Follow Through: Why Living Composers are Key

This article was first published in Chamber Music magazine’s Winter 2023 issue and has been reprinted with permission from Chamber Music America.

In Tom Huizenga’s October 17 piece for NPR, “Our biggest orchestras are finally playing more women. What took so long?”, there was welcome attention on the composers receiving their due, like in other recent articles and studies, but I believe there are many questions left unasked and unanswered. This is a broad and complex topic, of course, but if we are going to truly move through this advantageous moment to reimagine historically exclusive systems, let’s start with why we are here.

In addition to the known financial and health devastation of the pandemic that shut down most of the performing arts, we saw great reckoning with racism and sexism on a global level. Police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in my Minnesota community — the repercussions of which are still ongoing, and the justice for Floyd and so many other Black and brown people still unmet. This tipping point, however, ignited widespread calls for change, and like many spaces and businesses, most performing arts institutions made commitments to do better.

Fortunately for the performing arts world, these promises brought attention to what we were playing, in addition to where and how we were doing it. The exponential increases in the diversity of composers played over the past two years are a direct result of public pressure. Even with these increases, composers who reflect the global majority are still being performed at staggeringly low numbers: a recently released study on 2021-22 orchestra season repertoire found that among 111 orchestras across 31 countries, 87.7% of works were written by white men. Of the small percentage of works written by people of color, only 3.9% of works were written by living composers. Works by living Black composers comprised 1.36%. (Source: Equality & Diversity in Global Repertoire Report by Donne, Women in Music #DonneReport2022)

inti figgis-vizueta, Mei Ann Chen, and Attacca Quartet with American Composers Orchestra-- Photo by Alfred Kan

inti figgis-vizueta, Mei Ann Chen, and Attacca Quartet with American Composers Orchestra– Photo by Alfred Kan

I see many questions related to how this continues, but I think we should ask:

Why does our programming matter, and who is it for?

At American Composers Forum (ACF), we have supported composers since our founding in 1973. We see composers as storytellers and connectors — and we envision a world where composers are celebrated as essential to human culture. We believe that to fully advocate for living composers and their art, we must frame all of our work with a commitment to racial equity; within that framework, we strive to address gender inequity among many other inequities. We are engaging in an intervention.

Audience development, community engagement, and financial opportunities exist when we are deeply invested in relationships and mission-focused activities. When a composer/creator is central to not only a curated program but also audience engagement (especially with people who truly reflect the diversity of one’s community), there are endless opportunities to connect people from different perspectives and backgrounds. It’s easy to focus on orchestras — one of my favorite mediums — because they are such prominent cultural institutions in many cities. But let’s also include the incredible ensembles, companies, venues, and collectives who offer innovative programming and dynamic performances. And have been for some time. (Take a look at grantees from New Music USA and Chamber Music America for a sampling.)

Who are the composers/creators in your community? What is the audience experience you are curating or seeking?

Over the pandemic, La Placa Cohen’s Culture Track survey told us that “individual artists and performers continue to be the most popular content providers. A sense of personal connection with the artist or work may explain why respondents are choosing to access content directly from those creators.” The survey also shared that “many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) respondents value cultural experiences that reflect their heritage and cultural identities — this holds true for both in-person and digital engagement.” Respondents clearly felt that organizations have a responsibility to tackle social issues as well, naming systemic racism as the top priority.

It makes business and artistic sense to do more than these incremental increases in diversifying the repertoire and investing in living composers. Who are the composers/creators in your community? What is the audience experience you are curating or seeking? How do you cultivate or find connection among participants (hint: it’s easier when the composer is alive)?

Luckily, we have great advocates who join us in this work. To name just a few:

American Composers Orchestra

American Composers Orchestra (ACO) works with orchestras of every size on this very effort through its EarShot composer advancement initiatives, for which ACF is a partner. Orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Dallas Symphony Orchestra partner with ACO on this program — often identifying underrepresented groups for their open calls — which is currently supporting 85% BIPOC and 42% cisgender women, plus 11% trans or nonbinary composers. EarShot is also the recruitment gateway for the League of American Orchestras’ Virginia B. Toulmin Orchestral Commissions Program, which was expanded to a consortium of six women composers and 30 orchestras this season.

Castle of our Skins

Castle of our Skins is a Black arts institution that centers Black culture and history through people, programming, and partnerships. As champions of Black artistry, Castle of our Skins centers cultural curiosity and representation in each curated event, piece of music performed, and selected artistic collaborator. Over their ten season history, they have programmed the music of over 100 Black composers from the past 500+ years whose roots extend over the entire African diaspora. They actively commission new work and promote Black cultural learning through various education initiatives, including their partnership with the Boston Public Schools and Rising Tide Music Press to commission 18 African diasporic composers to write string, wind, and choral works for primary/secondary student ensembles.

Castle of our Skins--Photo by Robert Torres Photography

Castle of our Skins–Photo by Robert Torres Photography


ACF’s I CARE IF YOU LISTEN platform provides a unique blend of music criticism, essays, interviews, and multimedia content, engaging the musical ecosystem from artists to audiences (12% of our readers primarily identify as “curious listeners”). The site prioritizes equitable coverage of living composers, sharing stories about an array of artists creating music today — often in their own words. This effort is aided by supporting and investing in a diverse team of writers contributing to the platform, who reflect the diversity of people creating music today: 54% of the authors over this past year identify as BIPOC; 59.5% identify as cis women, 21.5% as trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming people, and 19% as cis men.

New Music USA

New Music USA envisions a thriving and equitable ecosystem for new music in all its forms. Their Amplifying Voices program has encouraged more than 45 U.S. orchestras to collaborate with and co-commission women and/or BIPOC composers who contribute to program curation as well as new repertoire. Their Music Creator Fund supports the multitude of voices who are contributing to the future of music creation and sound across the United States; last year’s recipients identify as 71% BIPOC, 42% women, and 12% non-binary/transgender.

These organizations, like mine, are led by women who prioritize the voices and perspectives of underrepresented individuals in their decision-making and program implementation. Plus there are many others!

With an abundance of creativity easily discoverable online (including on ACF’s own record label), I hope we’ll all take a moment to look to the people creating music today and see that they are more than a data point: they are key to our collective progress.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.


You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.