David Rakowski was born and raised in St. Albans, Vermont, where he played trombone in high school and community bands, and keyboards in a mediocre rock band called the Silver Finger. Early musical challenges included taking pop songs off the radio for his band to play. He was his high school class's valedictorian and its Best Thespian.
He received his musical training at New England Conservatory, Princeton, and Tanglewood, where he studied with Robert Ceely, John Heiss, Milton Babbitt, Paul Lansky, Peter Westergaard, and Luciano Berio. He spent the four years after graduate school not writing his dissertation, holding down dismal part-time word processing jobs and helping to run the Griffin Music Ensemble in Boston. At the end of those four years, he took a running leap into academia with a one-year appointment at Stanford University. Seven years later, he finished his dissertation.
Rakowski's most widely-performed music is his collection of one hundred highly varied and high-energy piano études; these pieces approach the idea of etude from many different angles, be they technical, conceptual, compositional, or stylistic; many of them may be viewed on YouTube. He is now at work on a set of piano préludes and has finished fifty-eight of a projected one hundred. He has also written six symphonies, nine concertos, three large wind ensemble pieces, a sizable collection of chamber and vocal music, as well as incidental music and music for children.
Rakowski's awards include the Rome Prize, the Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 2006 Barlow Prize, and the 2004-6 Elise L. Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, as well as awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Tanglewood Music Center, BMI, Columbia University, the Orleans International Piano Competition (the Chevillion-Bonnaud composition prize), the International Horn Society, and various artist colonies. He is the only composer ever to be commissioned both by Speculum Musicæ and the "President's Own" U.S. Marine Band. He has also been commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Sequitur, Network for New Music, Koussevitzky Music Foundation (with Ensemble 21 in 1996 and with Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2006), Collage New Music, the Kaufman Center/Merkin Hall, Boston Musica Viva, the Fromm Foundation (twice), Dinosaur Annex, the Crosstown Ensemble, the Riverside Symphony, Parnassus, The Composers Ensemble, Alea II, Alea III, Triple Helix, and others. In 1999 his Persistent Memory, commissioned by Orpheus, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, and in 2002 his Ten of a Kind, commissioned by "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band, was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has been composer-in-residence at the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival, Guest Composer at the Wellesley Composers Conference, the Karel Husa Distinguished Professor of Music at the Ithaca College School of Music, the Maurice Abravanel Visiting Composer at the University of Utah, and a Master Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts; since 2011, he is composer-in-residence with the New England Philharmonic Orchestra. His music is published by C.F. Peters, is recorded on New World/CRI, Innova, Americus, Albany, Ravello, New Focus, ECM, Blue Griffin, Centaur, Capstone, BMOP/sound and Bridge, and has been performed worldwide. Pending CD releases include a fourth volume of piano études on Bridge, and a second orchestral CD on BMOP/sound. He also contributed a solo piano arrangement of "The Ladies Who Lunch" to the recently released Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano performed by Anthony de Mare on ECM Recordings. In 2016, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
After his year at Stanford, he taught at Columbia University for six years, and then skipped town, while laughing maniacally, to join the faculty of Brandeis University, where he is now the Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Composition. While at Brandeis, he has also taken part-time appointments teaching at Harvard University (twice) and New England Conservatory (also twice). Now a failed trombonist, he lives in Boston exurbia and in Maine with his wife Beth Wiemann and exactly two cats named Sunset and Camden.