A range of databases cataloguing underrepresented composers and their works are proving essential to classical music organisations' efforts to revitalise their repertoire. However, they are volunteer-run, under-resourced and operating in isolated silos, resulting in resources that are less efficient than they could be, and woefully under-utilised. Do we need to stage a tech intervention?
I’m thinking about programming. No, not that kind - the other kind. Concert programming. The jigsaw puzzle of creativity and responsibility, ambition and tradition, idealism and pragmatism, at the heart of any live or recorded music event.
As a conductor, it fills many satisfying hours of my working week – preparing the meat-and-three-veg variety of evening concerts, commissioning new work, devising digital and education projects, planning community work and proposing viable recordings. I enjoy it so much that I even engage in ad hoc consulting to help other organisations with the task, particularly if they want ideas for branching out from the canonic European repertoire or integrating community participation into their work.
Conductors share the task of programming with the creative brains of orchestral and opera administrations – heads of artistic planning teams, wryly observed in a recent conversation with one such individual as the frustrated conductors of orchestral administration. They tend to share our interest in serving up an ever more varied musical diet, but are often tempered by the restraints of departmental budgets, stage dimensions, the allocation of musicians’ weekly service hours and the caution or confidence of their respective marketing teams.
Like most conductors and artistic planners, I have spreadsheets full of musicological data dumps that help me plan concerts: names, dates, titles, orchestrations, publishers, durations, recording and video links, genres, errata, useful programming themes... And, like my colleagues, I often find myself obsessively truffling for works by composers who’ve slid off the radar (or, indeed, were never within the limited bounds of the grid): composers born into times, places or politics that barred them from a public artistic life on account of their gender, ethnicity, ill health or family income; and composers who enjoyed success in their lifetime but whose works, for whatever reason, did not pass the gateposts into the historic canon.
I seek out music I think is very good; I seek out music I think is not very good.
I try not to dismiss music that deserves the chance to be reappraised by different audiences with different tastes; and I’m particularly sentimental about fundamentally good and interesting music that the composer never had the chance to orchestrate properly, either through lack of opportunity to develop their skills, or lack of a second (or indeed first) performance of the piece in their lifetime.
But still, despite our interest in giving performance time to these works, and despite the righteous clamour for equity in classical music accelerated by Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and #WeShallNotBeRemoved, the concert programmes and album releases around the globe remain predominantly, and resolutely, exclusive – in the most pejorative sense of the word.
It’s very easy to adopt a sort of new-world, hash-tagged optimism about shaking up our repertoire and working more inclusively in classical music, and that energy certainly has a role to play in lubricating the ca. 300-hundred-year axles of professional symphonic tradition. But as I mention in this article (click to open in another window), the best intentions in the world will be short-lived, if we ignore the rather dull structural issues that stymy them.
When it comes to programming, we rely heavily on our previous experience and our audience’s proven tastes, meaning that from the outset we are already biased toward works that we, and they, already know (or, at a push, short works that sound very like them, written by people whose surnames sound familiar). We also invariably have marketing and planning deadlines chasing our heels, especially in the era of snap COVID-alert level changes and self-isolating artists, increasing the chances we’ll fall back on tried-and-true concert formats and repertoire.
Digital technology has come to play a crucial role in helping us claw our way out of this self-referencing programming loop, and programme creatively on the run.
From volunteer-run YouTube accounts posting recordings of works by lesser-known composers (I wonder how many planning departments around the world owe prolific YouTuber @KuhlauDilfeng2 a fractional salary?) and IMSLP’s volunteer-run, out-of-copyright music sharing platform, which has democratised access to a vast array of music for amateur and professional music-making around the globe (donate here!), to love-the-concept-but-hate-the-economics streaming services like Spotify, and Naxos’ seemingly bottomless discography of, we are increasingly indebted to point-and-click digital resources to flesh out our programming ambitions.
In order for these works to be available online, they must already have been typset, published, printed, recorded and distributed. That is several mighty hurdles already cleared, granting them a distinct advantage over the many thousands of works languishing on kitchen tables and discarded in dusty attics. But, even from that privileged starting point, they still won’t make it to the final concert schedule without the aid of a well-maintained catalogue entry.
