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Music students want Wind Ensemble to expand canon, diversify repertoire

Following a national wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Carnegie Mellon’s school of music promised to rectify the homogeneity of its assigned composers. When students in the Wind Ensemble returned in-person this year, they were excited for the change. The list of 19 composers — all white, 18 men — felt like a far cry from rectification.

In a list reviewed by The Tartan, every single composer performed by the Wind Ensemble (WE) since 2011 has been a white man. George Vosburgh, the WE director, saw representation in this year’s program. There was female composer Ida Gotkovsky, who Vosburgh described as French and famous. There was Ingolf Dahl, “a German Jew that escaped the Nazis. He also happened to be gay.” And there was the fact that, “In Western music, you could say that we have marginalized American composers also, because the Europeans are so strong that they’ve been [composing music] for hundreds of years before the Americans. So that means that there’s just more of [their work] out there.”

For BXA junior Annalise Rogers, this year’s list demonstrated a “lack of follow-through.” In response, she and euphonium performance junior Nicole Guccione met with the WE conductors. Repertoire is finalized over the summer, they explained in an interview with The Tartan, so now is an ideal time to push for more representation.

One of the main goals of the discussion was to understand the selection process. “We’re in school to learn,” Rogers explained, deferring to the wisdom of her professors. Being assigned pieces from different eras or for the military band audition, she understood. “But also, we think they should begin to canonize different composers than the ones that were always played … so that we don’t have to hold them accountable every year; we’re gonna graduate.” While the conductors have been open to discussion, Rogers wonders if their efforts will be actualized in next year’s repertoire.

Vosburgh makes the WE program each year. One of the challenges of diversifying the repertoire, he told The Tartan, is that the four concerts played during the year only allow for a total of three hours and 40 minutes of music. Composers may have great work, but if it is too long, it is less likely they will make the cut. That was almost the case for Cindy McTee, an award-winning composer and personal friend of Vosburgh. Most of her work is lengthy, and Vosburgh had trouble finding a shorter piece. “If I put a piece of Cindy’s on, it’s like then she just gobbled up most of my program,” Vosburgh explained. After some digging, he found a piece of hers around 20 minutes long. He plans to incorporate it in next year’s repertoire.

In their meeting with the WE conductors — Vosburgh and Stephen Story — the juniors were privy to some of next year’s composers. Rogers felt that, while there was more work to be done, the planned repertoire was a step in the right direction. The proposal includes Coleridge-Taylor Perksinson’s “Othello” and a piece by George Walker, who in 1996 became the first African American to receive a Pulitzer for Music.

“With composers of any background — any particular country or gender — what happens is that if a piece gets played once, and it’s not a good piece, generally it doesn’t get played again, ever,” Vosburgh said. These pieces aren’t played because “there are other pieces that supersede them or that are just better.”

A second barrier nods to a symptom of a larger problem within the music world. “It’s very, very easy to overlook composers that are not as well known,” Vosburgh said. It can be difficult for composers of color to receive recognition for their work. When directors look for a new group of composers, there are less resources available to make this inclusion happen.

Students acknowledged this challenge. “Because this rep is not played [nationally], no one sees it happening anywhere,” Rogers explained. That means extra time must be invested to find the new piece, let alone the recordings and scores. “Yeah, it’s a little bit more effort. But that’s on us.”

In the WE syllabus, a commitment to DEI efforts are made “not only because diversity fuels excellence and innovation, but because we want to pursue justice.” Some students wonder when this statement will be reflected in their program.

Carnegie Mellon has a top undergraduate school for music. As a leader among its peers, “we have a lot of power to lead the way,” Rogers said. If the university has the opportunity to progress representation in music performance, Rogers wondered: Why not jump on it?

Vosburgh pointed to a number of ways Carnegie Mellon has broken ground within music spheres. “This doesn’t really fall under the BIPOC heading, so to speak, but … we instigated a concerto competition each year for students,” he said. When students audition, “they have to play pieces that were originally written for wind ensemble — it has to be wind ensemble and their solo instrument, which is quite different than … [a piece] written for an orchestra.”

Another change that is more digestible for lay audiences was the dress code change last year. The expectation of tuxedos for men and long gowns for women excludes those outside that binary, Vosburgh noted. “We got rid of all those stereotypes, and now everyone wears black; it’s just flat black for everybody.” Both students and audience members have said they appreciated the change.

The juniors do not feel the lack of representation in their repertoire is intentional. “It’s the unconscious bias … not trying to harm,” but not stopping it from happening, Guccione explained.

Creating a more representative repertoire can make a big impact students’ experiences. After noticing the homogeneity of the composers she was playing, Guccione “started being proactive, seeking out repertoire by diverse composers and more women composers, and I just connect with the music a lot better. It’s much more intentional.” Guccione added that because everyone connects to music differently, providing a versatile repertoire can help them engage with music in a new way.

Vosburgh agreed, saying “music is a universal language.” He has seen this reflected in his peers and colleagues since he entered into the music world. Playing with people from a diverse range of experiences “makes us more open minded.”

As the WE navigates a more diverse repertoire, they are considering referring and contributing to And We Were Heard, a database that compiles diverse composers of orchestral and wind band music, as well as those on state band lists.