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New Faculty Focus: Dan Cavanagh

November 17, 2023

Dan Cavanagh performs “Last Look,” a piece he also wrote.

Dan Cavanagh: Pamela O. Hamel/Board of Advisors Director of the Mead Witter School of Music, and Professor of Composition and Jazz Studies

Hometown: St. Paul, MN

Educational/professional background: BM Music Theory/Composition (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN); MM Jazz Studies/Composition (University of Oregon, Eugene, OR), PhD Creative Arts (Music Composition) University of Tasmania. I began my career at the University of Texas at Arlington as Assistant Director of Jazz Studies and Assistant Professor; served as Director of Music Industry Studies, Chair of the Music Department, Interim Associate Dean and Interim Dean of the College of Liberal arts in my 18 years there.

Dan Cavanagh

What is your field of research, and how did you get into it?  I am a composer and jazz pianist. I have been playing the piano since I was 5 years old, and in my undergraduate years I gravitated towards a music composition degree after spending some time as a math major. After graduate school (and indeed during), lots and lots of gigs! I played in a band in my early ‘20s that had won the “Best Unsigned Band in America” contest sponsored by Sam Goody. Between that and all the concerts and gigs in college, I was hooked on the feeling on being on stage and sharing art with other humans.

What attracted you to UW–Madison? I was attracted to the exceptional faculty in the Mead Witter School of Music here at UW–Madison, as well as the arts and cultural scene here in Madison that punches way above its weight for a city this size. My wife and I are also from Minnesota and we are thrilled to be back in the Midwest closer to family.

What was your first visit to campus like? I came in the middle of a blizzard in February for my interview. Even through that experience, everyone was warm and welcoming. I remember the great food at my dinners, but especially remember the wonderful conversation and the shared interests and excitement.

The pandemic forced us all to reconsider many things we took for granted. Is there something you’ve learned that has helped you through these challenging times, personally or professionally?

The pandemic helped me reground myself in my artistic practice (which for me is piano performance, especially involving improvisation, as well as musical composition). I was reminded of the importance of the arts to our human condition and experience and I think I had taken that for granted for a while.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.

The Arts by their very nature are emblematic of the Wisconsin Idea. My art is for other people. A position at a university such as UW Madison comes with great responsibility to share and showcase that artistic knowledge. This has been a tenant of my life to this point, and having a university espouse that idea at the core of its being is a wonderful situation in which to exist artistically.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?

Improvisation can be a learned skill involving understanding of creative frameworks, limitations, and expression. Anyone can learn to do it, believe it or not.

Hobbies/other interests:

I love to cook and love philosophy/aesthetics.