20-Year-Old Black Composer: Less Beethoven, More Diversity | WAMC

20-Year-Old Black Composer: Less Beethoven, More Diversity

Feb 17, 2021

The classical music world often focuses on long dead masters, who tend to be white and European. But one composer who is not even old enough to legally drink alcohol is trying to change that. He started over the weekend with the Albany Symphony.

20-year-old Tyson Davis, who composed this piece, is the only Black student in the composition department at Julliard. The sophomore’s work had its professional premiere at the Albany Symphony February 13. Davis says he’s hoping to push the bounds of classical music so that it attracts a younger, more racially diverse audience.

“The problem is, classical music, at least over the past century has been such an extreme ivory tower,” Davis said. “And it’s so annoying. It’s almost segregationist and classist — classical music in general. There’s been this tradition of having the concert hall be peaceful and quiet and having the tickets be expensive and only being for old people and often times the music is very old. Funny enough, ‘new music’ is anything from 1950 to now. Funny enough. So there’s this ridiculous gap that classical music has been behind, from all artistic mediums.”

Davis grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and was raised by a single mom. He says he remembers going to his first symphony and not seeing anyone who looked like him.

“No Black people in the North Carolina symphony – at all,” Davis said. “And I don’t think there’s any Black people today. There’s an assistant conductor that’s Black. But the majority of the orchestra was 80% white male. And the majority of the audience was 80% white.”

Davis says Black people have a lot to offer the world of classical music – and could translate a deeper understanding of pain and struggle through beautiful, traditional orchestral instruments. 

“Classical music can feel so stuffy and so elitist and classist and segregationist that it can be hard for people to really get an emotional connection because there’s all these stuffy old white people, excuse my expression, in the audience – that look down on anyone that is different,” Davis said. “There’s probably about 40 or 50 composers here at the Julliard School and I’m the only Black one. And I guess you could say I feel like the literal and metaphorical ‘black sheep.’”

Davis says it comes down to a long history of subtle oppression in the arts.

“Years upon years of, ‘Oh he’s a Black person he can’t be a composer,’ or ‘Oh she’s a woman she can’t be a real artist,’ or some nonsense like that, that is still either being perpetuated by certain closeted racists, or sexists, or even homophobic faculty in certain schools or when it comes to higher education in general,” Davis said.

Davis says the Black Lives Matter movement has seeped into the music he writes.

“The passion and the uprising and the revolution of what’s happening is just so extraordinary,” Davis said. “And of course extremely dark at the same time. It’s almost as if my music is commenting on it, and the situation is commenting on the music. And there’s so many people of color that are in all other artistic genres. Like playwrights, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Black visual artists, Black actors, that have been praised and worshipped and celebrated. But you look at classical music and you don’t see that. At all.” 

Davis says access to arts education programs in public schools is critical to getting more people of color involved in the industry. And he says his field has a long way to go to catch up with other genres.

“It’s starting to happen but it’s still slow,” Davis said. “But it’s so obnoxious because you look at pop music, jazz, rock – they’re so much further ahead than we in the classical music industry. So I don’t know what it’s going to take.”

Davis says classical music doesn’t always reflect the true pain of life – something he’s trying to change.

“Often times I feel like there are some aesthetics, especially in classical music, that can be somewhat escapist when it comes to how they present music as being solely beautiful or solely joyous,” Davis said. “When there are so many aspects of the human experience that are not always beautiful or not always joyful.”

Davis, whose mother is a psychologist, titled his work “Distances” to reflect how people are feeling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Emotional distance and physical distance, obviously, with COVID,” Davis said. “There’s just a lot of ambiguity and intensity. There’s just a lot of intense things happening. Radical, racial things going on. Lots of passion, lots of anger, and lots of frustration. Sometimes we wake up and we feel some random emotion, sometimes we wake up and feel depressed or anxious, spontaneous, or joyful and then something happens in our day that will either alter or respond to that emotion. And I think that’s what this piece in general is doing. It’s always responding to the emotional content of what is happening previously.”  

Davis says his style of composing is modernist, mid-century, and focused on reflecting society in its “rawest form.”

“Techniques specifically that are weird,” Davis said. “And not, you know, per say usual. There’s certain sounds in the strings that you can make that make it sound more metallic or more industrial. Very scratchy noises. There’s so many things that you can do with the orchestra that can explore it.”

In 2019 Davis was one of the student composers for the National Youth Orchestra hosted by Carnegie Hall, and his piece premiered in Berlin, Edinburgh, and Hamburg. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota just commissioned him to write a work, as has The New York New Music Ensemble. Davis says the momentum is building, and he just hopes he can use it to help bring the industry into the multicolor 21st century.

“There are composers out there, including myself, that are trying, and it seems like we’re doing a great job at destroying that mold,” Davis said. “Bombing that wall that they’ve put up for us.”