BY GRACE CHAI '23
Classical music in the 21st century has become increasingly synonymous with bygone eras, a sea of white-haired heads, and a select few “classics,” like Beethoven’s Fifth or Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca. With more relatable pop music at people’s fingertips, it’s no surprise that younger generations gravitate towards three-minute hits, complete with beat drops and mesmerizing music videos. Contemporary, or present-day, classical music is often glossed over, with many preferring either canon or popular music. But what if I told you that there are composers—living ones—who are pushing the boundaries of sound? Composers who advocate, innovate, and educate? At the forefront, three contemporary Black composers strive to make music more relevant and meaningful for everyone.
Oftentimes, the biggest complaint about classical music is its mundanity; in a technology-driven society, limited attention spans tune out after the melody’s third iteration. However, Nkeiru Okoye defies monotony with enthralling pieces; she mixes elements of West African music with American folk and jazz, and she pursues ideas or stories that intrigue her. One recent source of inspiration came from an unexpected place: black-and-white photographs of Detroit’s Black Bottom community, which was razed as a part of urban renewal projects. Black Bottom is a tribute to the once-flourishing Black community that is its namesake, encapsulating a kaleidoscope of emotions and history. Okoye skillfully meshes history and music in the goosebump-inducing movement “Moan”: the orchestra swells behind the soprano’s haunting notes that pierce the air like an arrow whistling in the cool night—an allusion to the Great Migration, when millions of Southern Blacks traveled north to build better lives.
Daniel Bernard Roumain
Another composer who challenges conventional roles of music in society is Daniel Bernard Roumain, whose extensive repertoire ranges from electronic and hip hop-influenced music to string quartets. The Haitian-American has an aptitude for advocacy, often using his music to tell a story. Fairly recently, Roumain collaborated with other artists in the series The Just and the Blind, which comments on the school-to-prison pipeline. In the electrifying “About Face,” the artists tell the story of a Black kid growing up in America and the highlight the role Black and brown fathers play in dismantling the pipeline through verse, music, and dance. The soundtrack elevates the video’s message through intentional fermatas—dramatic pauses—paired with gravity-defying dance moves and the violin’s haunting cry. For instance, in a nighttime street scene, a dancer twirls gracefully under the glow of neon lights. A siren punctures the air, accompanied by the synthesizer’s ethereal sound and the rhythm of spoken verse: “Seeing his boys stenciled in the pavement of age/of confined to the straight and narrow of public school pipeline to detainment/the boy’s face is hardening slate/writing to outrun the expected outcome.” By contrasting the strident siren and muted synth, the composer conveys the issue of retaining one’s Black identity within a system that targets and oppresses Black youth. Roumain’s work demonstrates that music can transcend entertainment; it can advocate without words, shine a light on systemic problems, and educate the public in a digestible and meaningful way.
In the same vein, Jessie Montgomery challenges norms through compositions that blur the line between traditional classical music and the vernacular—folk or popular music—with some improvisation, or free performance of a musical piece. Her music, which the Washington Post describes as “‘turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life,’” offers a glimpse into the future of classical music—a constantly evolving, living art. In “Strum,” Montgomery weaves folk melodies into a vibrant fabric, with dancing lines intersecting the steady pizzicato, or plucking. The piece, which features “nostalgic” lulls and dance-like melodies, allows the listener to visualize the scenes that the music invokes: lush, flowing lines paint pictures of green trees dotting flowing streams in the countryside while rapid strumming and lively interjections from different string sections conjure images of a busy city street. This patchwork picture of America in its melodic language matches Montgomery’s vision for her music as “a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”
As you near the end of today’s musical journey, I encourage you to keep diversifying who and what you listen to. Music is an incredibly powerful vehicle for education, advocacy, and self-expression. So, the next time there is a lull in your life, take a moment and listen: listen to something unique; listen to something outside your comfort zone. Perhaps something will ignite a spark within you.
Yours in music appreciation,
Link to playlist on Spectrum website
[Unfortunately, many songs were not on Spotify]