Update: The D-Composed concert with Mosaic Vocal Ensemble on April 5 at Saint Benedict the African Catholic Church has been canceled.
Imagine an intimate room full of young children playing decorated DIY shakers and other instruments they’d just learned to make from beans, beads, macaroni, water bottles, and rice; or an audience at a senior citizens’ center cheering on an all-Black string quartet; or a crowd that ranges across the ages in between that’s dancing, mingling, and bonding over the pulsing introduction of Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up,” played by the same all-Black string quartet. This is the kind of classical music experience that D-Composed is creating for Black people in Chicago.
D-Composed founder and executive director Kori Coleman, 28, grew up in the Lake County area, often visiting Chicago with her musically inclined family for productions at the Chicago Theatre and exhibits at the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. Her mother, a teacher at a local community college, also took her to her school’s productions, introducing her to dance and music for free. Coleman’s mom played the French horn, her dad sang in choirs, and her older sister was a violinist in an orchestra. Coleman gravitated to the violin at age five, mostly playing Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and the like—dead white composers were the only composers she’d been taught. Though she gave up the violin by around age 16, her love for the arts remained.
In 2017, Coleman attended a Black History Month program called “The Black Composer Speaks,” presented by Fulcrum Point New Music Project (she’d previewed it for her lifestyle blog, the Chicagolite). “A light-bulb moment went off for me, where I realized I didn’t know Black composers,” she says. “It’s crazy, because as a Black person, you know Black people are in everything—but as a Black musician, I’d never thought about Black composers.”
To foreground Black composers, Coleman initially wanted to organize a series of concerts. D-Composed arose out of that effort. The quartet plays a wide range of material, including classical and trap music, and it prefers small rooms—cafes, galleries, private ballrooms, Chicago Park District facilities—rather than conventional concert halls. Its programming includes Family Edition shows (so far they’ve all been at the Stony Island Arts Bank) and D-Compressed yoga shows (at the Museum of Contemporary Art, though the group hopes to branch out to various yoga studios). But every D-Composed concert, no matter where or for whom, follows one rule: the music must be written by Black people.
- D-Composed performs at the MCA in August 2019, inside the Naomi Beckwith exhibition “Prisoner of Love.”
Because Coleman hadn’t played classical music since her teens, when she started working toward D-Composed in spring 2017, she did what most millennials do—she started googling to find someone who shared her passion. She researched musicians from the Chicago Sinfonietta, a group that already had a track record of promoting diverse voices. One of those musicians was Danielle Taylor, who would soon become D-Composed’s artistic director and violist.
“I knew I wanted Black musicians, so I started literally googling ‘Black violinists in Chicago,’ and I came across another orchestra that I saw Danielle was a part of,” Coleman says. “I was like, ‘OK, let me do more digging on this individual.’ Then I did and I found her website, and I was like, I’m going to reach out to her and tell her about this series idea. I told her I wanted to do this, and what was really interesting was, we met up, just talked on the phone in April, and then we had our first event September 28, 2017, at Currency Exchange Cafe.”
Taylor, 32, grew up in Oakland, California, in the 1990s and started playing string instruments when she was seven. As she passed through a series of youth orchestras, specialized music programs, and other institutions, she learned that classical music was not a hobby that Black kids stayed with for long. That pattern persisted into her adulthood, when she earned bachelor’s degrees in violin performance and African American studies at Oberlin College & Conservatory.
“I’ve been in pretty intensive classical music training since I was a kid. Usually I’m one of just a couple of Black folks, if there are any at all,” Taylor says. “Usually, it’d be my younger sister. I didn’t realize until my adulthood that she was really the reason why I stayed in orchestras, because there was somebody that I could look at and be like ‘I got you!’ I think that if I didn’t have her there, I would’ve not really felt like the way I was experiencing the music was valid. That was the case from my early years through D-Composed. When I was at Oberlin College as a student, I planned a Black classical music conference, just because I didn’t see a lot of Black players and I wasn’t learning the music of Black composers.”
After graduating from Oberlin, Taylor returned to Oakland and taught classical music in public schools for a few years. At that job, she swiftly learned why Black and Brown kids don’t remain in the field like their white peers. While Taylor’s students of color shared crowded classes at underfunded public schools, her white students were given more expensive private lessons. “Oakland is very segregated. I could see firsthand the disparities in classical music education, because all the kids I taught in my public school job were all Black and Brown, all ready to play, ready to learn, and then I had a private studio that was primarily white folks,” Taylor says. “To leave the public school to go to my studio, it was just really destroying me, to the point where I felt like I couldn’t do them both spiritually—because it was so hard to see some folks not having access at all and other folks having more access than they even realized what a privilege it is. Then I decided I wanted to be a performer again.”
