Curating Diversity in Classical Music

This post is written by network member Uchenna Ngwe.

Over the past few years, more work is being done to actively confront the lack of diversity within classical music. Some important and progressive projects have created new spaces and opened up existing formats to encourage more active participation from communities and individuals who have traditionally been underrepresented in the arts.

While this work has proved invaluable, interventions tend to focus on contemporary performance and composition without exploring the full historical cultural richness of participation in classical music.

The way we interact with classical music today relies on myth and legend to excite audiences with tales of the ‘Great Composers’. Concentrating ‘diversity’ solely on performances of work by canonic composers continues to give the false impression that the societies Mozart and Beethoven were composing in, for instance, were culturally homogenous. A growing body of work is recognising the contributions women have made in the field as musicians but the Western-centric lens that this is viewed from often fails to consider the existence of historical participants of Black British, African and Caribbean descent — male or female — when selecting material for performance. In this way, ‘inclusive’ programming can reinforce ideas that Black composers simply didn’t exist until the mid-20th century at the very earliest.

The plainsightSOUND research project challenges narratives within classical music that exclude the stories of participation by performers and composers of Black African and Caribbean descent and aims to facilitate curation of more representative programmes in classical music spaces.

Unlike traditional concert programming, where there are certain conventions that an audience might expect — for instance, interval placement, type and order of repertoire — curating involves more than placing a work of art in a space or a piece/performer in a concert. A complete context of the presentation needs to be considered, alongside an awareness of how the curator’s artistic and creative decisions can affect not only the audience experience but those of the performers as well.

If we are to say that we truly care about uncovering and amplifying diverse voices within classical music, we must consider not only its full history, but the complete environment that we frame performances in.

Uchenna Ngwe is a second-year PhD student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Her explorations in creative practice investigate the lives and work of historical Black classical musicians in Britain from the perspective of a performer-curator-activist. Based in London, Uchenna is a freelance oboist, music educator and artistic director of Decus Ensemble – a flexible, mixed-instrumental group dedicated to performing lesser-known classical music works for chamber ensemble.