12 Black Contemporary Composers You Should Listen To
Feb 4, 2023 · by Maya Cassady
Everyday, contemporary composers are making their mark on the sonic palette of classical music. Throughout history, there have been incredible examples of music, artforms, and creative cultures forged from Black communities. Here are twelve Black contemporary composers who are continuing this tradition, expanding and exploring what modern classical music has to offer.
Valerie Coleman (b. 1970)
An artist at the forefront of innovation in 21st century classical music, Valerie Coleman is best known for her prowess as a flutist and composer. Coleman was introduced to music through a second-hand electronic organ in her Louisville, Kentucky home. She would sit at the organ for hours using cassette tapes to loop layers of melodies giving her a taste of the symphonic compositions to come.
Coleman is also well known as the creator of Imani Winds, an American wind quintet dedicated to diversifying the classical wind repertoire. Coleman’s compositions center around a similar message of recognizing stories and perspectives previously untold. Coleman musically weaves these perspectives into a sonic mosaic of classical, folk, and urban traditions. As she told New Music USA, “it’s my job to create music that allows that transformative power to happen.”
Hear Valerie Coleman’s “Red Clay Mississippi Delta” performed by Imani Winds at WQXR:
Carlos Simon (b. 1986)
Raised in the pentecostal tradition in Atlanta, Georgia, Carlos Simon’s work continues to reflect the gospel traditions that he was raised in. Simon’s music inserts the perspectives, stories, and history of Black Americans into classical music. As he told I Care If You Listen, “I’m always wanting to use music as a platform for discussions and ultimately, change.”
His recent pieces Warmth from Other Suns (2020) and his Grammy Nominated album Requiem for the Enslaved (2022) are proof of Simon’s deep commitment to shedding light on the history and struggle of Black Americans in order to reflect on modern day issues. In the latter piece, Simon musically tells the story of 272 enslaved people who were sold by Georgetown University in 1838 to repay the University’s debts. Simon combines the text of Marco Pavé and traditional spirituals with the traditional requiem mass form. Over the course of forty-five minutes, Simon shows how classical music can be an agent of evocation, reflection, and change.
Watch Kenneth Overton sing “Dead Fires” by Carlos Simon, live in The Greene Space:
Michael Abels (b. 1962)
While many may know Michael Abels from his iconic Get Out film score, he is also known for his concert and performance works outside of the film. Growing up in rural South Dakota, Abels stoked his interest in music with piano lessons, continuing his study with James Hopkins and Robert Linn at the University of Southern California. In the year after graduating from USC, Abels dedicated himself to the study of West African music in an effort to incorporate world music into his classical works.
A prolific composer, Abels has composed over twenty orchestral works. Reinventing and bending classical music norms, Abels reflects societal inflection points (hear Global Warming), adapts the canon to the modern state of classical music (check out More Seasons), and subverts expectations (watch Us and Get Out) in his impressive body of work. By blending his basis of classical music with the rhythms, harmonies, and instrumentation of contemporary music from around the world, Abels continues to create fresh, expectation-defying works that expand the contemporary soundscape of classical music.
Read about Abels’s take on “I Got 5 On It” from Us and watch Lara Downes perform “Iconoclasm (For Lenny)” in The Greene Space:
Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)
Montgomery is an acclaimed violinist and composer with an impressive array of chamber, orchestral, solo, and vocal works in her ever-growing oeuvre. Since 1999, she has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization — a social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts — where she is currently serving as the composer-in-residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, the organization’s flagship, self-conducted chamber orchestra.
A New York native, Jessie Montgomery was raised in an artistic family, her father a musician and her mother a singer and storyteller. Surrounded by the sounds of jazz and activism throughout childhood, Montgomery’s music combines social narrative with classical music, creating works that reframe and re-contextualize intersections in time, places, and history. Outside of composing, Montgomery is also an incredible performer, merging her own mastery of the violin with her flair for performance. Whether she’s composing, educating, or performing, Montgomery’s music displays elements of poetry, improvisation, and connection, forming a uniquely American repertoire firmly rooted in the 21st century.
You can read a conversation WQXR had with Montgomery and three other female composers here and hear her work Divided in its New York Premiere from Sphinx Virtuosi on Carnegie Hall Live here.
Terence Blanchard (b. 1962)
As a trumpeter, Terence Blanchard became a prominent leader in post-bop jazz. Born in New Orleans, Blanchard was imbued with jazz from early childhood, picking up the trumpet at the age of eight. He played alongside Wynton Marsalis in summer camps and enrolled in extracurriculars at the famed New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. In addition to his fearless command of the trumpet, Blanchard is known for his quintet co-led with saxophonist Donald Harrison. Since 2000, he’s been artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the University of Southern California.
Over the past three decades, Blanchard has also served as Spike Lee’s primary collaborator, scoring seventeen of his films and earning an Oscar nomination for his score of Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman. In addition to his moving scores, Blanchard has recently composed two operas, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2021), the first opera by a Black composer to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and Champion (2013). Throughout his music, Blanchard traverses the multitudes of human experiences, creating expressive and emotive compositions that span genres and generations.
Watch Karen Slack’s performance of “Far Away Long Ago” from Blanchard’s Champion.
Bill Banfield (b. 1961)
Also a student of jazz, Bill Banfield uses classical traditions and jazz forms to inject and express Black American identity across a range of musical artforms. With 12 symphonies, 9 concertos, and 7 operas composed, Dr. Banfield encompasses the multitude of jazz, chamber, and orchestral forms, emphasizing music performed by and for Black American people. As a musician, Banfield’s work centers around diversifying audiences, exposing new communities to contemporary classical music, and exploring the rich possibilities of classical composition in our modern world.
Outside of the concert hall, Dr. Banfield’s work as an educator is deeply reflected by his music. The Director of Africana Studies at Berklee College of Music, he challenges traditional academia by exposing and analyzing “the glorious past, the controversial present, and the boundless future of Black music.” Banfield’s compositions employ expansive and complex themes, creating a narrative that breathes new life into dominant cultures and beckons audiences to reevaluate their own perspectives and worldviews.
Trevor Weston (b. 1967)
Trevor Weston describes his early childhood as being surrounded by vocal music whether it was singing in his Episcopal Church’s choir or listening to Billie Holiday with his dad. In fifth grade, he began attending the prestigious St. Thomas Choir School where he trained his vocal prowess. Weston continued his pursuit of music in Tufts’s Music and History program, studying composition under Thomas Jefferson Anderson before completing his Masters and Doctorate of composition at the University of California Berkeley.
As a composer, Weston is known for his broad stylistic range, integration of counterpoint, and his forging of musical boundaries. Weston, a professor at Drew University and The Juilliard School, credits much of his musical expansion to his students. In his 2022 symphonic work, Push, Weston owes the final movement “Beat Drop” to his students. “I realized that all the music [my students] listen to is organized by this idea of an introduction, and then the beat changes. So I thought I’d write a piece that… has this idea of an opening and then things happen,” Weston told Datebook. Push is an ode to contemporary American music with influences of Coltrane, a tribute to Michael Morgan, an homage to Copland, and a look to the future of American music. It’s an encapsulation of where American classical music has been and the vast possibilities it holds.
In 2021, The Harlem Chamber Players, violin soloist Lady Jess, and dancers from the Harlem School of the Arts performed Weston’s “The People Could Fly.” Watch it here:
Hannah Kendall (b. 1984)
The grandchild of a jazz musician, Hannah Kendall works collaboratively across art forms, expanding contemporary culture within classical music and outside of it. Kendall graduated from the University of Exeter before moving to the states as a Doctoral Fellow in composition at Columbia University. Though she’s one of the youngest composers on this list, Kendall’s works have been broadcasted on BBC Radio and earned her the Women of the Future Award for Arts and Culture.
Kendall’s art is embroiled in furthering social justice, expanding history, and writing new perspectives into classical music. In her one-man chamber opera The Knife of Dawn, Kendall provides an intricate musical portrait of the incarcerated Guyanese political activist and poet, Martin Carter. And in her orchestral work, The Spark Catchers, Kendall exposes the exploitation of 19th century matchmaking factory workers. Through the driving force of her rhythms, there’s a poeticism derived from the music, but it’s in the space that Kendall leaves between notes, the dynamism of the sparse, interlocking, staccato instrumentation that the novel creativity of Kendall’s music shines.
Read about who inspires Kendall here.
Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941)
A student of Nadia Boulanger of the American Institute at Fontainebleau and Mark Fax at Howard University, Adolphus Hailstork is an incredibly prolific postmodern American composer with over 250 works penned. Born in Rochester and raised in Albany, New York, Adolphus was an early student of the violin, piano, organ, and voice, joining the choir at the Albany Cathedral of all Saints. It’s from this background as both a pianist and vocalist that Hailstork has made an over five decade career in music, writing for “almost any iteration of musical ensemble imaginable: symphonies, operas, cantatas, concertos, chamber music and more.”
Hailstork is most well known for his vocal compositions, which derive from his childhood as a chorister. In Hailstork’s own words, singing in a choir allowed him to “be inside the music and hear the counterpoint moving around and hear the chords being formed. (source)” In his works, there is a new path being carved for contemporary Black composers, using traditional choral works and spirituals to honor, reflect, and capture the history of Black Americans. In 2021, his work “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” was performed by the United States Marine Band at the inauguration ceremony of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. This marked only the second occasion a musical work by an African American composer had been included on the program of a U.S presidential inauguration.
Check out two performances of Hailstork’s works below.
Daniel Bernard Roumain (b. 1971)
A true contemporary composer, Daniel Bernard Roumain infuses his background as a violinist with a wide gamut of electronic, funk, and hip-hop influences. Roumain has collaborated with just as wide an array of artists from Philip Glass and Marin Alsop to J’Nai Bridges and Lady Gaga.
A Haitian-American composer, Roumain feels his work is “artistic work and social work,” deeply entrenched in his own experiences and culture. In that same interview with NJArts.net, Roumain saw his role in contemporary classical music not as a way “to disrupt the canon” but to instead serve as an important addition to the classical canon. His music grapples with modern times, providing solace in a time of pandemic anxiety while also enforcing solidarity amidst a time of continual reckoning with social injustices. Roumain’s beautiful, genre-expanding works bring classical music into the present, creating space for conversations that are often left at the margins of the classical world.
Alexis Ffrench (b. 1970)
Born in Surrey, England, Alexis Ffrench began playing piano at the age of four, and at the age of seven, Ffrench became his church’s lead organist. As a self-described “classical-soul” composer and pianist, Ffrench combines the lyricism and romanticism of classical music with the spirituality and sympathy of soul music. Using his classical training from the Purcell School and the Royal Academy’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Ffrench hopes to use the DNA of classical music to expand the artform to underrepresented artists. As he told The Jakarta Post, “I think my duty is to change the narrative… to talk about classical music in a new and exciting way.”
In his 2020 album Dreamland, Ffrench weaves together a collection of lyrical, sympathetic piano works to provide solace and comfort in a time of grief and mass isolation. In his latest album Truth, he “imagined what the world would look like if everybody had the opportunity to ask themselves the questions ‘who am I?’”. The result is a piano-led orchestral ode to hope, reflection, and healing.
Tania León (b. 1943)
A composer, conductor, and educator, Tania León has dedicated a lifetime of work to creating multicultural classical music. A product of her hometown Havana, Cuba, León earned her Bachelors and Masters from the Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory. In 1967, she became one of an estimated 300,000 refugees to take part in the Freedom Flight program. Since 1967, she has been a proud resident of New York City.
León began her career as a composer shortly after moving to New York and meeting Arthur Mitchell, the first African American principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. León composed her first ballet, Tones (1970), for Mitchell and, since then, has composed and conducted everything from operas and orchestral works to small ensemble and mixed genre pieces. Throughout much of her work, she’s incorporated her classical background with her Cuban roots, incorporating Cuban rhythms and gestures into her work. In December 2022, she received a Kennedy Center Honor in recognition of her achievements.
See Eunbi Kim perform León’s “Tumbao” below.
Header photo: Top (left to right): Valerie Coleman, Adolphus Hailstork, Alexis Ffrench, Michael Abels; Middle (left to right): Bill Banfield, Jessie Montgomery, Terence Blanchard; Tania León, Trevor Weston, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Carlos Simon