Taylor moved to Chicago in 2015 to study violin performance at Northwestern University, and she’s still working on a master’s. Her meeting with Coleman was anything but happenstance, and their intentionality manifests itself in the seamlessness of their planning for D-Composed. Their similarly disappointing experiences with classical institutions not seeking out the work of Black people made it easy to settle on a mission: uplifting Black composers and performers and bringing a more intimate classical music experience to Black communities throughout Chicago all year long, not just during Black History Month.
During their planning stage in spring and summer 2017, Coleman and Taylor didn’t yet have a concrete idea of what kind of ensemble D-Composed would be. Taylor, who’s well connected with other Black musicians in the city, e-mailed “all the Black people I knew in Chicago—and that’s a lot.” Several of the musicians who expressed interest had moved out of state since Taylor had last been in touch, though, and those who were left all happened to play string instruments—so D-Composed became a string quartet. In addition to Taylor, the group’s roster currently consists of Caitlin Edwards and Kyle Dickson on violin and Tahirah Whittington on cello.
Everyone in the group plays in other ensembles—D-Composed isn’t a full-time operation yet—and some have day jobs too. All four members are part of the Matt Jones Orchestra; Taylor runs the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion fellowship program and plays in the associated ensemble; and Dickson is studying for a master’s in orchestral conducting at Northwestern. Whittington cofounded and still plays in another Black classical group called the Ritz Chamber Players, and she was also the cellist for the three-year run of Hamilton in Chicago. Coleman, a creative strategist for ad agency Momentum Worldwide by day, handles the administrative side of D-Composed: conceptual planning, overseeing partnerships, and tracking the pulse of the city’s arts to look for potential collaborators.
According to a 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras, African Americans make up 1.8 percent of American orchestra musicians (they’re at least 13.4 percent of the country’s population). D-Composed helps expose Black people to the beauty of classical music and reimagine what it can be. The group operates as a limited liability company (LLC), enlisting brand partners and collaborators such as alcoholic beverage conglomerate Diageo, the Rebuild Foundation, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Arts + Public Life initiative from the University of Chicago to pay them for events, which allows the musicians to be compensated for their time.
Meanwhile the nonprofit arm of D-Composed, called D-Composed Gives, focuses on bringing its chamber music experiences to places that will maximize accessibility and reach: homeless shelters, senior citizens’ centers, museums, charities, and more. It’s played for underserved youth at Lurie Children’s Hospital, and it has another concert coming up at the Midland Center for the Arts in Michigan. In April, D-Composed will collaborate with Mosaic Vocal Ensemble for a performance in Englewood. Shows presented by D-Composed Gives tend to be free, while many booked by the LLC are ticketed.
Mass of Saint Benedict the African with D-Composed & Mosaic Vocal Ensemble
Sun 4/5, 3 PM, Saint Benedict the African Catholic Church, 340 W. 66th St., $20, all ages
Update: This event has been canceled.
“When orchestras aren’t diverse, it sends a very loud message: ‘Hey kids, your career might end before you get here, because no one that looks like you was on that stage,'” says Coleman. As a kid, she remembers, “I felt classical was kind of boring. My favorite thing to play was the songs I’d hear in movies—like, I did Titanic‘s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ a lot. I just wanted to hear music I liked, and I felt the classical world would sometimes get too rigid, stuffy—and it’s not really open to exploring the artistic beauty of Juvenile, because it is there! A lot of the way the classical world is structured isn’t fully embracing Black culture. It looks at things as very separate, like you can’t be classical and Black.”
The culture of classical music certainly presents a barrier to entry for people of color, but an arguably even bigger hurdle for young players learning the ropes is cost: the price of lessons, instruments and their upkeep, and summer festivals can really add up.
Money is always an obstacle, but Taylor argues that it doesn’t necessarily have to be an insurmountable one. “It’s expensive over the years,” she says. “But I also feel like so are sports. Sports are expensive, but the Black community will put dollars where they see value and investment. I feel like, the return on investment in string—people aren’t as sure as they are perhaps with sports, where they can see a line of success.”
One of Taylor’s most memorable experiences with D-Composed was when a father who’d come to a Family Edition performance told her afterward that he was considering putting his son in music lessons. “The kids inspired me,” she says. “Seeing the look in their eyes when they see a cello up close. To see the look in their parents’ eyes, to just see that light bulb go off, is probably one of the best things I could hear. Seeing someone see a new door open that they literally did not know was there. I know that, because I was that kid that didn’t know it was there and has now had a whole life of creating music. That’s what makes it all worthwhile—seeing people’s minds change, thoughts change, and their universe grow just from one hour.”
The participatory nature of most forms of Black music—gospel, blues, hip-hop, soul, rock—speaks to the expressiveness of Black people. It’s no wonder that the traditional environment in an orchestral concert hall, which enforces a norm of stoic silence during performances, doesn’t feel immediately welcoming to many Black people. It’s antithetical to how Black communities tend to engage with music. This is why D-Composed makes it a point to encourage the audience to clap, dance, and talk—they want to demonstrate that classical music can also be a reciprocal experience.
