Find out what life is really like at Durham University


Music Composition PhD

There are a number of different aspects to the busy life of a musician in Durham, not all of them conducive to producing lots of work! They do, however, add up to a truly immersive experience, which simply couldn’t be replicated. I’ll attempt to describe it here.

My PhD differs from most in that it requires a lot of listening as well as reading – I’m a composer, and researching particular composers or aesthetics can be as much about listening to Youtube recordings or reading posts on Facebook groups as it is about reading scores or journal articles.

So that tends to be how my day starts – my partner works in town, so when she leaves I usually listen to music over breakfast. It sounds pretty easy on the face of it, but it isn’t all easy listening – the point is to get me to question my place in the world of avant-garde composing, and that often involves asking very difficult aesthetic questions; why do I like or dislike what I’m listening to? If I like it, how should it influence my work? If I dislike it, do I take a stand against it, or discard it and move on? One of my supervisors asks me these things all the time – and I’m beginning to give him answers that make some sense!

Afternoons are sometimes spent writing. I find that, if I don’t want to write, it may be useful to get something down anyway – it’s a bit of a superstition really, but I think that getting a bad idea written down means that I don’t have to have it later, when I want to have a good one. I’m not sure if that’s really how it works, but (looking back now) not all my bad ideas have actually been that bad; you never know when you might want to explore an avenue that you previously didn’t have the skill to articulate.

Keeping fit

On days when I have supervision, I’ll usually refresh my memory of all that I’ve done that week before I actually go to the meeting – it’s useful to come prepared to supervisions, as, although tangential conversations can be fun, you’re there to get the most out of your time. My supervisors are both working with me on a weekly basis at the moment, but there will be times I might not see them for long periods, so it makes sense to create a little ‘to-do for next time’ list.

My supervisions, at the moment, focus on producing smaller, exercise-like compositions. One of my supervisors (a computer-based composer) is teaching me how to use a software to compose with, whereas the other is leading me to explore more experimental ideas in my ‘acoustic’ writing – a steep learning curve on both fronts, but that’s what I want my PhD to be about (at least for the first year or so): challenging my own experiences to become a better composer.

Evenings and free time are either spent eating pizza or rehearsing with one of the orchestras I play in. I’m very lucky in that my partner is both very patient and a fantastic cook, which helps with time management! I take part in 3-4 orchestras depending on the time of year, and although this means I’m always busy, I also have a great network of friends (who are often roped into playing my compositions – not always willingly). I try to squeeze in keeping fit, by racing bicycles, but that’s losing the battle against pizza at this stage…

You can download your fully interactive postgraduate prospectus here.

Rob King

Hi, Iwas awarded a Distinction at MA in 2018, after a career in education. My PhD investigates sociopolitical data in algorithmic composition. I have also worked on scores for independent films, as well as commercial compositions. My first symphonic work is expected to be premiered in 2018/19.
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