A Doctorate in Music: Interview with Kory Reeder

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. Please note that these are personal experiences. Degree requirements may change and individual experiences may vary.

Kory Reeder, Composer

I recently interviewed Kory Reeder, a composer, performer, and PhD candidate at the University of North Texas. Originally from Nebraska, Kory holds a BM from the University of Nebraska-Kearny and an MM from Bowling Green State University.

ASN: What led you to your current doctoral program?

KR: I found a ton of this info online while researching programs, but I’ll give some highlights that ended up being the biggest deal for me and what made UNT my no. 1 choice when looking for programs.

I’m currently at the University of North Texas finishing up my PhD. Because this was my terminal degree, I did a lot of research for schools that would provide an opportunity to do what I wanted to do and really offer a space, time, and resources to just constantly make a whole bunch of stuff.

There are a lot of people doing a lot of really amazing things here, and there is a whole bunch to do. UNT is the largest public university music program in the country. If memory/rumor serves me correctly, I believe there are around 1500 or 1600 music majors or at least enrolled folks in the College of Music. I believe the composition program within that enrolls approximately 80 people either as majors, grad students, or related-field folks (we have our weekly departmental in the Merrill Ellis Intermedia Theater (MEIT) and it’s always full).

Through the Center for Experimental Music & Intermedia (CEMI), the composition program has a ton of really great resources from gear to studios, and there is new but really cool and growing media arts program within the composition area. There’s a good chance you’ll be on CEMI staff at some point anyway as a PhD student, so you get access to all of these studios because you work there but you also learn how to run and manage them, and you get the MEIT theater. It’s seriously some Battlestar Galactica level of facilities and resources. At the same time, there are plenty of spaces for collaboration and work outside of concert composition, electroacoustic work, etc. as well.

As a doctoral student, the program is funded, and you get teaching experience. Both things were huge for me (as they should be for anyone applying to a PhD program), and I’ve been fortunate to have been fully funded. That said, this is not always the exact same for everyone, and I encourage everyone applying to any program to do their research and to be honest with yourself and your supervisors and to be vocal about your needs with your respective programs and supervisors. If you need something, ask for it—the worst case scenario is status quo, but you’ll find that folks want to help their students and will if they can.

On top of that, there are a large number of guests; I think there’s 25 ensembles; and there are approximately one thousand concerts a year (it was for sure over 1000 before Covid because they put the number in the programs). Denton is a great college town (pop. 100k) with a really fun scene (including and especially experimental music) and it’s attached to a large metro area (pop. 7 mil.) with a huge international airport with a whole bunch of music, art, you name it going on. Boredom is a choice here.

So, you have ample resources and a lot of folks to explore with.

To be honest, this isn’t the best situation for everyone—there’s so much going on that you can kind of get lost in the weeds if you’re not proactive and participating, and you can sort of fall into anonymity if you’re not active and participating as well. That is not to say that the school feels detached or too big to care about individual students—in fact I have always felt the opposite and really feel part of a community. But it can take some adjusting especially if you’re used to the “big fish in a small pond” feeling, and it took me a little time to get my bearings too. Once I did, though I felt like a kid in a sandbox here with plenty of other kids to build castles with, so I just dove into it and made a bunch of music.

I would also like to point out that the faculty at UNT are extremely friendly, open, and helpful. We have been having semesterly “state of the union” meetings between the faculty and the grad students to make the program even stronger so there is a very strong relationship between the faculty and the student body. So, if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to one of the faculty for more info.  

ASN: Can you give us an overview of your program? For example, how many years of coursework, expected scope of the dissertation, that kind of thing.

KR: There is actually a wonderful and extremely informative handbook on the composition department page.

This handbook is probably the most accessible and transparent resource I’ve seen on the public-facing side of any program. This handbook was really enlightening when I looked into the program in the first place, and it will give you more information than I can give you here. We still use it all the time to figure stuff out- it saves you from sending at least a few emails.

But, in general, I think you can expect 3 years of coursework (9 credits each semester with possible extra courses if you have transcript deficiencies or entrance examination issues).

In your third year you do your qualifying exams, which starts with a music literature exam—this is currently in flux and changing so I won’t get into that because it will almost certainly be different than when I took it. After the lit exam, you have your qualification exams-proper: you can think about that as a 72-hour written essay exam with extremely nuanced questions, tailor made for you which you respond to in full academic writing (think several pages per question). You submit those responses, your committee reviews them, and then there is an oral exam where your committee with ask you further questions about your responses.