Taylor and Coleman were guided to this practice in part by their experiences with gospel. “Both of us were raised in church—the church aesthetic of not having what’s happening in front of the church be some separate thing you’re observing. You don’t observe church happen—you participate, even if you’re not the minister or a musician,” says Taylor. “That is something that’s very, very different aesthetically than how concert music has evolved. That’s very intentional, and that’s the way I feel the most natural in playing music—when I know that people are comfortable enough to give me feedback and participate.”
D-Composed prioritizes this kind of comfort in its own routines as well. It’s more than a professional ensemble; its members feel like a family. At their rehearsals, in Taylor’s Evanston home, there are always snacks, and she calls rehearsals “reunions.” The musicians can be their true selves when playing together, and that brings their sound to another level—affection and compatibility are hard to fake. “Sometimes somebody might start playing ‘Tootsee Roll’ in the middle of rehearsal, and somebody will go up and literally dance and we’ll laugh about it,” Taylor says. “I don’t think we’d ever had a space like D-Composed where that’s even something you would consider doing, let alone doing, and have other people dancing with you. That’s huge.”
Yet even with support from the tight-knit community its members have created, D-Composed faces serious challenges, like any innovative project does. To play Black composers, you have to have their sheet music. But the sheet music that’s been deemed important enough to copy, record, share, and learn has been by dead white composers, and it’s been that way for years. For Taylor to fulfill D-Composed’s mission of prioritizing the music of Black composers, she often has to do deep dives in books and in the archives of places such as Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research—especially if the composer has passed away. One obvious way for D-Composed to sidestep that difficulty is to give Black composers their flowers while they’re still alive.
Fortunately, a wide network of Black composers is more than available to lift one another’s boats and share their work: they include Tomeka Reid, a cellist and former Chicagoan who’s now a professor at Mills College in Oakland; Carlos Simon, an assistant professor at Georgetown University; Joel Thompson, a composer based in Atlanta; and Courtney Bryan, an assistant professor at Tulane University whose work the Chicago Sinfonietta played at its Sight + Sound concerts earlier this month. For Taylor, sometimes commissioning music for a D-Composed performance is as simple as e-mailing a composer to find out what they’re working on.
Coleman hopes to bring D-Composed to markets outside Chicago, to increase awareness of its work and broaden its range of funding opportunities. But the group recently had to cancel its first trip—it had planned to bring D-Compressed to the SXSW Wellness Expo in Austin, Texas, with Trap Yoga creator Asia Nichole Jones, but backed out due to coronavirus concerns even before the entire festival was called off last week. (D-Composed has already been invited back next year.) Travel and networking will be necessary for the ensemble, because there’s always the chance that brands and institutions won’t want to align with it because its mission doesn’t include non-Black people of color. And D-Composed sets pretty high standards for collaborators itself.
“D-Compressed is very popular, because it’s yoga and white people love yoga, but I’m not going to allow a studio to approach me if they don’t have a Black instructor and if they haven’t previously engaged the Black community,” says Coleman. “It’s about having those tough conversations to make sure if you want D-Composed, you cannot tokenize us, you cannot only reach out to us for Black History Month and not really support the Black community. We’re ready to have those conversations, but that’s been the challenging part—because when you take a stance like that, you have to be OK not getting as much support and as much money. And we’re OK with that.”
In addition to the Family Edition shows and D-Compressed, the quartet recently launched D-Composition, an event combining spoken word and music: Taylor arranges music to accompany a poet’s writing, and members of the audience write and perform their own poems. It debuted in February 2020 at the Michigan Avenue Apple Store, as part of the company’s Black History Month celebration.
The crowd was about three dozen strong, on the lower level of the store. D-Composed gave equal care to traditional classical music, hip-hop, soul, R&B, and other genres—its program included “Prospective Dwellers” by Tomeka Reid, “Strum: Music for Strings” by Catalyst Quartet violinist Jessie Montgomery, and “Montego Bae” by rapper Noname.
During the workshop portion, led by poet Raych Jackson, the ensemble played an arrangement of Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” while the audience wrote poems on iPads. Jackson supplied several writing prompts: What actions are disrespectful only in your household? What words or phrases do you hesitate to say in front of your elders? Inevitably, Black women took center stage. Excited audience members, having told D-Composed the general feel of the poems they’d just written, read them aloud to the accompaniment of simpatico pieces that the quartet chose from its repertoire. The audience became a part of the ensemble, and it elevated everyone’s art.
“A lot of what D-Composed is trying to combat is how segregated Chicago is, and knowing how Chicago has treated the Black community and the arts,” says Coleman. “Our focus is making sure we’re in these communities and we have a presence and we show that we see you. We’ll have performances and give you a great experience, even if no one else is doing it.”
To serve that end, D-Composed defies the aesthetic hierarchy that dominates classical music. “We’re not trying to get validation or a stamp of approval from the classical world,” says Coleman. “Our work comes from asking, ‘Are we serving our community well?'” v