5 Questions to Rob Deemer (Founder, Composer Diversity Database)

Structural prejudice is still plaguing the classical and new music worlds, even in 2018. It’s no secret that the classical canon is dominated by dead white men, and while there are many organizations that are making great strides to help alleviate this illness, there are still others that have a long way to go–or worse, seem to turn a blind eye.

However, there are also individuals who are taking it upon themselves to create resources for those who are unaware of how many truly incredible and diverse voices (living and not) are out there. One of those people is Rob Deemer, founder and director of the Composer Diversity Database, a resource that pretty much eliminates any excuse organizations have for not discovering new voices. We asked him five questions about this project’s past, present, and future.

How did The Composer Diversity Database come about?

During my time as a columnist for NewMusicBox, I wrote a post called A Helpful List which included 202 names of women composers and their websites. Two years ago, I collected those names and 400+ more names in the comments in a spreadsheet to use as a resource for my students at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

As I built the spreadsheet, I figured it would be helpful to be able to filter names based on various categories (similar to the index of Orchestral Music by David Daniels that filters works by duration, instrumentation, etc. which many conductors use for their programming). Ultimately, I came up with the following categories: living/deceased, genres (and later added subgenres such as various chamber ensembles and large ensemble works for young performers), demographics, and location.

When I first announced that I was working on the project, I received many requests for the database to include composers of color, as well. This has been a learning experience for me because of the need to be both respectful of the racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds of the composers on the list (which are usually better served with more nuanced categories) and to allow the resource to be as efficient and easy to use by decision-makers (for whom finely-granular demographic filters may be perceived as overkill). I’ll be the first to admit that my inexperience in this area has allowed for me to step in it several times, and we’re currently working to find the best solutions for all involved.

The first iteration of the Women Composers Database went public in December of 2017 as an online spreadsheet. One of my stated goals at the time was to move from a clunky online spreadsheet to a much more intuitive website interface. To be honest, I had no idea how I was going to do that (web design is not my thing), but in late April I received a message from composer/designer/podcaster/polymath David MacDonald; he loved the project and wondered if he could have a go at creating the website. It took about three weeks for us to settle on the design and functionality for the site, and on June 1, 2018 we launched and it’s been a whirlwind of activity ever since!

Composer Diversity Database homepage

Composer Diversity Database homepage

How can people contribute to the database?

We’ve created a submission form that people can use to submit information on new composers. Composers who are already on the database can submit additions or changes to the database, as well.

Do you think the database could be expanded to include more genres/subgenres/demographics/locations/mediums? How would you like to see the database evolve?

We’re going to be expanding in a number of ways in the near future!

First, we’re currently working to transfer the old spreadsheet into a much more stable online database, which will both improve how well the site works and also allow for us to make additions without bogging down the system. We added the “subgenres” just a couple months ago, so we’re also working on backfilling those categories so that they’re up-to-date. Once those are done, we can look to add more subgenres.

In terms of long-range plans, there are three major evolutions I’d like to see happen:

First, we’re looking to create adjoining databases that focus on distinct communities and ensembles. Christian Michael Folk, an educator in South Carolina and a tireless advocate for programming diversity, has working for months on a database that focuses on wind band music that allows the user to search for works by a number of different helpful categories, and we’re soon going to be using the same design that the Composer Diversity Database has for his database as well.

My hope is that we can find others who are interested in doing what Christian has done for other genres, such as orchestral and choral music. This functionality is imperative to encourage conductors and artistic administrators to use the resource, so I’m elated that Christian is already out front on this next step.

In addition to genres, we’ve had a lot of requests for a similar resource for both LGBTQIA+ composers and composers with physical, neurological, and learning disabilities, so we’ve already made public a submission form for LGBTQIA+ composers and we’ll be researching how best to go about a similar process for composers with disabilities this summer.

The second long-term goal is to create an umbrella organization under which these and other programming diversification initiatives can live and thrive. We already have a Facebook page for the Composer Diversity Project—which is the moniker that our composer-centric initiatives will exist—and there is the potential for a much larger entity that could bring together research and data on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues throughout the concert music community (including conductors, performers, educators, and administrators).

Finally, from this project’s inception til today, it’s been entirely on volunteer basis; my team colleagues (developer and designer David MacDonald, marketing consultant Jamie Leigh Sampson, and database manager Andrew Martin Smith) have been putting in long hours because they recognize the importance of the project, and the many database builders (who have almost entirely been made up of Fredonia composition students) have come to me asking to take part, which we have done through independent studies during the school year and through non-paid internships this summer. It is my hope that we can secure some solid funding resources through institutions, grants, and sponsorships in order to allow for us to keep the site paywall-free and create paid internships that could include researchers from across the country.

Composer Diversity Database

Composer Diversity Database

Aside from programming, what do you think this database could be used for?

The challenge that we face in concert music is that the inherent bias against underrepresented composers is systemic in nature. Until now, students in elementary, junior high, and high school have rarely if ever been introduced to women composers and composers of color (except as special outliers).

The situation doesn’t improve at the university level, so by the time most musicians have completed their training and achieved a professional career, they have little to no exposure to and experience with composers outside the canon–especially women composers and composers of color.

This tool could be useful to educators, musicologists, and music theorists who are looking to diversify their curricula and their textbooks. We have already seen in the few weeks since the launch of the website examples of educators using the database not only to program but to create projects with their students to discover new musical voices!

Classical music radio is another area that I feel this resource could become a staple tool. If radio audiences become used to hearing music from historically underrepresented communities, then it may become easier for them to accept such programming choices in the concert hall.

What do you feel is the biggest barrier for programmers, administrators, conductors, educators, and other decision makers in discovering repertoire from historically underrepresented and marginalized communities?

There are three barriers that are most apparent (at least to me):

Access to the composers and their materials (scores, recordings, etc.). The entire reason why I listed all those names in the NewMusicBox article years ago was that I’d heard from conductors that they didn’t know where to start looking. The vastness of new names and difficulty in navigating the labyrinthine environment of self-published composers is a huge barrier and was the driving force in the creation of the Composer Diversity Project.

Risk. The perception that “new” and “unknown” are risky is rampant in many facets of our concert music community, and the biggest challenge is that it’s not just a perception…there are a lot of reticent audiences out there who can easily decide to spend their money elsewhere. That being said, it’s imperative that intentional programming diversity must be a priority in order for our art form so that concert music does not close its own borders from the ever-growing segments of the population that it does not currently reflect.

Habit. Often, programming happens at a concert-by-concert level with many competing forces (masterworks, soloists, guest conductors, etc.) reducing the window for intentional choice; often those windows are filled with “known” canonical works that require little rehearsal time and little work on the part of the audience to accept. Decision makers can fight this by both intentionally filling those windows with living and underrepresented composers and by analyzing their entire season after each concert is worked out to see if changes need to be made to make the season more diverse in nature.