Composition at Bristol

There are three full-time composers on the staff at Bristol:

Between us, we cover a huge range of compositional interests: from vocal, choral, chamber and orchestral music to studio-based composition in its many and varied forms. The key thing is that we do not promote a ‘house-style’ – a single way of writing that students have to adopt. Instead we encourage the personal creative development of our students. What we do insist on is developing compositional craft and clarity of thought, features that are of fundamental importance no matter what kind of music you create.

First year

In the first year, everyone does some composition, both acoustic and studio. Acoustic composition is taught mainly in workshops, where students learn to compose for different combinations of instruments and to direct performances of their own and each other’s pieces. Studio composition is taught in classes and students have access to workstations in the department to complete their assignments.

Second and third year

In the second and third years, composition is completely optional, so if composing is not the thing for you, then you don’t have to do it. But if you do, there are plenty of options available. In the second year, composers do Compositional Strategy, which introduces you to all kinds of techniques for extending and developing your ideas, as well as making you familiar with lots of different contemporary repertoires and music from the recent past.

In the final year, composers can elect to do a shorter composition option or a longer one across the whole year. In both cases, you will write music for student performers to play in workshops. The workshops are then recorded and you get to listen to your pieces again and make any revisions you want to before handing them in. Students doing the longer option go on to write a piece on a more ambitious scale, perhaps for orchestra or large ensemble. This part of the course is supervised individually.

In both the second and third years, studio composition is also available as an option and, as for acoustic composition, you can do a smaller or a larger project in the final year if you wish.

If you are interested in both acoustic and studio composition, you can even do both. This means that for really keen composers, by combining major studio and acoustic options, you could actually spend up to two-thirds of your final year composing (though not everyone prefers to do so).

Our optional units include:

  • Compositional Strategy
  • Writing for Orchestra
  • Studio Composition Live
  • Composition Project
  • Studio Project

Performing compositions

Throughout the course, composers get the chance to hear their works played by fellow students in workshops and concerts. Some outstanding student pieces have also recently been performed by the University ensembles, such as the New Music Ensemble, the Laptop Band, Chamber Orchestra, Chamber Choir and Symphony Orchestra.

Our own student composers regularly arrange concerts to showcase their own works, often through the enthusiastic student-run Composition and Orchestration Society and a concert-giving group, Contemporary Music Venture.

Other opportunities for studying composition

An entirely different type of compositional study is also available in the form of the Written Techniques units, which look at how to write in different styles from the musical past. In the first year, everyone does some of this, covering Renaissance and Baroque styles. From the second year onwards, these units are optional and cover things like Classical string quartet writing and Romantic song writing.

These concentrated units, which are offered by few institutions nowadays, not only offer valuable compositional skills in their own right, but are of particular benefit to composers with an interest in writing for media, such as film and TV, since the ability to master different historical styles is a core skill.

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Thanks for the craziest, most exciting three years! I’ve written essays on Beethoven, composed medieval studies music, lived and studied in Spain, and learned so much along the way. The music department has given me every possible opportunity, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Esther (BA Music, 2018)
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