It is high time classical music recognizes the works of Black female composers more.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matters movement, many musicians on Facebook and social media are learning more about music written by living Black composers, as well as their musical contributions.
Black composers offer a unique artistic insight through their compositions; an integration of musical heritage, culture, and experience completely different from composers of other races.
Throughout classical music history, white male composers have been the most recognized; Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and countless others share the same skin color and gender identification.
However, this is 2021, and what matters more than the color of a composer’s skin is the quality of their artistic output.
Here are 10 incredible living, Black, female composers.
Starting off our list is Pamela Z, a composer known for her compositions involving processed voice, spoken voice, and operatic “bel canto” singing.
One of her most famous compositions, Badagada, released on 2013 album A Delay Is Better, takes advantage of sound effects manipulation on her own voice, evoking a texture at once ethereal and otherworldly.
All the tracks on the same album are between 3 and 8 minutes, departing from “long-form” classical music in favor of more digestible tracks.
Pamela Z’s background is squarely in classical music; in 1978, she graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder, receiving her degree in classical voice performance.
Instead of doing what most composers do – pursuing a Doctorate degree – Pamela Z instead ventured right into the world of contemporary composition. She has since been commissioned by several high-profile musical ensembles and organizations, including the Kronos Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, and the Bang On a Can All Stars.
Chanda Dancy has a unique place in the world of composition, a craftswoman of subtlety known most for her film scores and compositions.
One film soundtrack of hers, After We Leave, was released in 2020. The otherworldly textures sprinkling an accessible tonality conjure the images of endless space, which is exactly what the film is about.
Dancy does write excellent concert music as well; in the video above is a performance of her chamber work Centrifuge: Or The Powers That Separate Us.
The work has a definite social justice theme, depicting class divide in a gripping 7-minute composition.
The Telegraph recognized Hannah Kendall in 2015 among the top female composers under the age of 35.
In 2016, she gained positive attention with her social justice themed opera The Knife of Dawn, a work about the real-life imprisonment of activist & poet Martin Carter. The Guardian called the opera a “Tour de Force of vocalism…”
Kendall’s work has additionally been performed twice at the BBC Proms, in both 2017 and 2020. One of her works performed at the BBC Proms, The Spark Catchers, is featured in the YouTube clip above.
After graduating with a Master’s from the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, Kendall is continuing her studies at Columbia University in NYC.
Ysaye Maria Barnwell
Barnwell is not just an accomplished classical composer; she is a noted speaker on the power of the human voice as a mechanism for bringing people together.
In her Tedx talk in 2015, Barnwell presented a talk now seen over 11,000 times online. In this talk, she emphasized that while society undergoes rapid changes, singing and the human voice, presented through song, is essential to communication and pulling people together, even complete strangers.
It’s no surprise that Barnwell’s compositions employ the human voice as a central element, such as in her choral composition We Are, as seen above.
Montgomery is an exceptional composer; in the opening sentence of her Wikipedia page, she is described as a composer whose music has a “focus on the vernacular, improvisation, language, and social justice.”
An active young composer, her list of commissions includes those from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Albany Symphony.
Montgomery is equally adept at performance as she is at composition; she graduated from Juilliard with a degree in violin performance & from NYU with a degree in Film Composition.
In 2016, Jessie Montgomery was elected to the board of Chamber Music America, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping small musical ensembles flourish.
Cellist Diedre Murray is at home in both contemporary classical music and jazz performance.
In the 90s, Diedre Murray collaborated with avant-garde double bassist Fred Hopkins on the album Stringology. Their work sounded edgy, exploring the technical depths of the orchestra’s two lowest stringed instruments.
Outside of Fred Hopkins, her musical collaborators have included composer & violinist Leroy Jenkins, composer & saxophonist Henry Threadgill, and famed American singer James Brown.
One of Murray’s most noted works is her jazz opera Running Man. The text was highly acclaimed; it won a nomination for the 1999 Pulitzer in Drama. Additionally, she was bestowed the prestigious Obie award for the same composition.
Nia Franklin is perhaps most well known as a beauty pageant titleholder; she was crowned the winner of Miss America 2019 after being nominated as Miss New York in 2018.
This young composer – currently just 27 years of age – served as a Kenan Fellow in Lincoln Center’s education division in 2017.
As a musician, Nia has made an especial focus on community outreach and education. In fact, in one of her own Miss America speeches, Franklin cited how “there is a 20% higher graduation rate at schools where music is part of the curriculum.”
She previously was a member of ArtistCorps, a subsidiary of nonprofit civil organization AmeriCorps. In her work as a member of ArtistCorps, she worked with “high-needs” youth in underfunded public high school programs.
Additionally, she has founded a music club for students in partnership with Success Academy Charter Schools, a charter school operation based in New York City.
Alberga is an important Jamaican composer residing in the United Kingdom. Her work has been performed by many of Europe’s top orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic as well as the London Philharmonic.
Her music, like in the second string quartet above, is best described as contemporary classical in genre.
However, the nomenclature means less than the artistry itself; much of her music, like her 2nd string quartet, embodies both a passionate, fiery flame as well as calmer, more subdued atmospheres.
Versatile in her musicianship, Alberga even wrote a work to open the closing night of the BBC Proms in 2015, a choral composition titled Arise, Athena!
In 2020, Okoye’s work Black Bottom, a powerful composition about the destruction of a black community in Detroit, Michigan, was performed by the orchestra belonging to the same city, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The piece is an inherent blend of genre; a classical orchestra is accompanied by an electric bass, a drummer playing jazzier licks, and a quartet of singers.
Having premiered on March 7th, it certainly does not feel coincidental that this work directly preceded a significant worldwide social justice movement, Black Lives Matter.
Perhaps her most recognized work is the 2002 composition Voices Shouting Out, originally written for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. A work commemorating the victims of 9/11, the work does not take the perspective of tragedy, but rather, a hopeful affirmation for moving forward as a nation.
A contemporary Cubo-African composer, Tania León has been an important figure in classical music for the last several decades.
Her 1994 opera, Scourge of Hyacinths, received over one dozen performances throughout Europe and Mexico. The music was created in collaboration with experimental theatre director Robert Wilson, who is perhaps best known in the world of music for his collaboration on Glass’ Einstein on the Beach.
Born in Cuba, her work was finally performed in her home country for the first time in 2010 at the Leo Brouwer Festival of Contemporary Music.
Since 1985, León has served as a Professor of Composition at Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music. Her recent premieres include the work Stride, an orchestral work premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2019. The music is an ode to prominent women activists, including Susan B. Anthony.