Classical music has a diversity problem. What does the solution look like?
The EBCP mainly focuses on one: whose music is played. And Bartholomew-Poyser thinks that eventually, plans to increase the number of black composers will have a ripple effect across the entire classical music industry.
“I think highlighting these composers will result in a more diverse audience,” says Bartholomew-Poyser. “But it will be eventually. Ultimately.”
When asked to address concerns about potential tokenization of applicants, Edwin Outwater of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music acknowledged that there were “valid concerns” and noted that the EBCP is indeed open to composers who do not come directly from classical music. .
“In any competition, there are always boundaries to be drawn in the application process,” says Outwater. “If someone wins and is incredibly talented and doesn’t have the most orchestral experience per se, we’ll provide support if that person really wants to write an orchestral piece.”
In the competition’s first year, the selection committee considered nearly 100 entries, including some from singer-songwriters, jazz composers and church music composers, he adds.
Some of last year’s winners indeed bring influences from different musical backgrounds.
Tonooka, for example, is a jazz composer and pianist with 30 years of experience writing film scores, including for the 1988 Oscar-nominated short Family meeting.
Okpebholo attributes most of his early musical education to the Salvation Army church. He grew up in government housing in Lexington, Kentucky, and although his mother could not afford private lessons, he joined a youth marching band. Soon he starts taking free music lessons with the composer James Curnow. (Originally, they were meant to be euphonium lessons, but Curnow started teaching her to compose when she was 14.)
“Composition is very collaborative,” says Okpebholo, now a professor of composition and music theory at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. “You need people to perform your music. … The end goal of working with people, or seeing people perform what you’ve created, intrigued me.
Bingham echoed Okpebholo’s sentiments. For a composer, getting their music heard is just as important as writing the piece, he says. Nowadays, there are different ways to do this: post on social networks, organize a concert of your own music or contact record companies.
Competitions like the EBCP directly accomplish what these other methods do not. That is to say, they offer the possibility of delivering your work directly into the hands of famous composers, including John Adams and Anthony Davisboth members of the selection committee.
“All I had to do was hit a send button,” Bingham adds.
Recognize the black talent that is already there
For Bingham, what really set the competition apart from others of the genre was the ability to receive mentorship from a composer member of the committee, as well as having access to the conservatory’s resource pool.
“I felt there was more gravity,” he says. “I’m only two months away, but so far I really feel like I made the right decision.”
Living in San Francisco allowed Bingham to more fully utilize the resources available, including practice spaces and meetings with San Francisco Symphony faculty, collaborators, and donors. In addition, the conservatory offered access to recording studios and musicians for Cool story recordingsa recording project that Bingham created to showcase the work of Howard University composers such as Mark Fax, whose compositions were rescued from a trash can after a guard cleaned out Fax’s office after his dead.
Fax is by no means the only black songwriter whose work has been overlooked by the industry. The whiteness of classical music is apparent, not only in the glossy program books of the great concert halls, but also in the pages of the textbooks that the students study.
Weston, who works as a music teacher at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, has spent decades teaching music theory. He rarely encountered musical examples composed by black or female composers in theory textbooks. This in turn has contributed to a narrative of classical music history that excludes the existence of minority and female composers, he says.