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She's Getting the Music of Black Composers Into Music Students' Hands

A self-described "research geek," classical violinist Rachel Barton Pine has a passion for discovering new repertoire and turning kids on to classical music. That drive and commitment fuels her Black Composers Project, now out with its first volume of violin music by Black composers for music students. 

The Rachel Barton Pine Foundation was started in 2001 to increase awareness of classical music and to support young musicians from challenging financial backgrounds. Its projects include grant making, an instrument loan program, a global effort to support musicians in developing coutnries and  a project finding and collecting music by black composers from all over the world.  

The Black Composers Project, now with over 900 works by more than 350 composers, is out with its first  curricular volume of violin music by black composers, with music from Africa, Europe, Latin America, North America, and the Caribbean.

This curricular volume coincides with the recent release of her new album, Blues Dialogues, which reflects just one aspect of the rich treasure trove of music she's collected.

She talked with WRTI's Susan Lewis.

SL:  You have collected over 900 works by more than 350 black composers. I understand this whole project was prompted by your 1997 album of violin concertos by black composers.

RBP:  I have a real passion for music research and you know, I'm also trying to do everything I can for the cause of music education. And I also am a big fan of  discovering cool repertoire.  So it blends all of my interests into one project that also happens to be doing good for the world. So is a perfect way to be spending my time.  

It was after that album, which was music from the 1700s and 1800s; the time of Mozart, the time of Brahms by Afro European and Afro- Caribbean composers.  I started getting approached by teachers and parents and students saying, you know, where can I find repertoire for my child? 

And this stuff is mostly in manuscript or out of print. You just can't find this information.  I had already started my Foundation for the purposes of scholarships and instrument loans for young artists. I decided, okay, I've got a not-for-profit. Let me take this on.

And what's interesting is my new album [Blues Dialogues] actually came out of this Black Composers Project. So one album led to the project and the project lead to the next album!

As I was collecting repertoire there, there were a lot of pieces that I added into my own rotating, touring repertoire and really came to know and love over the years. And that kind of ultimately led to my deciding to record this particular slice of things on my blues record.

You mentioned that part of the reason you started the Black Composers Project  was because people could not find the music, couldn't find more music. How did you find it?

Oh, well, I'm just basically a research geek.

I'll give you an example. There's a composer named Brendan Gonzales who was known as the Black Paganini back in the 1800s who is Afro Cuban and there was one piece of his living at the British library. I spent the entire day there to get this piece.

Every piece that we've collected has [its own story of discovery]:  going to the composer's grandniece's attic and sorting through a box of unfiled archives, or going to different libraries around the world, calling all kinds of archives in different African countries. It's just been kind of an archeological or you know, it's like half archeologist, half detective work. It's super fun to collect all that.

We found in a work for violin duet by a Venezuelan composer of the 17oos. I mean there's just so many different treasures and besides the curricular volumes that we're publishing for strings and ultimately for or you know, for youth orchestra, we also are in the process of building a database so that performers everywhere can have access to what exists, to make this music easily available to everyone.

That is so exciting because. So you're, you're encouraging new music, but you're also rediscovering music that is new to us but may have been composed quite a long time ago.

Absolutely. Music from the 1700s, 1800ss, 1900s and today and there's so much that's been sort of unfairly overlooked that is just absolutely great and deserves to be part of our, our repertoire.

One of our hashtags that we use is #ExpandTheCanon. 

And besides inspiring young African American musicians with our curricular materials, we also hope to normalize the diversity of repertoire for all students who will become our audiences and performers of the future [who] won't accept that  what's performed on the concert stage is not a full representation, you know, not a full representation of our humanity.

Yes. Well, thank you so much. Congratulations. It's very exciting. I look forward to the next step in this project. 

Yeah, well you can check it all out on music by black composers.org. We've got all kinds of reading lists, living composer directory, and all kinds of own. We have a coloring book and yeah, it's very exciting.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.