Last year, Jonathan Bingham was balancing his burgeoning career as a composer with a day job at an Apple Store. His commission from the Emerging Black Composers Project changed everything. (Matthew Washburn)
Jonathan Bingham had just finished his work shift at an Apple Store in May 2021 when he saw the voicemail. He had been offered a commission as part of the Emerging Black Composers Project. Shocked, he went into the store’s changing area and stared at his reflection in the mirror.
Bingham had worked at the Apple Store since his days as a graduate student at New York University. After graduating in 2016, he juggled a full-time position there with a burgeoning composing career that included residencies at the Arapahoe Philharmonic and Boulder Symphony.
From 7am to 4pm, Bingham helped people fix their iPhones. From 5pm to around 10pm, he composed. And then he would do it all over again.
Being a finalist for the Emerging Black Composers Project, or EBCP, has provided Bingham with an opportunity to start a new chapter in his life as a full-time composer. Upon receiving the news, he put in his two week’s notice and moved from New Jersey to San Francisco.
Bingham had applied to the EBCP without giving much thought as to whether or not he could win. He was simply hoping his work would pass before the eyes—and ears—of the renowned composers and conductors on the judging panel.
The project, a 10-year partnership between the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and San Francisco Symphony, aims to spotlight existing talent and nurture the next generation of Black composers in the U.S. While the EBCP doesn’t have the word “competition” in its name, it functions as one. The project has sparked a conversation about how much further classical music has to go to become truly equitable, and whether competitions are an effective tool to promote diversity.
Facing classical music’s whiteness
“Historically, composers of color have had a much harder time getting their music performed and workshopped,” says Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, chair of the EBCP selection committee and the San Francisco Symphony’s resident conductor of engagement and education. “[The] project is an attempt to address some of that, and to provide points of access to young people from a community that has often previously been denied access.”
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Symphony launched the EBCP in the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, which helped set off a racial reckoning within arts organizations nationwide. Major orchestras finally began to grapple with an ongoing problem: their failure to truly reflect their surrounding communities, both in concert programs and on stages.
“There’s an assumption that a composer is someone who is of European descent and usually a male,” says Trevor Weston, who received the first-place EBCP commission in 2021. “Visibility is important so that people understand that this tradition has always included people of different backgrounds.”
Weston received a $15,000 commission to compose a new work for the San Francisco Symphony, a rare opportunity for a contemporary composer. Due to the applicant pool’s strength, the selection committee named three additional finalists—Bingham, Shawn Okpebholo and Sumi Tonooka. Each received an $8,000 commission to compose a work for the National Brass Ensemble, Oakland Symphony and San Francisco Conservatory of Music, respectively. The competition is accepting applications for its next cohort through Feb. 14.
The four winners have also been receiving mentorship from San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen; Edwin Outwater, the music director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; and Bartholomew-Poyser. (Bartholomew-Poyser replaced Michael Morgan, the beloved Oakland Symphony conductor—and one of the few Black music directors at a major orchestra—who died last year.)
The EBCP’s application guidelines encourage a degree in music performance, composition or “equivalent experience.” Such requirements can narrow down the pool of applicants to those who have taken more traditional career paths, says T. Carlis Roberts, a composer and former assistant professor of music at UC Berkeley. (Indeed, most of 2021’s winners aren’t exactly “emerging” artists. With the exception of Bingham, all are 40 or older and recognized in their field. The 2022 competition focuses on composers under 35.)
“It seems to me that setting it up where there is this call, a narrow funnel for a couple people to get in on the program, is a setup for tokenization, versus really creating greater access on a broader scale,” says Roberts, who identifies as Black and mixed race.
Roberts says organizations that want to create equity, access and diversity should think about just what measures they are willing to take. “Does it mean having brown faces within the same frameworks and roles that have existed?” Roberts says. “Or do you really create a new type of musical conversation?”
For Roberts, the answer seems to be the latter. To truly be diverse, he says, organizations should help lead the way in creating a “new terrain” that no longer exclusively centers Western art music. Ultimately, Roberts hopes to see a restructuring of the entire performing arts industry. Often, large, majority white-led arts organizations receive multi-million dollar endowments while community groups that primarily serve communities of color scramble for limited funds.
