composer | musician | educator


See below for the expected short academic bio – the terse version of what I do, some juried selection mentions, education, teachers, job, etc.

On a more casual, if somewhat lengthy, note, my name is Daniel and I’m a composer, musician, and educator based out of Waterloo, Iowa. Here are some things I typically say when asked about the things I do and my background…

Composer => I’ve been a composer since 2000, when I started formal study in composition during my undergraduate. I started college as a music education major, but I switched gears after doing a few compositions for my music theory coursework. I had way too much fun with those comp projects and have been hooked ever since. This might be why I now assign such projects in the classes I teach. 

In my compositional work, I enjoy exploring a range of musical possibilities. I compose music for standard orchestral instruments as well as electronic music and sometimes combine the two. Understandably, different mediums offer different opportunities – there are things you can do in an orchestral piece that you can’t do in a solo clarinet or an electroacoustic work and vice-versa. 

I really like collaborative projects! A collaboration can bring new direction and goals to a project that I might not otherwise entertain, which is fascinating to consider. Do I grow more through collaboration? Maybe. In either case, I enjoy the process and interaction. Along these lines, I think of composition as a puzzle of sorts with limits either placed by the compositional idea, program, or problem that I’ve set myself. Because I enjoy the puzzle of it, I often try to mine as much compositional direction, materials, and parameters from the idea/program/problem. In this way, such things end up functioning like a collaborator.

For years now, my compositional puzzles (research) have been primarily concerned with the simultaneous use of multiple composition methodologies. This is a fun puzzle that I started experimenting with after learning about Dali’s Paranoiac-Critical Method – essentially the juxtaposition of things that don’t rationally belong together. To my way of thinking, the various methodologies and techniques for music composition can be thought of simply as tools – each produces music with qualities depending on source material and approach. A composer can select the best tool for a given task or based on a desired output. Also, by using the same source material as a departure point, these various tools can be used as a way of development through recontextualization. Does this not sound like a fun puzzle? In any case, I often make use of cycles (interval and rhythmic), sonification, self-similar systems (automata, infinity series), Neo-Riemannian Transformations, rotational arrays, as well as set theory. I use these tools/methods to create and manipulate my compositional materials by hand and sometimes with the help of computers using software like Supercollider and Max (computer-assisted algorithmic composition). Some composers use a piano to compose. I use a computer - another collaborator of sorts. You can find mention of these things in the program notes of my pieces for some time now.

Musician => I’ve been a musician since the early 90s when I started playing trumpet in my school’s band program. It was a small program in a small town, but I was engaged. I experimented with other instruments, but ultimately stuck with the trumpet. I won’t speculate when or if I ever became a musician that merited listening to, but I auditioned for college on the horn, and they didn’t send me away. 

I spent the first few years of college (somewhat frustrated) really focused on performance before migrating my efforts to the craft of composition. At this point, I put the horn down, and for almost the entire duration of my study of composition at university, I neglected the trumpet and performing myself. The exception to this is that I took up the conductor’s baton. Throughout my graduate work, I made myself available to other composers needing a conductor for their works, and I did additional study to develop with the baton. It is extremely engaging to bring a piece to life and off the page as a conductor. Even more so for works with little or no performance history. Along these lines, I’ve almost exclusively conducted new music.

In the years since graduating, I’ve increasingly gotten back into performance. I’ve done a lot of free improvisation with colleagues and students and performed a variety of contemporary works. I’ve also progressively used various instruments as tools in the composition process – still not so much the piano though.

