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Music 101

Classical Diversity: Today's Voices in Composition

by Seth Colter Walls

Classical Diversity: Today's Voices in Composition


About this playlist

For most of its history, classical music hasn't merely failed to achieve gender balance or racial diversity. The tradition, rather, has long suffered from complete dominance by white men. Acknowledging this fact takes nothing away from the catalog of great music that forms the core of the genre's repertoire; it simply suggests that history has lost out on appreciating a lot of works that might have been written by all sorts of people who didn't look like Beethoven, if only those individuals had been allowed (or invited) to do so.

We still don't have complete gender equity or consistent racial diversity in our formal concert halls today, although things are improving. In recent months and years, we’ve seen a clutch of albums organized around works by artists from many backgrounds. For the latest examples, take two recent, thrilling releases from the New Amsterdam label: one from the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, the other from composer Joseph C. Phillips, Jr., and his Numinous ensemble. (The latter recording, titled Changing Same, takes its name from a famed essay by Black Arts Movement critic and poet Amiri Baraka.)

The past year also saw the release of recordings from artists such as Anna Clyne, Kate Soper and the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, all of whom just happen to be women, in addition to being compelling voices in contemporary music. In order to better celebrate these recordings, as well as to help combat the errant perception that classical music still works exactly the same way as it did in prior centuries, we've included cuts from those albums in our playlist.

Marcos Balter, whose ghostly piece "Bladed Stance" was performed on a 2014 album by the sextet yMusic, has warned against over-identifying composers with any particular demographic. "I'm a Brazilian composer, I'm a gay composer, and people always go for those things as if they are the really crucial, defining elements in my music, when they're really not," he told NewMusicBox.

In order to avoid that mistake, we’ll close by noting that all the pieces in our mix come across, first and foremost, as surprising and vibrant creations. Check out the polyrhythmic energy in the finale of Anthony Davis' “Notes from the Underground,” the compelling orchestral sweep of Clyne's “Night Ferry,” or selections from Soper's stylistically madcap song cycle Voices from the Killing Jar, and we think you'll agree. The fact that these works also collectively suggest an increased inclusiveness within the classical sphere is a bonus.

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