DEI Talks: An Interview with the Music by Black Composers Project

When I was a young, aspiring musician, I played violin in a well-renowned youth orchestra in Milwaukee, WI. Participation in this organization afforded me many valuable opportunities: I was able to learn about the power of art music and what it meant to be a responsible member of an orchestra playing relatively difficult works, to perform in many beautiful concert halls across the state, to form lasting friendships, and to connect with a private instructor without whose tutelage I would never have been able to follow my chosen career path.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that “Milwaukee is the most racially and ethnically diverse city in Wisconsin,” with Black, Asian, and Hispanic communities making up around 53% of the population (see the demographic data provided by the city of Milwaukee), I remember very few non-white faces in that prominent ensemble during those formative years of my education. I remember the moment of this realization vividly: It seemed that the plethora of opportunities the organization afforded were generally only offered to people who looked like me—white students from the remote suburbs.

Though many organizations like this one recognize and acknowledge the problem with the overwhelming whiteness of classical music—even in early stages—and work hard to creatively address it, it’s a large, difficult, and systemic one. Because of the field’s historical and overwhelming whiteness (see Huizinga 2019, Nwanoku 2019, Brown 2020a, Brown 2020b, Ross 2020, Jenkins 2021), BIPOC don’t see themselves represented on stage. According to many of the sources listed above—and the mission statement of Music by Black Composers—this lack of representation is one of many factors that discourages participation in Western classical music by people of color. 

Indeed, though programs exist in attempts to diversify student populations at music schools, as Chris Jenkins states, “Scholarships and fellowships for promising students of color at conservatories or orchestras exist throughout higher education. In an era when people of color aim to survive within white superstructures, they help us do just that: survive. However, in imagining a future in which we would actually thrive, we must acknowledge that because access programs facilitate access to an environment dominated by white aesthetics but do not require that environment to change. They allow the white majority within these institutions to imagine that their aesthetic choices and approaches are universalist, rather than particularist, and also require students of color to assimilate.” (Jenkins 2021) If the goal of the classical music scene is to “thrive,” the field needs to not only open the door, but adjust the types of repertoire we engage with and critically examine why this lack of diversity has persisted until now.

Music by Black Composers (MBC) attempts to address this lack of diversity on the classical stage by providing access to and heightening public awareness of the wealth of creative works by Black composers. In showcasing Black voices, the project hopes to inspire musicians of color by showing them that they are an important part of classical music’s past, present, and future.

The following questions about the project were answered by Dr. Megan Hill, an ethnomusicologist, who acts as head researcher and writer for MBC. [Some external links provided by Anna Rose Nelson.]

How would you describe your work/project?

Dr. Megan Hill (MH): Music by Black Composers (MBC) is a project of the not-for-profit Rachel Barton Pine Foundation. Launched in 2001, MBC is dedicated to spreading awareness of and access to music by Black composers to children and adults alike. Rachel Barton Pine is a concert violinist, and she established the MBC project out of the realization that young musicians learning classical music seldom, if ever, have the opportunity to study and perform music written by Black composers. This omission silences a rich vein of musical creation from global cultural consciousness. The effects of this erasure are most serious for aspiring Black classical musicians. Without access to the historic narratives of Black composers, many of these young musicians struggle to become part of an art form in which they do not appear to belong. The ultimate result is a lack of diversity in our concert halls, both on stage as well as in the audience.

What inspired you to begin this work? 

MH: While I am MBC’s only full-time employee (I am its Managing Editor, Head Researcher & Writer), I am certainly not its progenitor. That credit belongs to Rachel Barton Pine, who describes her development of the project as an outgrowth of her 1997 album, Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Within the overwhelming response to this album by students, parents, and teachers she kept hearing the question, “how can I find music by Black composers for my kids/students to learn?” She soon realized how difficult access really is, especially with student-level repertoire. So she established MBC in order to make repertoire and other resources more readily available for those people who were already seeking it, and to raise awareness in others who don’t even know yet they ought to be learning about these composers and playing their music.

What are the main goals of your work, and how have you accomplished them thus far?

MH: MBC’s stated mission is “to inspire Black students to begin and continue instrumental training by showing them that they are an integral part of classical music’s past as well as its future; to make the music of Black composers available to all people regardless of background or ethnicity; and to help bring greater diversity to the ranks of performers, composers, and audiences, and help change the face of classical music and its canon.” 

To these ends, we’ve begun supplementing the current instrumental training methods by publishing books of music exclusively by Black composers from around the world. In addition to making the repertoire available, MBC’s books educate through articles and interviews. Each volume includes biographies for every composer, features on Black classical music making throughout history, and profiles of Black role models in classical music, past and present. MBC’s Violin Volume 1 was published in October 2018, and Violin Volume 2 is scheduled to be released this year (2021). Forthcoming are a collection for carillon (compiled and edited by the University of Michigan’s Assistant Professor Tiffany Ng), as well as series for viola, cello, bass, and eventually woodwinds and brass.

