DEI Talks: An Interview with the Composers of Color Resource Project

During the summer of 2020, the way we live our lives changed. Not only did we lose our ability to move around the world freely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the inequalities relating to other people’s ability to do so even in normal circumstances were, once again, brought to light. George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer on May 25, 2020 ignited a movement and protests all over the world, focusing in part on this act of violence and, more broadly, the systemic oppression of people of color in all aspects of life.

I watched the events unfold in my former hometown of Minneapolis, and as a white graduate student stuck in my house in Michigan, I felt powerless. I went to a protest or two to show solidarity and help lift the voices of BIPOC, but my everyday activities felt hollow, as if the work I’d put in towards my degree in music theory had somehow been exposed to myself and others around me as meaningless and insulated. Speaking to others in my field, I know that many of us shared this same sentiment. It was from this need to contribute to something relevant and timely that the Composers of Color Resource Project was born. 

The product of the Composers of Color Resource Project is an attempt at inclusion in the music theory classroom in the form of an open, crowd-sourced list of pieces written by BIPOC that address common analytical topics. The list includes links to scores and recordings, biographical information about the composers, and a detailed rundown of the particular topics and how they present in the piece. Though this work is, as the founders of this project mention, only the first in a step towards a more diverse discipline, they hope it will open doors to further work towards inclusion and equity in music theory pedagogy.

The following interview questions were answered asynchronously and have been edited for clarity. Many thanks to the founders of the Composers of Color Project, including Amy Fleming, Aaron Grant, Megan Kaes Long, Jan Miyake, and Sam Reenan.


How would you describe your work/project?

SAM REENAN: The Composers of Color Resource Project is an effort to crowdsource music-theory teaching examples that can be adapted for the higher education music classroom. We strive to galvanize members of the theory community to analyze works by composers of color. We then make scores, musical examples, analytical notes, annotated scores, and other resources freely available on our website, http://composersofcolor.hcommons.org/, so that the field of music theory can increase its representation of BIPOC composers and move away from a long-held dependence on music written by white, male, European composers.

JAN MIYAKE: So many pedagogues want to diversify their syllabi and teaching examples, but the amount of time it takes to do so is prohibitive. We’re trying to remove that barrier.

I think we are making it easier for teachers to address the issue of representation in their courses. I was trained almost solely by people who taught famous Austro-German composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern). As we teach, our models inform how we teach, and it is a tremendous amount of work to find new examples. The work of CCRP makes it easy for professors to find examples by non-White composers. 

So many pedagogues want to diversify their syllabi and teaching examples, but the amount of time it takes to do so is prohibitive. We’re trying to remove that barrier.

What inspired you to begin this work? (Was there a particular event that stands out to you, or was it more of a trend of Eurocentrism in the classroom, etc.?)

MEGAN KAES LONG: Certainly the discipline was galvanized by Philip Ewell’s plenary talk (and subsequent publication) at SMT 2019 and by the killing of George Floyd and so many other unarmed Black people this summer. There’s been a general trend in music theory toward diversifying examples (which is itself a small first step towards developing a curriculum that is truly anti-racist, which requires much more work than simply teaching the same topics but with different repertoire) for some time now, but that was definitely accelerated in 2020.

SAM REENAN: Dr. Leigh van Handel proposed an action day focused on having scholars explore music by composers of color in summer 2020, in response to the #ShutDownAcademia movement on twitter. The idea to crowdsource analytical examples was first proposed by Dr. Elizabeth West Marvin, Dr. Jane Clendinning, and Molly Murdock at the 2019 Pedagogy into Practice 2 conference, where music by women composers was the focus. Dr. van Handel’s proposal led to the creation of a Slack channel and a series of conversations around identity and representation as well as curricular reform, textbook design, and the generation of new resources. The CCRP formed as a response to the proposal to put on Analysis events, and had its first Analysis-a-Thon on 17 July, 2020. 

How do you see this project addressing broader current social justice issues (such as DEI, anti-racism, etc.)?

AMY FLEMING: Our project up to this point has been focused primarily on diversifying the existing curriculum. That’s only one step. Ultimately, there is a lot more work to do to dismantle the racism and bias of the discipline and help people shift music theory into a field that is specifically anti-racist. 

MEGAN KAES LONG: My own students have been asking for a theory curriculum that is more global and that centers the music of people of color. This initiative is certainly a starting point (and only a starting point) to help faculty, especially under-resourced faculty, find repertoire that is suitable for their needs so that they can begin to de-center whiteness in their own curricula. 

JAN MIYAKE: I think this work addresses diversity. It’s been shown over and over again how important representation is. We’re making it easier to change the composers that are represented in our teaching. 

SAM REENAN: The main intervention that the CCRP project makes in the realm of anti-racism concerns inclusion. Our project makes readily available  scores, musical examples, and analytical commentary on music that is usually excluded from the music-theory classroom. The immediate fruit of that effort is that teachers can replace musical examples they have typically relied on by white, male, European composers with alternative examples by composers of color. This creates a situation where students, whether they are white and male or not, experience a classroom environment that resists exclusionary practices as they relate to the [diverse] identities of composers. This is, in truth, a small contribution towards anti-racism efforts, and also risks being treated as a “solution.” It should be understood, rather, as one of many intervention measures in decentering white, male musics and theories. 

Ultimately, there is a lot more work to do to dismantle the racism and bias of the discipline and help people shift music theory into a field that is specifically anti-racist. 