There is also a language component to the qualifying exams. Typically this is in German, French, or Italian, but you can petition to do something else (I did Spanish).  You can either pass a fourth-semester language course or pass a translation exam proctored through the Division of Music History, Theory, and Ethnomusicology in the College of Music. I believe the German, French, and Italian exams are annual or something, but because I did Spanish, I had to coordinate this with a faculty member who was academically fluent in the language (ie. a native speaker). The exam itself was pretty straightforward: a short academic article in Spanish with a series of questions relating to the thesis of the article, the arguments and conclusions/methodologies, some direct translations, and some translations that had idioms or more nuanced components to the language. This was a timed thing as well, and you can have one physical dictionary. Because this is not proctored by the Composition Division, you’ll need to take care of this yourself, and I highly recommend you take my advice and do it early and prepare early so you don’t stress yourself out too much.

When you pass all that, then you’re ABD. You’re typically ABD probably for a year (although I’m on my second ABD year (5th year overall)). UNT’s catalog says “All work to be credited toward the doctoral degree beyond the master’s degree must be completed within a period of 8 years” so you can’t stay forever, and it’s fair to say that they won’t have a funding spot for you forever either.

The dissertation can vary widely. I hate to pass the buck here, but the handbook I sent has a great section here that can explain all of that. DREAM BIG!

The TA/TF duties will almost always include working for CEMI at some point in the degree, TA-ing for the first-year composition courses, teaching lessons, as well as assisting or teaching other courses from electronics lessons to instrumentation. There is a lot to do and there is a solid amount of rotation to keep it interesting.

ASN: What were some of your favorite courses in your program?

KR: For the more academic side, I took a course on semiotics and music with Dr. David Bard-Schwarz and that was probably the most important class I ever took as an artist and an academic.

For the composition side of things, there are a ton of opportunities for collaboration projects, or spaces to do big and creative projects in a class environment. I took the course in choreographer/composer collaborations which ended in a big show; electronics courses that helped me build some great gear; orchestration that ends in a new orchestra piece with a reading at the end of the semester. All of these were really stellar.

At the same time, there is a lot of room for freedom with the courses you take, especially in your related field. I ended up making my own related field and took classes in poetry, philosophy, and visual art which were all really great as well.

ASN: What has been the biggest challenge during your studies?

KR: Time management. I feel like I’ve done a whole bunch of stuff the last few years, but there’s so much I want to do that it can be a bit overwhelming. I’m a bit of a workaholic and I don’t think we have a job we can really “clock out of” unless you make yourself, so finding the right time to chill out and relax can be (and sometimes needs to be) an explicit choice for mental or social health. So, developing good habits, good organizational skills, understanding when and how you work best on what thing, making lists, writing things down to free up your mind, etc. all went a really long way to help me stay on top of that. I think I’m doing really well, but that’s always a bit of a constant struggle.

ASN: Can you give me an elevator-pitch for your dissertation?

KR: I hope we’re going to a high floor…

So we have a composition to write and critical document that goes with it.

The composition Codex Symphonia, which is an extensive work for symphony orchestra, choir, and fixed media, with viola, percussion, soprano, and piano soloists. At over an hour, spanning 8 movements, with no breaks, the piece flows from delicate fragility to engulfing soundscapes; from sparse, isolated tones, to field recordings exploring the social and artistic implications of various concert genera as well as various notational methodologies and ensemble relationships.

It was an extremely fun piece to write and work on, and putting it together was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It was an orchestra of friends and comrades, and I even got to conduct it. You can listen to it here!

The document I’ll explain this in two parts. For the document, I’m writing about (1) my sort of “meta theories” of creativity, and (2) trying to do so by way of example.

