Course Syllabus

Contemporary Ensemble

Course numbers and codes: MUS 176 (code 04550) and MUS 276 (code 04900), meeting jointly as a single class
Course meets: Wednesdays 4pm-5:50pm, MM 218
Instructor: Michael Dessen,
Office hour: Thursdsay 3:00pm-3:50pm in CAC 3023, and by appointment (email me your available times a few days in advance)

Course activities and goals

Welcome! In this course, we will develop and perform a concert of improvisatory music, including original compositions customized for our group. The class will consist of mostly graduate students, and a small number of undergraduate students enrolled by instructor permission.

The approach to music making we will take this quarter has roots in diverse communities, including those formed by Black American musicians in the 1960s who began referring to their work with the term "creative music." Students enrolled in this class do not need to have advanced skills with jazz specifically, but should have prior experience with improvisation.

Work outside of class will consist of individual and small group practice sessions, sometimes with a prompt detailing a particular idea or sound to explore. Each week, you will also be assigned roughly one hour of listening/viewing, to establish context and inspire our process. 

In our weekly rehearsals, we will gradually develop the music using a variety of approaches. At times we will work on scores by myself, other composers, or students, adapting them to our ensemble. We will workshop and develop some materials by ear, drawing on the weekly small group sessions, and we will also explore Conduction, a language developed by the late Lawrence "Butch" Morris. This is improvisatory music, so please be aware that scored materials may be added or changed up until the concert, though any notations requiring significant practice will be provided well in advance. 

Students will not be required to compose notated scores, but may volunteer to do so as long as the piece involves a substantial degree of improvisation and is sent to me in relatively complete form by Monday, April 18. I may ask you to make revisions before we try it in class.

The goal of this course is to give you an opportunity to

  • deepen your understanding of integrated composition and improvisation, and specifically of composer-bandleader models of music creation, through rehearsals/performance, individual and collaborative practice sessions, and listening/viewing assignments
  • improve your collaboration skills, through small group practice assignments; and
  • expand your sonic vocabulary and skill as improvisers, through individual practice assignments and interacting within the ensemble

Required work

For a 2-unit course meeting two hours per week, I expect you to spend roughly 4 hours per week working outside of class. In addition to participating in all classes, the coursework consists of the following:

  1. On Tuesday, June 7 (exam week), attend a final setup and dress rehearsal from 2pm-5pm and a concert at 7pm, in MM 218. If you have a conflict at that time please alert me by April 13th.
  2. Practicing assigned materials and exercises on your instrument each week.
  3. Participating in a small group session (duo or trio) outside of class in most weeks.
  4. Completing roughly one hour of assigned listening/viewing each week. (A written response is optional).
  5. Completing a brief self-evaluation after the final concert, due by the end of exam week (see below).

Rehearsal time and setup details

We will minimize mics as much as possible, but some instruments will need sound reinforcement. For each class, we'll use mics/speakers as we will for the concert, both to hear everyone well and to refine our production setup, since we'll be performing in the same room that we use for class meetings. 

I will arrive by 3:45pm, to unlock Mocap and the REALab and start getting out equipment. I expect you all to be in the space with your instrument set up and ready to start by 4pm. If this is impossible, please let me know at the start of the quarter. You should also be available at 4pm to help set up mics/cables and quickly soundcheck. With practice, we can get this process down to a very short time (10-15 minutes). We will stop by 5:45pm (so anyone with a 6pm class has the final 5 minutes to pack up), and in this way we should have roughly 90 minutes to actually rehearse each week. 

My current hope is to minimize technological complexity in this ensemble, given our limited time. However, if any students have a strong interest in incorporating approaches that require additional setup, such as live sampling/processing, video projection, etc., we can discuss this early in the quarter.


Please be sure to set up your Canvas Notifications so that you receive Announcements and Messages immediately (not daily or weekly digest). Note also that the class email list address <> is a discussion list which any of us can use for communicating with everyone in the course.

Grading criteria

I will let you know if your work at any time during the quarter falls below "B" quality. By the end of finals week, you are required to submit a brief self-evaluation explaining the grade you think you earned and why, based on these criteria:

  • 50%: Punctual attendance and active participation in all classes and in the final performance
  • 50%: Fully engaging with all practice and listening assignments outside of class

I will assign your course grade taking into account my own evaluation along with your own. If you fail to submit the self-evaluation by Friday of finals week, I will lower your grade by up to a letter grade.

If you cannot attend due to genuine emergency or illness, please inform me as soon as possible. Given the nature of this class and the fact that we only meet once per week, attendance is crucial, so missing 30% or more of our classes (i.e. 3 out of 10) for any reason may result in a failing grade.

Help and accommodations

If you need help with any aspect of the coursework, please email me your avaiable times to make an appointment, or visit during my office hour. If you have a disability that requires accommodations, you must ensure that I receive a contract from the Disabilities Services Center at the beginning of the quarter, then contact me to discuss any necessary arrangements. In addition, please note that immigration-related emergencies, including those faced by undocumented students, may qualify for accommodations in the same way as medical or other emergencies.

Academic integrity and inclusivity

Many activities in this course are collaborative, but you must be always careful to avoid representing another person's work as your own. Any attempt to do so will be considered an academic integrity violation, and will be reported.

My intention is always to facilitate welcoming environments for collective learning, in the spirit of the UC's system-wide policies on diversity. Those policies define diversity as "the variety of personal experiences, values, and worldviews that arise from differences of culture and circumstance" and "include race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, language, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and geographic region, and more." I expect all of us to help create a supportive environment, to communicate with one another in respectful, constructive ways, and to understand the presence of different life experiences in our classroom as a learning opportunity for us all. By remaining in the course after reading this syllabus, you are affirming that you share these intentions.

Thank you for reading the entire syllabus. I look forward to working with you!