What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers

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It has been more than six months since Helga Davis gave the keynote speech at the 2018 New Music Gathering. After a brief opener, she quoted August Gold— “If you want to know what you want, you have to look at what you have.” —and then proceeded to ask the audience to “look around the room, and see what the composition of [the] room [says] about what we want.”

Based on her challenge, we can ultimately conclude the following: if attending a music event and the people in the room of the event comprise mostly white cisgender men, then the greater collective “we” simply does not want people who are not white cisgender men to participate.

AS A FREQUENT ATTENDEE OF NEW MUSIC EVENTS AROUND THE WORLD, I OFTEN FEEL AS THOUGH THE PRESENCE OF PEOPLE WHO LOOK LIKE ME IS NOT WANTED OR IS MERELY TOLERATED.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated, but for me this feeling arises mainly from observations of concert programming. After I attend concerts of music solely by composers who fit that expected image, the message “black composers have not composed music good enough for us to play or for this stage” is inevitably evoked within me. Every time. In observing the greater world of classical music, the father of what we refer to as new music today, it is no wonder why black composers do not feel wanted. Classical music did not escape the greater social construct of racism and patriarchy, which is why composers such as Ignatius Sancho, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and plenty more are usually only studied in non-required specialized classes. Why not, for example, include Chevalier de Saint-Georges in a general music history class? After all, his career begins before Mozart’s (who utilized one of Saint-Georges’s melodic gestures in the finale of his Symphony Concertante in E flat Major, K364), his orchestra did commission and present the world premieres of the six Paris Symphonies by Haydn (all of which Saint-Georges conducted), and his own music was highly praised during and after his life. Yet his and other black composers’ non-existence in academic institutions tells black composers that we are not wanted, no matter how much success we gain. New music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today. Moreover, despite the recent increase in conversation about female, non-binary, transgender, and BAME/ALAANA/diverse composers, the programming of these composers has not significantly increased.

For many of us, there is a frustration. On the one hand, if the optics of new music are sending unwelcoming messages, then the next generation of would-be black composers will most likely not pursue composition. On the other hand, the general mistrust and falsehoods that exist within the new music community are already quite high, as evinced by #MeToo-related reports, countless social media posts and private conversations/confessions, stories of professors psychologically abusing their students or mis-teaching their students through their lack of honesty and inability to convey important messages, and more. Discussions about the semantics and accrual of commissions amongst composers of all levels are few and far between, and consequently the underpayment or non-payment of composers for new works occurs more frequently than what may be imagined. Professional recommendations for opportunities do not happen nearly to the extent that they could for all composers, and all of these injustices disproportionately affect black composers. Additionally, the number of ensembles directly reaching out to black composers is not significant enough to noticeably bring these composers parity. There is also a trend that places the music of black composers mostly in themed concerts, more often than not related to social justice or for Black History Month. While this is not necessarily negative, the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked. In sum, we are not one-trick ponies.

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