Sullivan to join Music Theory faculty

April 19, 2019 - MSU Music Communications Office

Music theorist and double bassist James Sullivan will join the faculty of the Michigan State University College of Music as assistant professor of music theory in fall 2019. He will enhance one of the top Music Theory programs that maintains a focus on theoretical elements and also gives musicians the freedom to pursue performance and composition interests.

Incoming Assistant Professor of Music Theory James SullivanSullivan, a native of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is currently assistant professor of music theory and double bass at the University of Evansville. He holds a Ph.D. in music theory and a D.M.A. and M.M. in double bass performance from the Eastman School of Music, as well as a B.M. in double bass performance and a B.S. in mathematics from Indiana University.

“Even though I initially envisioned pursuing a performance career, I’ve always had many different interests going simultaneously,” Sullivan said. “During my freshman year at Indiana, I took an upper-level calculus course and became so fascinated that I added a mathematics degree that first year. As my studies progressed, I found myself drawn to academics as much as performance, particularly music theory.”

Today, Sullivan presents regularly at conferences such as the Society for Music Theory, the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, Music Theory Midwest, and the International Society of Bassists. His topics pertain to meter perception in post-tonal music, rhythm perception, mathematical music theory, and the performance and analysis of post-tonal music. He is passionate about teaching and received the University of Rochester’s Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Teaching and Eastman’s Teaching Assistant Prize.

“There are so many things that excite me about Michigan State: wonderful colleagues, an exceptional college of music, a nice balance between teaching and research, ample resources for both, and a cool, fun college town in a state with a great beer scene!” he said

In addition to his work as a music theorist, Sullivan is an active bass player. He is currently section bass with both the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra and the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra. He has performed as a soloist with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, and he gives recitals regularly. He has performed in numerous chamber settings, including with Eastman Broadband at Carnegie Hall under the auspices of David Lang’s Creating New Music Workshop. His Post-Tonal Method Book for the Double Bass won Eastman’s Lecture Recital Prize in 2015.

James Sullivan“One of the most exciting things for me is that the theory department at MSU has a graduate program specifically designed for performers and composers who are interested in music theory,” Sullivan said. “These students may one day land the same kind of dual position I had at Evansville, teaching undergraduate theory courses in conjunction with their studio teaching. The prospect of working with and mentoring them through their studies and into the job market is absolutely thrilling. It is also one of the ways that I think my unique skillset as a theorist-performer will contribute positively to the department.”

Sullivan explained that the foundation of his outlook as a teacher is the connection between theory and performance, and how acquiring skills in one area reinforces the other. He sees music theory as a set of skills that improves the broader musicianship of students and makes them more competent performers, educators, and listeners. These are traits that make the current Music Theory faculty excited to bring Sullivan to the college.

“My faculty colleagues and I in the Music Theory area are delighted to welcome James to our team, and excited to start working with him,” said Michael Callahan, associate professor of music theory and chair of the area. “His research in music perception, rhythm and meter, and very recent music brings an exciting dimension to our program, and his dual background as both a performer and a theorist will permit him to reach our students in multiple ways. I can’t wait for August to arrive.”