D-Composed is a Chicago-based collective of Black artists, musicians, and creatives focused on celebrating the Black experience in classical music. The group performs works exclusively written by Black composers, as well as performing in Black communities and partnering with organizations that have a proven commitment to communities of color. D-Composed innovates not only in the range of repertoire they perform—from Solange to Florence Price—but also in collaborating across various mediums including visual art, dance, poetry, and film.
Social Media Team member and Symphony Orchestra violinist Alyssa Shih talked with D-Composed founder and Executive Director Kori Coleman, Artistic Director and violist Yelley Taylor, and members Caitlin Edwards (violin) and Tahirah Washington (cello) about “holding the door open” by performing classical music in new ways.
What’s the origin story of D-Composed? Where did the idea for this collection of musicians come from?
Kori: One day I attended a classical music concert that was highlighting Black composers and I thought to myself, “How come I’ve never heard of a Black composer until now?” I wondered what would happen if we were to create an experience that was just centered around Black composers. I knew that there were more people out there that were like me, who hadn’t been exposed to the music of Black composers and I wanted to create a series that exclusively featured that music.
I have a background in branding, strategy, and marketing, but what I don’t have experience in is the music, finding the composers and performers. I started researching and Yelley’s name came up, so I reached out to them and asked, “Hey, can you help me with this event concept where we celebrate the music of Black composers?” We were complete strangers, but we took a chance and came together to bring this to life.
The main inspiration behind D-Composed is to create what I’ve always wanted to see. I left the classical music world because I didn’t see myself or my culture represented. What’s so unique about D-Composed is that it’s not just about classical music—we explore different genres, we incorporate different mediums, and create things that really honor Black composers and celebrate Black culture.
The canon of Western classical music consists of mainly European white men. I want to know how you’ve made the commitment to only performing works by Black composers. Has it been difficult to find these composers? Or even just finding sheet music?
Yelley: I think that it has been a journey. I have found a lot of the music, but I have also arranged quite a bit of the music. We would not be able to do what we are doing if it wasn’t for the scholarship of Black people of previous generations that made sure that the names of composers that were alive in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s were written down and that their music was recorded.
In my case, I went back to books I’d read in college and said, “Okay, whose name do I know?” I also searched the internet and really did some digging for some of the older works. There are so many Black composers all over the country. Thanks to social media, it doesn’t take much to approach a composer and ask, “Hey, can we play your piece?” Most composers love to have their pieces performed.
I would also say that we’re quite lucky in the sense that string quartets are one of the most common ensembles that composers write for. If we were in a different ensemble, it might be more challenging. I’m not going to say that we have tons and tons of music to play from, but we keep finding more and more, so it’s been exciting to make all of these connections.
Is there something specific about chamber music itself that appeals to what you’re trying to do with Black audiences as opposed to something like having a collection of solo players or creating an orchestra? What’s is about chamber music that is so useful?
Caitlin: I feel like chamber music is such an intimate experience and that’s what we try to create in D-Composed. We don’t want anyone to feel far off like they’re in a concert hall where you have to be quiet and can only applaud at certain times. We want everyone to feel welcome and like they’re a part of the music-making experience. Performing in that setting allows us to really connect with our audience and form relationships through the music.
Has being part of D-Composed changed how you feel about other work you do? Does the energy feel different? What does it feel like to play different music for different audiences?
Tahirah: All of the above. I mean, first of all, [with D-Composed] we chose to perform in venues that are un-traditional. We’ll go to the community centers, we’ll go to the urban farms, we’ll go to the blackbox theaters that are focusing on BIPOC art, we’ll go to the parks in the actual communities of our people. That already invites a different energy.
When you’re playing music by your peers and sharing it with people that look like you, there’s just nothing that compares to that feeling. It’s a vibe. We’re vibing off of something that connects us culturally. Even within classical music, there’s something cultural in the music that’s presented and expressed through the BIPOC composers. When you perform that in front of an audience of the same, there’s a recognition that happens and that gives off the feeling of family.
Yelley: Almost every event we do is for people that have never been to a chamber music performance. The experience of hearing live music that isn’t pre-recorded or that isn’t in the typical band setting is so exciting and fresh. To know all the cultural elements and composers is essential as well, but I like seeing people go, “Oh my gosh! Look at this cellist performing!” It’s people of all ages enjoying this experience together. It reminds me why I started performing. Just being like, “I love the sound that this instrument makes.”
From your first performance up to now, how has the way you approached programming changed?
Yelley: I think the biggest change really came with the pandemic. All of our experiences had been in person until the pandemic. Our performances may have gone virtual, but our values have stayed the same in terms of being in connection and in conversation with our community, celebrating Black history and culture through the music of composers across genres. How we’ve expressed that has changed as we’ve explored different types of collaborations across different mediums. We’ve been exploring how to bring that to life through our online content. We’re figuring out how to use our online platform to connect with more people and to connect with people in different ways.
With everyone going virtual during the pandemic, have you noticed anything that work better online rather than in-person? Is there anything that’s been improved by being online?
Yelley: I think one of the big moments for me was being able to share videos that we had created during the pandemic with my grandparents, who hadn’t seen me play in the ensemble and hadn’t seen me play since I was a teenager. To watch them with excitement and saying, “This is what you’re doing!” and to have my cousins sharing with people like their coworkers has been amazing. Normally, we’d only be able to see that reaction from the people in the audience around us. So that’s been really important.
Tahirah: It really meant a lot to me that my grandmother was able to see me play. I hadn’t really been able to perform for her. For her to be able to see it before she passed—she passed during this pandemic—was truly meaningful. She wouldn’t have been able to see me perform if it weren’t for the changes we made to our digital content.
