I’m pretty good about not adding people to this email list unless I’ve met them in person (usually at a conference) and they’ve told me they’d like to join, so y’all probably know that I am of Middle Eastern ethnicity. By contrast, if you are one of the 1,000+ subscribers to the See-A-Dot Music Publishing Newsletter, there is a 10% chance that your name is either Jonathan, David, Michael, or Chris. Add Matthew or Thomas to the list and it goes to a 15% chance.
Have you ever had the experience of being the only person of your ethnicity in the room? At a meeting, in a class, or your place of work? It’s an odd experience, but one POC encounter regularly. I, for instance, have met fewer than a dozen middle eastern people who work in the classical music world. If I focus on the choral world, I can count the number on one hand. I find myself frequently not only the middle eastern in the room, but also in a rehearsal, and even at a professional conference.
By its nature, choirs are typically half male and half female, yet female conductors make up a smaller percentage of those on the podium. Here’s one study of women conductors in Wisconsin. For composers, women make up an even smaller percentage of the music we program.
These numbers become more troubling when looking at race. There is significantly less available research about conductors or composers of color, but here’s a demographic breakdown of the composers in the See-A-Dot Music Publishing catalog:
Of the 32 composers we represent, 25% are women, and about 15% are people of color. There are no women of color in the catalog.
While I have a suspicion that this is roughly aligned with the demographics of composers in the choral field, it is not at all representative of the country we live in. Half of our country is female. 60% of our country is white. More than 50% of American born children are people of color, and in the next 30 years less than half of the country will be white.
This disconnect between our country’s demographics and those in the choral world are one stark example of how unconscious bias and institutional prejudice affect what is the single most popular extracurricular activity among adults in the United States.
So what can we do?
I’ve been reflecting on this question all week and keep returning to one short answer:
Commit to programming concerts that are 50% women composers and 50% composers of color.
If you’re like me, your first reaction to those numbers might be deep resistance. When I saw this suggestion from a colleague I thought, “This seems unrealistic and looks like SO much work.” After weeks of digesting this suggestion, I agree: correcting centuries of institutional bias is difficult and requires a great deal of thoughtfulness, time, and effort.
This task is not made any easier by our national choral leadership. Here’s a breakdown of demographics for ACDA’s national leadership, as well as the composers represented at reading sessions of vetted repertoire as part of the repertoire and standards during the 2019 National Convention. It’s painfully obvious in both instances that women and people of color (especially women of color) are grossly under-represented in both our leadership and suggested programming. For our leadership, one simple answer looks suddenly familiar:
Commit to having creative and administrative leaders be 50% women and 50% people of color.
Again, this is not meant as a radical demand. Rather, it is an aspirational goal for us to have our leadership reflect the world we live in. This suggestion is also not meant to remove white male composers from our concert programs, rather it is a number that promotes the intersection of both gender and racial representation in a way that accurately reflects the world we live in. When I stop to reflect on musicians of color I know, particularly female musicians of color, I start to see which voices are deeply under-represented, and I live in one of the most diverse cities in the world.
Here’s a question I asked myself today: In my entire career as a chorister, can I name five composers who are women of color that I have actually performed?
Before looking at my list, take a few minutes and try this yourself.
Here’s the list I was able to come up: Chen Yi, Rosephanye Powell, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Carolyn Chen, and....(I cheated and had to look through some old programs for the last name) Bora Park (a student that participated in a new music reading session and concert I participated in).
Here’s another question I asked myself: can I add five more names of women composers of color that I have performed at all? I played in wind bands from middle school through college, have performed in dozens of operas, sung countless art songs, and work extensively as a performer of experimental new music.
Considering my entire performing career, I was able to add two names to the list of female composers of color I can remember performing: Du Yun and Jeonghyeon Joo.
Continuing with this game, can I add any other names of composers who are women of color AT ALL off the top of my head? To be honest, I cheated and had to look at lists of composers to remind me of some names).
I was able to add: Tania León, Reena Esmail, Melissa Dunphey.
Finally 10 composers!
I share this exercise because it made me painfully aware of both how dire this situation is and how important it is to consider intersectionality.
With American cities becoming increasingly diverse and the number of minority-majority populations on the rise, such considerations are a central part of answering the perennial question of how to get butts in seats. I believe these considerations, and enacting programming and hiring policies to have our performers, composers, and administrators reflect the people in our community, is not only a matter of morality, it’s good business.
Let me offer an anecdotal example: when I went to the premiere of Reena Esmail’s This Love Between Us by the LA Master Chorale I was blown away by how familiar the audience seemed. I was surrounded by people in the sought after 25-40 age demographic, a significant portion of whom were black, Hispanic, Asian, and (most surprisingly to me) Middle Eastern and Indian. This wasn’t including those who came from the Urban Voices Project, an organization with which Reena regularly works, who stood out proudly wearing their matching organizational shirts.
This spring, the LA Phil programmed an astounding exploration of musical perspectives of traditional and new music from artists of all ethnicities, genders, styles, and ages. The programs, however, were tragically cancelled due to Covid. Nevertheless, the programming itself was remarkable, it is the added weight of these world class institutions that gave me a strong sense of hope.
Groups like the LA Phil and the LA Master Chorale have learned that the path to being successful and relevant in the 21st Century is to broaden their appeal by having their hiring and programming reflect the people in the city that supports them.
These ensembles are THRIVING in Los Angeles. This type of diverse and innovative programming has been growing over the last few decades and has engendered an entire culture of diverse and engaging programming that has trickled down to smaller ensembles all over the city. It’s no surprise to me that LA has declared itself the creative capital of the world.
If you’re interested but daunted by this task and don’t know where to start, I recommend the database provided by the Institute for Composer Diversity.
This suggestion for programming is aspirational: it might not reflect the current state of the choral field, but by programming how we want our field to look, that is to say if we want the creative voices in the choral world to reflect the country we live in, we can guide the evolution of our ensembles to include everyone in our community. As ensemble leaders, we decide whose music is visible, we decide which of our singers will look at our programs and see themselves reflected in the names of the composers.