We also have other educational and informational resources for students, performers, and members of the broader community. We have published a coloring book that features 40 of the most important Black composers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, and a timeline poster that features more than 300 Black composers—including women and men from the 1700s to the present day, hailing from all continents around the world. We are also creating online repertoire directories which will provide information about and access to works written by Black composers. Our other online resources include a bibliography of publications about Black classical music making, a discography, a list of children’s books about Black classical music making, a list of podcasts and radio programs, resources on diversity in music theory, and directories of historic and living composers for those commissioning new works or simply seeking information.

How do you see the future of this project? What do you hope this will accomplish?

MH: Beyond what I’ve already described as our mission/goals, we’re hoping to provide resources and information to the community so that there is no longer any excuse for Black composers and their music to remain an unspoken part of the classical music story. Racist historical/societal forces have played a role in keeping these names and faces out of our history books, and these composers’ music unpublished and unplayed. We’re working to increase access and knowledge, and, in doing so, change the community’s expectations within the broader classical music culture over time.

Have you encountered any obstacles in going about this project?

MH: It cannot be stressed enough that funding is an ongoing challenge. MBC is entirely donor-funded, and our work can only be done with financial support from the community. We do not bring in enough royalties from our publications to sustain our work, and it is only with donations that we will be able to complete all of our planned projects and initiatives.

The non-availability of resources (namely published repertoire by Black composers, either for sale or otherwise publicly accessible) is the very reason that MBC is still a necessary project. Much of my work as researcher and managing editor involves hunting down scores, determining copyright status, determining the ownership of a given piece, locating those owners (composers, heirs, or publishing houses), and negotiating with or otherwise encouraging them to make the music more readily available to the public.

As far as pushback from people in the classical music community toward MBC, there has been relatively little! Most people can freely recognize that this is an area in need of development in terms of educating the community and providing access to music. 

Rachel did receive some negative feedback about the project a couple of years ago following an interview she did on NPR, in which some listeners accused her of cultural appropriation, as she is a white musician leading this project to expand access to Black composers’ works. She took these comments seriously and considered where they were coming from, discussing them with MBC’s team (the majority of whom are Black classical musicians themselves)… [They came to the conclusion that] MBC is simply involved in providing an avenue through which Black composers and their works can more easily reach performers, students, and audiences. Rachel is enthusiastic about the repertoire, has passion for social justice, and came upon this project organically through her own experiences as a performer… In the world of classical music, the community tends to view all repertoire as equally valid for any performer to play, regardless of race or ethnicity. As Rachel asks, do we insist that only Russians play Tchaikovsky? We all have the responsibility and joy of playing and sharing music by any classical composers we choose to celebrate.

Was there anything that surprised you during the process of completing the project?

MH: The inherent challenges in tracking down the repertoire, resources, and information unfortunately have not surprised me. 

What has delighted me, though, has been the response from individuals in the community. It is incredibly gratifying to hear how our work providing these resources has made a difference to people. It’s absolutely wonderful to know that students and families of color are finding MBC’s materials inspiring and motivating; this is the primary mission of our project, and I will never tire of hearing from people who hear and see themselves in classical music for the first time through these resources. 

It’s also wonderful to hear from white students, families, and teachers about how this music and these stories have helped them broaden their perspectives about who and what classical music is and has been. This is also essential, as this change in perspective will play a vital role in shifting the broader culture toward sustained equity and inclusion.

Are there ways for people reading this to get involved? 

MH: Please check out our website! https://www.musicbyblackcomposers.org/ 

There are tons of resources there, and many ways to get involved. 

We have volunteers working on many strands of this project, and we couldn’t do what we do without them! If anyone would like to volunteer, you can email me at editor@musicbyblackcomposers.org

Ways to help include volunteering music engraving skills, online research for specific repertoire, suggesting additional resources or activities we can provide, giving us feedback on pieces in our published collections that we can adapt into teaching tips, sharing the name of a Black composer we should know about, and liking/following/sharing us on social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—and please use our hashtags! #MusicbyBlackComposers #ExpandtheCanon #BlackisClassical #ChangingtheFaceofClassicalMusic).

As with any non-profit work, we can always use more funding. MBC does not bring in enough money from the sales of its publications to be self-sustaining, and it is only able to remain active through donations. https://www.musicbyblackcomposers.org/support-us/donate-now/ 

This interview is part of our DEI Talks series, which endeavors to showcase resources and initiatives dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion in Western classical music. To read other features in the series, click here. If you have suggestions for other initiatives we should feature, or if you would like to write a feature yourself, please contact us at mpinthemoment@umich.edu.

Note: The header graphic comes from the MBC Composers Collage.

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