Bartholomew-Poyser’s approach is slightly different. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about ways to increase diversity in the arts, and has crafted a list of questions for arts organizations to ask themselves when considering its equity work. He calls it the “perfect fifths of diversity,” and it consists of five questions: Who is playing? Whose work is being played? Who’s listening? Who’s deciding? How are people treating each other as they do all of this?
The EBCP mostly focuses on one: whose music is being performed. And Bartholomew-Poyser believes that, down the line, projects that seek to increase the number of Black composers will have a ripple effect on the entire classical music industry.
“I do believe having these composers highlighted will result in a more diverse audience,” Bartholomew-Poyser says. “But that will be eventually. Eventually.”
When asked to respond to concerns about the potential tokenization of contestants, Edwin Outwater of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music acknowledged there are “valid concerns,” and noted that the EBCP is indeed open to composers who don’t come from straightforwardly classical music backgrounds.
“In any competition, there are always boundaries that have to be drawn in the application process,” Outwater says. “If someone wins and is incredibly talented and does not have the hugest orchestral background per se, we’re going to provide support if that person really wants to write an orchestral piece.”
During the first year of the competition, the selection committee reviewed nearly 100 applications, including some from singer-songwriters, jazz composers and composers of church music, 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 Academy Award-nominated 1988 short Family Gathering.
Okpebholo attributes most of his early musical education to the Salvation Army church. He grew up living in government housing in Lexington, Kentucky, and, though his mother could not afford private lessons, he joined a youth brass band. Soon, he started taking free music lessons with the composer James Curnow. (Originally, they were meant to be euphonium lessons, but Curnow began teaching him to compose when he was 14 years old.)
“Composition is very collaborative,” says Okpebholo, now a professor of composition and music theory at 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 have created, was intriguing for me.”
Bingham echoed Okpebholo’s sentiments. For a composer, getting your music heard is just as important as writing the piece, he says. Nowadays, there are different ways to do this—posting on social media, organizing a concert of your own music or reaching out to record labels.
Competitions like the EBCP directly accomplish what these other methods don’t. That is, they provide an opportunity to deliver your work straight to the hands of famous composers including John Adams and Anthony Davis, who are both on the selection committee.
“All I had to do was hit a submit button,” Bingham adds.
Recognizing Black talent that’s already here
For Bingham, what really distinguished the competition from others of its kind was the opportunity to receive mentorship from a composer on the committee, as well as have access to the conservatory’s pool of resources.
“I felt that there was more gravity,” he says. “I’m only two months in, but so far I really do feel like I made the right decision.”
Living in San Francisco has enabled Bingham to more fully utilize the resources offered—including practice spaces and meetings with faculty, San Francisco Symphony collaborators and donors. Additionally, the conservatory has offered access to recording studios and musicians for Cool Story Records, a recording project Bingham created to highlight the work of Howard University composers such as Mark Fax, whose compositions were rescued from a trash bin after a custodian cleaned out Fax’s office following his death.
Fax is by no means the only Black composer whose work the industry has overlooked. Classical music’s whiteness is apparent—not just in the glossy program books in large concert halls, but also within the pages of the textbooks music students study.
Weston, who works as a music professor at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, has spent decades teaching music theory. Seldom has he come across musical examples composed by Black or female composers in theory textbooks. This has in turn contributed to a narrative of classical music history that excludes the existence of minority and female composers, he says.
“Without knowing the history, it’s easy for anyone … to guess that classical music isn’t something that is really connected to [the Black] community,” says Weston, “There were people of African descent in the United States performing classical music before what we consider modern gospel was created. Many different communities have contributed to what we consider to be concert music or classical music.”
Some arts organizations have made incremental changes to respond to this issue.
The videos, hosted by Bartholomew-Poyser, and corresponding study guides were created to elevate these composers’ music and spark important classroom conversations on topics like the Chicago Black Renaissance and Jim Crow legislation.
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music announced Jan. 5 that it was partnering with the San Francisco Ballet to create two fellowship positions for Black string players, offering full-ride scholarships for the conservatory’s professional studies certificate in instrumental performance, performance opportunities with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and additional support.
The existence of these efforts at major arts organizations suggests a shift away from the more passive attitudes they held in previous decades. And, hopefully, they can make a difference in the long term.
“We are there, and there are a lot of us,” says Okpebholo. “To engage more with people who look like me and who are doing things like I do—it’s very inspiring and empowering.”
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