  • I’ve taken up recorders. I mostly play the tenor recorder, but sometimes will make noise on anything from a sopranino to bass recorder. I grew up playing recorder. My mother had a few fair quality wooden recorders that were a lot easier to sound good on than the typical plastic elementary school fair. Recorders have such a weird and somewhat unpleasant reputation in music education in the US and you typically only experience the soprano recorder, which is unfortunate. I enjoy increasing awareness about the recorder and demonstrating that you don’t have to play hot cross buns – it’s not against the rules. I mostly do free improvisation on the recorder and play things not written for the instrument. It’s a lot of fun!
  • While my work in electronic music began as being very studio oriented, it has increasing become very performative. I now often create and manipulate my sounds for electronic works live rather than through non-real-time processes. This has transitioned nicely into live performance with the same technologies – using the computer and various controllers/sensors/etc. as a musical instrument. My work here is also mostly free improvisation with colleagues and the Laptop Ensemble I direct.
  • I was introduced to Soundpainting sometime around 2015 and have used it in performance and teaching ever since. Soundpainting is a live-composing sign language where the conductor (Soundpainter) communicates what the ensemble is to do live in performance through signs. It’s especially great when working with nonstandard ensembles or as a stepping stone to free improvisation for students that are not comfortable jumping into such a mode of performance. I’ve done several community music outreach seminars with different age groups using Soundpainting, and it is almost always a hit. I think it should be part of every music education major’s training! 
  • In the last few years (maybe since 2020), I’ve picked up the trumpet again with seriousness and it feels good to be back at it. I had been thinking for a long time that playing the horn is still in my hands and in my head – still very much a part of how I think about music. I’ve found that the horn is the same – it is as merciless as ever => |: it’s hard, it’s easy :| My approach to the horn has changed though and I think it is healthier. I’m not trying to jump through hoops that I don’t care about. I just play to engage myself in making music. I do some free improvisation, play with my students in the New Music Ensemble that I direct, and use it as many composers would use a piano to explore ideas. I don’t take it too seriously – I’m not planning on auditioning for anything.

Educator => I’ve been an educator since the early 2010s when I got my first teaching gig after finishing my DMA coursework. I moved around a bit and spent time in a couple adjunct/lecturer gigs before landing my current position. Since 2019, I’ve been an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Northern Iowa. 

The academic composer usually wears one or more of a couple different hats – the composer, theorist, technologist, or new music director. I like wearing them all because they are all part of how I engage in music - I love sharing the things I find exciting and the cool as I see it. I am fortunate to have landed a gig where I can work with students in all these areas! I regularly teach composition lessons and seminar, music analysis, 20th/21st century music theory, counterpoint, orchestration, new music ensemble, and laptop ensemble. I stay busy. 

Without getting into pedagogy or my teaching philosophy too much there are a couple of things I try to do in my teaching. The first is perhaps a little silly to put to words, but I try to engage my students – I usually do this in the most obvious way, by talking to them. I don’t lecture. I try to have a conversation, and just share what I know about this cool, weird thing called music. I’m lucky to have class sizes that are conducive to this approach. I ask leading questions and try to connect the lesson materials to their study and goals in music. They want to know the practical application of what we are studying, so why not tell them? I ask for opinions on things and give mine. I try to remind my students that mistakes are how we learn, and that in order to learn, they need to learn how they learn – I swear that makes sense. I focus on the use of the ear as one of our best tools for understanding music! It’s weird how often the ear is forgotten when studying music. Probably best to stop there…

In addition to being a composer, musician, and educator, I’m a husband and father – I live in Waterloo, Iowa with my wonderful wife and artist, Stephanie, and my two sons, Lincoln and Harrison. As a family, we enjoy movie and game nights (board and TTRPGs) together, exploring the local trail systems, and making messes in the kitchen. Conversely, as a family, we do not enjoy shoveling snow, people who litter, and cleaning the messes in the kitchen. 


Daniel Swilley (b. 1980) is a German-American composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music. His music and research have been presented at festivals and conferences such as June in Buffalo, SEAMUS, Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium, Understanding Visual Music Symposium, NoiseFloor, New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, Electronic Music Midwest, Studio 300, Audiograft, Electroacoustic Juke Joint, College Music Society, as well as Society of Composer’s Inc. Swilley holds degrees in composition from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (DMA), Georgia State University (MM), and Valdosta State University (BM). His primary composition teachers have included Heinrich Taube, Sever Tipei, Robert Scott Thompson, and Scott Wyatt. Swilley is an Assistant Professor of Music (Composition, Theory, and Technology) at the University of Northern Iowa.