  1. I do not believe that creativity is a hierarchical process; we often talk about creativity as a process or something extremely teleological and it often includes a “creative spark” or “planting seeds” and things like that to serve the goal of making a thing, but I don’t think this is necessarily true to the reality of creating stuff. I think creativity is a messy non-hierarchical cloud; a rhizomic process where we’re pulling from all our interests and experiences at the same time. If you take the time to think about the relationships between disparate topics or things that you find interesting, I think you’ll find that they feed into each other and inform, influence, and motivate you as a creating person in process. Because of this, anytime you set out to make something, you are experiencing a dynamic yet concentrated moment of energy in that chaotic cloud of “you” as a creative person.
  2. In the workings out of that idea, I’m exploring all these ideas that inform my work and exploring them. Obviously, there’s a little music, but also painting, movies, poetry, books, philosophy, social theory, politics, etc., including things that I used to believe but now think differently of—but things that still influenced the way I write. By exploring all of that stuff (and not really talking about the mechanics of Codex Symphonia at all), I’m trying to show that the act of creating a musical work is a deeply personal process that relies heavily on the experiences and vast network of influence on the composer in addition to the act of writing the music itself. It’s not thesis-driven viewpoint; there is nothing to prove insofar as the work already exists, the point has been made. Rather, with this document I look to the contextual structure(s) that point to the possibilities that a work might exist. That is to say that Codex Symphonia is a specific result of a much larger network if ideas and influences than can ever be articulated as having a single origin—it is, in fact all of them together at the same time and Codex Symphonia isn’t unique to that, it’s just what we’re talking about right now.

ASN: You recently launched a record label. Can you tell me what inspired this and your future plans with it?

KR: I launched Sawyer Editions for a whole bunch of reasons, so this will be a long one…

A large record label in the classical music world hit me up to do a portrait disc (I won’t say which). In our discussions it became clear that I would be the one to front the bill for this project and it would be at least $10,000 to do it (I don’t remember the figures exactly, but it was a substantial portion of my income). I told them there was no way I could do that, and they came back saying that most of their projects are funded that way and through grants (written by the composer) or funded by universities (aka fundraised by the composer through their affiliation with an institution) or through crowd funding, or from independently wealthy composers who could pay for their own stuff. Maybe some folks can get that money back from sales and streams, but I certainly cannot, which at best makes the economics of this situation extremely diluted, and at worst they can be predatory.

Now, I understand that there are economic needs. Folks need to get paid, and we need to value our art, and we need to really care about the money situation in contemporary arts. However, the thing you will aways hear is “there’s no money to be made from this” and if that’s true then all we have is mutual aid, and if all we have is mutual aid, we all need to be doing things to support and produce things for one another.

I’ve put out albums with wonderful labels like Edition Wandelweiser, Another Timbre, and NCTMMRN, and I’m really looking forward to working with Full Spectrum, and I have a really exciting project coming up that I can’t really talk about yet. With each of these labels, there was a real sense of collaboration rather than an economic exchange. These folks were far more focused on making things and making things happen.

I know how to record, I know how to mix and master, and I like doing all that stuff. So I want to use those skills to make things happen, make music with my friends and really share it with the world. If we’re willing to collaborate, we can make some really cool things happen, and if we can make the choice to be radically naive and embrace mutual aid as a way to foster each other’s work, then I think that’s a net positive for the world.  

Also, I’m a kid from rural Nebraska, so the internet was one of the main resources for discovering a lot of the experimental and contemporary music I loved and still hold on to. There have been several instances when I find a composer online and I really like one piece, like on SoundCloud or on YouTube or something like Score Follower. I’ll try and find more work by the composer, and it’s impossible. Either the composer doesn’t have a website, or their name is the same a college football player or something, so tracking them down can be really difficult. So I wanted to find a way to make a platform for the music I wanted to listen to and make these artists more accessible and easier to find.

Lastly, it’s extremely important to me that this label put out a lot of music by folks who have not had a commercial release before. So I’ve been making a conscious effort to find folks who don’t have a lot of music out there and do what I can to elevate it and give it a space.

ASN: What do you like to do outside of being a student/musician? How do you unwind?

My two biggest non-musical hobbies are photography and reading. I do (mostly) 35mm film photography and I do my own development and make my own darkroom prints at home. You can check any of that out here. Whether or not I’m actually any good at it is one thing, but it’s a huge creative outlet for me and I really love doing it.

I read a lot of fiction and poetry and can talk your ear off about books if you’ll let me.

I try to be as active as I can in the local scene here in Denton and I go to a lot of shows outside of academic contexts as well.

I have a lot of interests and an insanely addictive personality, so anything I get into I get really into it. Sometimes that’s only for a little while, and sometimes things stick around forever.

ASN: Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kory!

Hear some of Kory’s music below. This is an excerpt from Codex Vivere, performed by Apartment House and released in 2022 on Another Timbre. The composer discusses the work in this interview.

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