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

AMY FLEMING: It is certainly an ongoing project and there will always be more work to do. The spreadsheet and website have been immensely helpful in disseminating all of the crowdsourced analysis work we’ve been doing. As we continue, I hope that we can make our site and spreadsheet a place that is even more widely known within the field for people to come to for examples to use in their classes. I also hope we can continue to expand the repertoire we’ve analyzed, to create more resources (handouts, annotated scores, etc.) that help instructors incorporate music by diverse composers more easily, and to foster a community that is working together to diversify the curriculum through our website and analysis events. 

AARON GRANT: I hope to see us expand in a few areas: 

Short term: I want us to continue building out our database. However, I also want us to move from building a giant Google spreadsheet into a database of examples into curating and collecting other pedagogical materials such as lesson plans, handouts, and assignments. 

Long term: I’d like to see us help make actually bridge the gap into more meaningful changes to the music theory curriculum. Right now, we are thinking about ways to decenter whiteness and maleness from the standpoint of musical examples, but we need to think bigger. How can we alter the subjects we teach and the way we teach them to also decenter whiteness and maleness?

JAN MIYAKE: I’d like to see us continue to build out the resources. Other dreams I have include offering forums for coming together to brainstorm syllabi revision and assignment types. We could build opportunities to share successful assignments and troubleshoot less successful assignments. The potential is endless. The energy it takes to organize all of this is not. 

Have you encountered any obstacles in going about this project? Such as budget deficits, pushback from people, availability of resources? 

AARON GRANT: Practically, it is challenging getting people to attend our analysis meetings, and organizing the work of the project can be tricky. Moreover, it can be challenging finding scores and making sure we have the rights to distribute them. But we have been lucky in that things have gone quite well for us. I have not seen any pushback from people, and because this is crowdsourced, there hasn’t been a need for budgets. That being said, funding could open a number of doors such as commissioning recordings, purchasing the rights to non-public-domain music, and simply getting access to scores. 

MEGAN KAES LONG: Another challenge has been difficulty accessing high-quality scores and finding recordings—a lot of public domain music by BIPOC composers is available on IMSLP but only in parts, or in difficult-to-read facsimiles, and much of it isn’t recorded. One aspect of the project has been working to remedy this by producing higher quality scores; we’ve also been in touch with various organizations to find microgrants for performers to record pieces that we’d like to teach.

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

AMY FLEMING: I actually think the fact that this project came into existence during the pandemic may have helped it gain traction. People were craving collegiality/community that they no longer got with virtual conferences, and people were so familiar with Zoom by the time we started that it became no problem to just jump on Zoom to analyze music together. If we were not in the Zoom age, where video meetings and screen sharing and virtual collaboration are becoming second nature, I’m not sure what our project would have looked like. Being able to hold regular analysis meetings on Zoom was crucial to building excitement about our project and making it a project that people could actually contribute to in a real, tangible way. 

AARON GRANT: I was surprised at how much excitement this has stirred up. This has blossomed into a very highly used resource for the field. I am thrilled at the enthusiasm people have for the project and for making our field more inclusive. 

MEGAN KAES LONG: So much music by BIPOC composers was hiding in plain sight—and so much of it is actually a lot better for teaching canonical topics than the music we’ve been teaching all along. It’s such a clear example of colorasure (to use a term currently being developed by Phil Ewell). For instance, the CT°7 chord is all over the place in late nineteenth-century American parlor music by black composers, but we tend to teach it using Brahms, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. These white composers certainly use that harmony in interesting ways, but in many ways  it’s much more idiomatic to the music of, say, Edmond Dédé. I feel like we’ve been missing so many great pedagogical opportunities by ignoring and erasing the music of so many non-white composers.

Did you model your work off of any other, similar initiatives? If so, what did or didn’t you like about those that already existed?

AMY FLEMING: At the first ever Pedagogy Into Practice conference in 2017, there was a workshop session in which participants were broken up into groups to analyze music by women composers. The work was divided up and then compiled into documents that were shared with all the participants. This structure inspired our choice to meet as a whole group, then break into smaller groups to analyze, then compile the results into a format that was easily shareable and searchable for all.

Are there ways for people reading this to get involved? Do you have a website, FB, etc.?

MEGAN KAES LONG: There are so many ways to get involved! You can find links to many aspects of our project at our humanities commons page. We’re looking for folks to study repertoire and submit teaching examples, analytical notes, annotated scores, handouts, and lesson plans. We’re also looking for people to engrave public domain scores and make recordings. We’re hoping that folks will share great teaching experiences on our (emerging) blog. We always want people to join us for our virtual analysis sessions. Music theorists teaching advanced undergraduate or graduate students can develop materials for us in their classes. There’s infinite work to be done, and we need as many people working at it as possible. 

SAM REENAN: We have a twitter handle, @ccresourceproj, which posts updates as well as musical examples. We can also be contacted by email at ccresourceproject@gmail.com. The best way to get involved is to explore musical scores on our website or in your library, become acquainted with music by composers of color, and share your observations with the project in whatever format you prefer.

AARON GRANT: Please visit our website (https://composersofcolor.hcommons.org), join our humanities commons group (https://hcommons.org/groups/composers-of-color-resource-project/), and join our mailing list (https://forms.gle/HvyZ9KND4yrXHze26).

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your project?

SAM REENAN: I think the most important aspect of the project is that people should not consider its work centralized. We have created locations to house the resources, but the most productive way of generating those resources is by a sustained, individualized practice. If scores of individual scholars across the field create handouts, annotated scores, lesson plans, etc centered around music by BIPOC composers and share them with our project on a regular basis, the impact on the field is far greater than the product of any one event.


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.

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