Doctor of Musical Arts Dissertations


Self-Actualization: Transcendentalist Discourse in the Work of Stuart Saunders Smith

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)


Contemporary Music

First Advisor

Roger Schupp (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Marilyn Shrude (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Timothy Messer-Kruse (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Thomas Rosenkranz (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Robert Wallace (Other)


Born and raised in Maine, composer Stuart Saunders Smith (1948) grew up immersed in a milieu that still echoed the influence of the nineteenth-century literary movement known as Transcendentalism. The work of key Transcendentalist figures, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, show the movement’s emphasis on autonomy, intuition, pacifism, and social justice. But Transcendentalism also maintains a spiritual focus: a claim that each person is part of a single universal spirit—“Oneness." However, this “Oneness" does not equate to homogeneity of ideas and individual voices. Rather, each person’s divine worth grants them autonomy of thought and agency. Both the social and spiritual ideas of Transcendentalism have informed Smith’s music, his writings on music compositional process, and his personal life.

Amongst the Transcendentalist notions displayed in Smith’s music, pacifism and anti-technologism appear in his use of intricate rhythms. A Thoreauvian anti-materialism can be found in Smith’s limited use of instrumentation and in his concept of “percussion ecology." Moreover, the Transcendentalist non-teleological stance is reflected in Smith’s tendency to write evening-length pieces that disregard form, his recurring references to New England imagery, and his use of non-sequiturs. Finally, the idea of Oneness is demonstrated through Smith’s endeavor to level the roles of composer, performer, and audience, shown particularly in works that Smith categorizes as “trans-media systems," “mobile compositions," and “co-existence pieces."

Other important Transcendentalist notions recurrent in Smith’s work and compositional process include: intuition, experience, thought autonomy, isolation, self-reliance, and self-actualization. Smith’s focus on these ideas has rendered his overall discourse and much of his compositions antithetical to musical formalism, which implies focus on technique and systematic development. Instead, Smith understands that a composition should arise from a collaboration between intuition and experience. In other words, in Smith’s compositional process, experience “filtered" through intuition is always paramount to pre-compositional systems (such as serialism). This stance suggests that Smith’s music is part of a lineage of thought and aesthetic expression that traces back to the Transcendentalists: the idea of facing tradition critically and developing critical thought and free agency (understanding that intuition generates these stances) as the primary sources of artistic creation.