly after I discovered the composer Donnacha Dennehy who teaches there. Donnacha was (and still is) one of my favorite contemporary composers to listen to; between him, the funding package, and the proximity to New York City, Princeton kind of slid into my number one spot for grad school choices without me having to deliberate too much.
ASN: Can you give us an overview of the program requirements?
CEW: The doctoral fellowship is for five years and the first two are the proper coursework years. After that, you have three more years of funding. It’s possible to receive funding during a victory lap year (or two) if you teach. The teaching situation in general is a little unusual at Princeton: one of the selling points for their undergrad experience is that only graduated PhDs (mostly tenure-track professors) can teach lectures. Graduate students are left to lead “precepts” which are kind of like the lab component of a science course (it’s a separate class meeting that serves to rehash the material presented in lecture). Preceptors grade all of the assignments for the students in their precept so it’s a fairly good way to get experience teaching.
The dissertation requirements have changed slightly in recent years but still adhere to the general two-part format common (I think?) to most composition doctoral programs, which is a dissertation paper plus a large piece or portfolio of pieces.
ASN: What is life like in the “dissertation” years after coursework? How often are you around campus, how often do you meet with faculty, etc.?
CEW: After the coursework years, you’re still required to either take one graduate seminar or precept for one class. The idea behind that requirement is that people remain in the community (and within commuting distance of campus) rather than disappearing. I think it’s a good thing. There are no requirements for how often you must meet with faculty but I’ve personally kept somewhat regular meetings with my dissertation advisor and my main teacher(s).
ASN: What were some of your favorite courses in your program?
CEW: I took a seminar on just intonation a few years ago with Juri Seo that was really cool. I’m still venturing down that rabbit hole to this day. Donnacha Dennehy co-taught a course with Dmitri Tymoczko during the pandemic which explored different ways composers have used processes to make music.
ASN: Both sound very interesting. Have you incorporated ideas from these courses into your work? Did any particular pieces resonate (pun intended) strongly with you?
CEW: Just intonation is continuing to creep its way into how I conceive of writing music because it feels almost like a portal into a new dimension of sonority and chord voicing. I’m currently obsessed with this piece divisio spiralis by Catherine Lamb, written for/recorded by the JACK quartet. The piece is notated in 29-limit HEJI and the sonorities are… sublime. The tonal palette afforded by the array of intervals possible via HEJI notation feels like a new frontier for me as I’m always searching for a simple-yet-powerful sonic object and equal temperament can be limiting. As for the process seminar, it was interesting to look under the hood at how a process-based first step in the pre-compositional process, though it might feel banal, can lead to really cool music.
ASN: What has been the biggest challenge during your studies?
CEW: I think for any PhD student there’s the general challenge of pushing through the fatigue that inevitably sets in somewhere between finishing your generals (coursework exams) and defending your dissertation. For me the pandemic happened right around one of those low points and it felt really difficult to keep the momentum going.
ASN: Can you give me an elevator-pitch for your dissertation?
CEW: My dissertation is on music that utilizes self-similar counterpoint to create luminous clouds of sound. I’m looking at two 20th-century orchestra pieces (Per Nørgård’s Second Symphony and Ligeti’s Lontano) as well as two huge renaissance canons (by Ockeghem and Josquin). In my own music, I’m often looking for a way to make a relatively simple sonic object feel powerful or even overwhelming. I’ve gotten really into building these striated contrapuntal scaffoldings into my music as a way of adding density, resonance, and sometimes a “smear” to the musical texture. In this paper I analyze some pieces that I feel do something like this well.
ASN: What do you like to do outside of being a student/musician? How do you unwind?
CEW: My main non-musical activity is cycling. I used to ride my bike here and there but during the pandemic it became a rather important preserver of my sanity (and a more regular part of my life). I’m a coffee and cocktail connoisseur; I have a pretty dialed-in morning routine that involves a Chemex of coffee and, ideally, an hour or so of reading for pleasure before I get my day going. I love visual art so I often go to museums. I love to snowboard but sadly I only do that a few times a year.
ASN: Thanks for sharing your experiences, Connor!
Check out one of Connor’s recent pieces, “the relations of luminous to illuminated bodies.” This piece was premiered by Yarn/Wire on January 29th, 2023, in Princeton, NJ.