On your website, you talk about “holding the door open” in classical music. What does that look like for D-Composed and how do you balance performing with advocacy and education?
Kori: Our idea of “holding the door open” is really about how we are including people in the experiences we create, through the choice of repertoire and venue, by making sure we’re featured in certain neighborhoods. We have a specific focus on the South and West side and areas that traditionally don’t have ongoing classical music performances.
We also think about inclusion in terms of the music we’re featuring. I think one of the dopest things about D-Composed is that in a program where you hear Florence Price, you might also hear Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares. But what’s beautiful about that song is that it is definitely a modern spiritual, and by featuring it in our program, we’re able to form a deeper connection with someone that probably wasn’t exposed to Florence Price.
As an organization, we are mission-based. Everything we do has to be tied to a greater purpose and benefit of our community. In a way, the performance is merely the vehicle. We have to figure out how we’re showing up, how we’re responding to people, and not doing things solely as entertainment. We are about being in conversation with our community, uplifting our mission, and everything that we create comes back to that.
How has it been trying to get more people introduced to classical music? Is your diverse approach to programming and concert experiences how you appeal to a wider audience, especially an audience of all ages?
Caitlin: That’s where our artistic mediums come in. We know that some people haven’t been exposed to classical music. For example, we know that children enjoy coloring, so that’s why we created a coloring book for kids. We commissioned sketches by Black artists that we turned into a coloring book so that kids can color along while they’re listening to the music.
In order to bring more people in, we think of other things that people might be familiar with. We know some people like yoga, and that’s where D-Compress comes in. We know some people like spoken word, so we’ll bring in a poet. Trying to make those connections with other things that might be more familiar for our culture.
What is the biggest thing you learned from this process?
Tahirah: Learning to be flexible. When things like the pandemic come up or when your collaborations with artists are not what you thought they were going to be, we try to still make that a positive interaction and expression of our mission.
Kori: There can be this pressure to always put something out there [on social media] and that is something we try to fight against. It’s important for us to not feel pressured to just put things out there for the sake of putting things out there and to really take our time to reflect on how we want people to feel with what we’re releasing.
Yelley: One of the big things that I am learning is how to view myself and the possibilities I have much more expansively. There are so many things that I would have not necessarily believed I could really do it [without this group]. I had not really spent much time arranging before joining D-Composed, but because I care so much about the mission, I gave it a shot. So much of our training as classical musicians might say that something needs to be perfect or you have to go to school for it in order to have permission to do it publicly. I was able to let that go. I may not have a clue about how to do something, but I have a little bit of faith in myself that I can probably make it work.
Caitlin: Something that I’ve learned is the importance of how we define composer. My definition of a composer has definitely expanded during my time in D-Composed. Oftentimes, when we perform pop music or hip hop, especially in traditional classical orchestras, it’s often swept under the rug like, “Oh it’s just pop music, it doesn’t matter.” But Black music, Black composers, are relevant and important. The care that we treat all of our music with spreads out to other parts of my life. So it’s definitely changed me as a musician in how I view music and perform it.
Is there any advice you want to give to the young musicians in CYSO?
Caitlin: Yeah, I would say two things. One, dream big. It’s cliché, right? But really, dream big. If you have an idea for something: an idea for a concert, an idea for an app, an idea for yourself, write it down. Manifesting, saying it out loud, praying over it, whatever you do. Believe in that thing and it will come to pass. As you work toward your goals and dreams, remember that nothing is too big. The second thing is to be open. A lot of different opportunities might come your way as a musician, as a student. When you choose to go to college, I would say be open to those opportunities as they make sense at that point in your life, time wise, financially. Most of the things I do now as a musician, I would never have dreamed that I would be doing now.
Tahirah: We’re taught to specialize in the classical music world, to have blinders on in terms of sticking with the canon. My advice to students would be…don’t. If I had started composing or getting into different genres of music early on in my life, I would be more comfortable and confident when collaborating with other artists. Being open has led me to doing music videos, studio recordings of R&B artists, playing on film recordings, and I’m even on a broadway tour right now. If I had stayed with those blinders on and listened to teachers saying to not play in musical theater or to not do that, I would have missed those opportunities.
When you’re a student, it’s very difficult to not take the advice of a teacher or loved ones as the end all, but you are your own person. You have your own gut feelings, and when you really tap into who you are, what you need in your life, go with that. People will get on board when they see your passion, when they see your authenticity about a certain thing. Do not let other people live your life.
Yelley: I would start with be kind when you make art. Art is a way we share our heart. Very often, we think that in order to make art, we have to be guarded. However, I think kindness goes a long way, not only with people that you make music with, but with yourself because you’re always going to be learning. If you think you’re done, you’re not.
Another important lesson is to learn how you learn. In my life, I have been caught in a lot of traps because I wasn’t sure what my process of learning was. I could be at a point in my creative process where I start to doubt everything. This is not the end of the process. If you can learn how you learn, then you can start to pick things up more easily.
Kori: I would add that, while you’re on your musical journey, know that you aren’t alone. You don’t have to create in your own bubble and not take feedback from anyone else. The greatest thing we’ve learned is to be open to each others’ ideas and to be open to collaborators. Work with your friends or with strangers. If you see someone that is dope, reach out to them, say “Hey I think you’re dope! I think we should work together.” Be open, be open to learning, be open to connections, and be a kind person while you’re doing that.
We’d like to say thank you to our social media team members Danielle Diaz and Abigail AuYeung who helped transcribe this interview.
Alyssa Shih is a Symphony Orchestra violinist and senior at Walter Payton College Prep. Outside of music, she book binds and does graphic design in her spare time. Alyssa hopes to pursue Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences.