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From Kendrick Lamar to 'Tiger King'

CHASS Music visiting professor studies the influence of social justice and pop culture on composition
By Hannah Croft, Student Writer/CHASS Marketing & Communications |

Multi-award winning composer Dana Kaufman approaches music in revolutionary ways, and encourages her students to do the same.

The Visiting Assistant Professor in Music Composition is the composer of a new, Netflix original Tiger King-inspired micro-opera titled Exotic v. Baskin: The Micro-Opera, commissioned by the Carlow Arts Festival in Ireland. The performance premiered online during a live stream on June 6. So far, it has received over two dozen press features, including a feature in The Irish Independent and The Irish Times, and has accumulated over 12,500 views across various online platforms.

Kaufman encourages students to develop a well-rounded perception of music. She features numerous concept albums in her class, ranging from Kendrick Lamar to Mozart, to help students analyze the overlap of musical genres and pop culture. Kaufman’s previous original compositions have included Opera Kardashian, an opera about the reality show celebrity family.

Kaufman has been introducing students to a wide range of music through her courses on music theory and composition since her arrival at UCR in 2018. Her classes have led to collaborations with CHASS faculty and staff, including Assistant Professor of Theater Kimberly Guerrero, accompanist Jonathan Keplinger, and production manager Greg Rene.

“Dana possesses this dynamic quality of being boundlessly enthusiastic while also being undeniable, well, brilliant,” Guerrero said. “She's incredibly knowledgeable across so many genres of storytelling from opera, to literature, to feature film and television, to pop culture”.

Kaufman also teaches a course on Western music analysis, which explores traditional forms of music recycled in modern music, and a course dedicated to the composition of micro-operas.

“I couldn’t love students any more than I do,” Kaufman said. “It is an honor to work with them. I want them to keep composing and to feel inspired, to go outside of their comfort zone, and to experience a kind of music perhaps they haven’t explored before. I want students to experience growth as musicians, and to help put them on a path to academic and professional success. There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing them grow and thrive.”

Kaufman teaches all genres and will work with students to find their best interest, she said. Kaufman teaches private composition lessons each quarter, working with students on a variety of genres such as film scoring, Latin jazz, musical theater, Classical chamber music, choral music, and more. Her experience in musical composition ranges from operatic music to electroacoustic music, offering a unique perspective.

“I am interested in seeking interdisciplinary connections, incorporating pop culture into my music, and pushing for social justice through my music,” Kaufman said. “I have been researching and composing for trans voice, and so I make the sphere of academic composition more open and inclusive to identities that have historically been marginalized in Western music.”

As a child, Kaufman was always breaking down barriers with her music, co-composing her first piece of work as an alternative to traditional Jewish studies. Kaufman brought her love of composition overseas in 2012 when she received a Fulbright Student Research Grant to study composition and ethnomusicology, or the study of non-Western music, in Tallinn, Estonia. Kaufman studied at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre for a year, where she collected samples of ambient sounds to incorporate into her compositions.

“I was studying music theory, I protested religious school and I wrote my first piece,” Kaufman said. “I think those initial successes and our ability to see and hear our pieces performed are absolutely crucial in encouraging us to write more, so I want to give my students the opportunities that my mentors gave to me.”

Since the completion of her Fulbright, Kaufman has brought her research from Estonia back to the campus and now incorporates her experience with ethnomusicology into her teaching style. Her works have been featured in numerous places and events, including New York Opera Fest, Boston’s Jordan Hall, the Contemporary Music Center of Milan, and Hartford Opera Theater. Her work has also been featured throughout Europe and North America.

“I really try to foster the interdisciplinary connections that CHASS emphasizes and that the Department of Music emphasizes,” Kaufman said. “….I think [these classes] support and [have] been influenced by CHASS’s commitment to equity in education and fostering those interdisciplinary connections within a liberal arts curriculum.”

“I would absolutely encourage students to study with Dr. Kaufman,” Guererro said. “She sets a high bar, but she will also give you the time, the tools and the road map of how to successfully vault that bar...You’ll be a better-equipped musician, composer, and human being because of it!”

Professor Dana Kaufman
Photo courtesy of Liz Przybylski
Kaufman discusses her original opera Opera Kardashian at the New Media and Opera Future Tense Conference at the Los Angeles Opera in February."


FEATURED PHOTO. Visiting Assistant Music Professor Dana Kaufman, (first row, fifth from right), poses with composers, performers, conductors and fellow professor Kimberly Guerrero (far left), at a micro opera performance in December."