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Music Ph.D. program receives loud applause

Music Ph.D. student Peter Swendsen
Photo by Tom Cogill
Music Ph.D. student Peter Swendsen, who has an M.F.A. in electronic music and recording media, is continuing his interdisciplinary exploration of video and interactive performance projects with an emphasis on dance.

By Jane Ford

Earning a Ph.D. has been on Jeff Decker’s mind since the early 1990s when he received his master’s in history from the University of Virginia.

But his saxophone got in the way.

Decker plays professionally and records with a number of jazz groups in Charlottesville and on the road. He has no regrets.

If he had continued his academic career, his “sax would have gone into the closet,” he said. “It was better for me to continue playing.”

But when the opportunity came to combine his background in performance and academics in U.Va.’s fledgling Ph.D. program in music, he was the first to be accepted in the program.

Decker’s introduction to music was interdisciplinary. His master’s thesis focused on integration and race relations in the Swing Era’s jazz community. He was looking at music in a new way – examining racial, political and social issues and how music operates in society.

Now Decker is continuing his interest in the relationship of music and society in U.Va.’s innovative program, which offers students two areas of specialization that build on the department’s philosophy of music as a liberal art.

The critical and comparative studies area draws on musicology, ethnomusicology, criticism, theory and analysis, aesthetics and performance studies. The specialization in composition and computer technology covers both acoustic and computer techniques and includes composition, analysis, critical studies, conducting, orchestration and performance.

The music department’s long-standing reputation in fields such as gender studies, theory, ethnomusicology, music history, performance studies and popular music has played a major role in shaping the Ph.D. program.

“I’m discovering there are other programs changing to follow ours,” said Elizabeth Hudson, chairwoman of the McIntire Department of Music.

Planning for the Ph.D. curriculum took eight years before the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia granted approval in 2000. It is the first music Ph.D. program in Virginia.

The program differs from those at most other schools across the nation. Some emphasize a Euro-centric approach; others are structured with separate programs for musicology and ethnomusicology, making it difficult for students to work across discipline boundaries.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the degree program, both within the music discipline and in other University curricula, is proving to be a draw.

“What they are doing here is unique and exciting,” said Peter Swendsen, who entered the composition program this fall. “The interaction of the two programs is unique in progressive composition programs. Interacting with the people in the [critical studies] program provides a perspective I might not get at another institution.”

Swendsen, who has an M.F.A. in electronic music and recording media, is continuing his interdisciplinary exploration of video and interactive performance projects with an emphasis on dance. The Virginia Center for Computer Music at U.Va., and the opportunity to work with Assistant Professor Matthew Burtner, swayed his decision to join the program.

Nick Rubin, who is in his first year of the critical studies program, said he felt lucky the department is receptive to different approaches — historical, ethnographical, analytical — and that he did not have to choose between musicology and ethnomusicology. Ideally, he would have wanted a program with a track record, but knew U.Va. and the faculty had highly respected reputations. “It’s the only school I really wanted to go to,” said Rubin, whose master’s in history from the University of Vermont was in bluegrass music.

The caliber and diversity of the candidates’ backgrounds has impressed Scott De Veaux, director of graduate studies. Professionally, he appreciates the opportunity to interact with the students both in and out of the classroom. He is surprised how easy it is to move from what he is researching and interested in to what the Ph.D. students are doing, he said. “They are very self-motivated.”

The program attracts the same applicants as other top music programs in the country, Hudson said, and this year there was a huge waiting list. She credits the structure as well as the size of the program with drawing so many qualified people.

Each student is assigned a faculty mentor for the first two years, and the department is able to offer two competitive fellowship packages as well as other financial support.

The Edgar Shannon Jefferson Scholars Graduate Fellowship and the President’s Fellowship have been crucial in attracting top candidates, she said.

Mary Simonson, a President’s Fellow, also was not deterred by the newness of the program. A second-year student in the critical studies program, she is taking a feminist literature course in the English department to broaden the approach to her study of dance and the role of the female in 19th-century French opera.

When she first visited U.Va., she loved it and clicked with a number of the faculty. “I was impressed with the diversity and accessibility of the faculty here. When I visited other places, there were, maybe one or two faculty I would want to work with. Here, I want to work with everyone.”


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