Bienen seeks to expand classical repertoire, include composers of color


Illustration by Shveta Shah

The Bienen School of Music is expanding its repertoire database to include artists from outside the classical canon.

Virginia Hunt, Reporter

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor in 1933, she became the first Black woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. Though she is foundational to modern classical music, she doesn’t receive the same recognition as white composers. 

But the Bienen School of Music hopes to recognize the many contributions of composers like Price. The school is currently working on expanding its repertoire to include more Black composers like Margaret Bonds (Bienen ’33, ’34)  and Julius Eastman, along with work by other marginalized artists. 

Bienen Prof. Karen Brunssen is one of the school’s major players in the push to develop a more representative music curriculum. Bienen has instituted a two-phase program to ensure these changes, Brunssen said. 

Phase one lasted two years and started around 2020. Every student was required to learn two or more pieces by Black composers, though Brunssen said many students didn’t stop there, with some learning sets or anthologies. 

With this phase, students had the opportunity to learn about the composers, Brunssen said. 

“We kept a list of what they had chosen to do,” Brunssen said.  “They got to decide what they wanted to do, which then takes them out to the internet to find out … who are the composers.” 

Phase two is currently underway and involves developing more permanent resources to make Bienen into a more equitable institution.  

First-year voice and opera performance graduate student Uma Singh, who works under Brunssen, is heading the creation of a spreadsheet that provides 17 databases of music from underrepresented composers. The spreadsheet also includes musicological resources and sheet music from composers of different genders and cultural backgrounds. 

“You often just seem to see the same (things in classical music curriculum) —  a bunch of Mozart and a bunch of stuff like that,” Singh said. “It was really important to highlight work by living composers, as well as composers of color.” 

Art creates humanization, empathy and connection, which help dismantle systems of racism and bigotry, Singh added. 

Singh, who is half-Indian, said it is “fulfilling” to work with music by composers whose identity closely intertwines with her own. 

“I know people of other genders and races feel similarly when we may see music that connects them back to their foundational part of their identities,” Singh said. 

Bienen and Communication sophomore Justice Gardner said Bienen Prof. Robert Reinhart works to include composers traditionally outside the classical canon in his curriculum.

“While we are performing (more traditional classical pieces), it’s taking time away from work we can be performing by other composers or techniques or sounds made by other cultures,” Gardner said. “We aren’t exploring that.” 

He said he’s noticed that the musicology program offers a diverse range of music composition and history, focusing on areas like the Soviet republics, Spain, the Middle East and Latin America. But other majors may not get the same exploration of world music, Gardner said.

Brunssen hopes the school’s two-phase program will change the broader American view of classical singing as students graduate and move outside of the classroom, she said.

Singh and Brunssen hope the spreadsheet will provide easy access to these diverse materials. 

“What I wanted to see happen … is that we give (students) more resources that they can take with them in the door here at Northwestern while they’re here, but take (the resources) out when you’re done too,” Brunssen said. 

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