Take for instance, Elizabeth Maconchy’s Nocturne for orchestra – a brilliant orchestral work, ideal for a standard symphony audience, by one of the UK’s most prolific and respected 20th Century composers. I only know of it thanks to YouTube’s auto-play function, and the superb Italian YouTube account, @TheWelleszCompany. Bless them.
Not surprisingly, I immediately wanted to programme the piece, and took to google to seek out the three most crucial pieces of data needed for embedding it in a draft programme: duration (again, thank you YouTube), orchestration, publisher.
No work can be programmed without these nuggets of information. A recording or video of the piece is also a huge help in convincing orchestral administrations to take a punt - although our increasing reliance on them keeps more obscure works off the menu - and the other columns (composition date, programme note etc) are all useful tools later in the process, but not essential.
A google search returned the YouTube link that had inspired my hunt; some slightly dated biographical references to Maconchy, without comprehensive worklists; one amateur programme note for the piece, without orchestration or publisher details; and links to a cluster of publishing companies, all of which held the rights to a sub-section of her works, but none of which seemed to distribute the Nocturne. About three google search pages in, I found a spurious instrumentation listing in a PDF of a hard-copy catalogue.
This was a major orchestral work by one of the UK’s most prolific and respected composers, and it was ghosting me.
In the intervening years, the cataloguing and digitalisation of Maconchy’s works has improved significantly, so I decided to repeat the search as I wrote this article. As of today (22 July, 2021), the search returns a much fuller list, though still slightly less helpful than you’d expect:
So, a vast improvement since 2017, but still a frustrating number of inconsistencies and question marks for anyone programming the work, especially given this is a major work by a comparatively mainstream composer, her gender notwithstanding. The effort required to gain a full picture of the piece’s suitability for a programme (musically, financially, logistically) ran the risk of thwarting the incentive to programme it.
In the last ten years there has been a proliferation of individuals and organisations attempting to fill those long-empty gaps on music library shelves through research, advocacy and cataloguing of works by underrepresented composers. Discussions with these website and catalogue maintainers reveal that, without exception, they do this work entirely on a volunteer basis, and often on their own. Not surprisingly then, they often focus on a specific demographic or genre of interest.
The first few of these niche, micro-catalogues to spring up focused on the many thousands of missing works by women in our general history of composition, but in recent years these have been supplemented by catalogues and websites focusing on the equally vast omission of composers of colour. Due to the immense personal commitment to these individual databases, there is a slightly territorial attitude among some (not all) of the maintainers, with a reluctance to share the fruit of their labour with other organisations, especially as remuneration is rarely offered.
While this mushrooming of resources is, without question, preferable to their absence, the lack of connectivity between them, and inconsistency in entry fields results in both a diffusion of information (which inevitably leads to discrepancy), and a lack of rigour, not least due to the lack of funding and support for their dogged maintainers.
We have two dozen hard-working partial resources, rather than several efficient and comprehensive ones.
It would be hypocritical of me to argue for centralisation, or even standardisation, of these records, having just noted the inherent and inevitable exclusivity of canonicalisation. However, I do think we could make far smarter use of software and database design to ensure that the work of these cataloguers and researchers can be put to greater use by more end-users, and that the variables of catalogue items – discographies, external URLs and publisher details – can be monitored, if not maintained, by automatic updates across a network of databases.
Any successful exercise in system design begins with a clear definition of probable user intent, and while I concede my reasons for referencing a catalogue may not align with the maintainer’s reason for creating it, I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous to assume that if someone goes to the effort of cataloguing unknown composers, at least part of their intent is that more people will become familiar with the music itself. The catalogue design, therefore, ought to include fields that facilitate performance of the works.
For instance, there is undoubtedly value in knowing that Zenobia Powell Perry, a composer, pianist and social justice activist of African American and Muscogee heritage born in 1908, composed several orchestral works in the first half of the twentieth century, but that value is amplified exponentially if we can actually locate (easily and quickly), play and record her works.
Mega-resource, Institute for Composer Diversity is one of the newest contributors to cataloguing these works. Nonetheless, in a short space of time they have managed to become the most comprehensive, thanks to Institute Director Rob Deemer’s prior work on a database of women composers, cooperative relationships with other database maintainers, and proactive engagement with living composers.
They are also – crucially - the most well-utilised in the professional industry. Alongside the Daniels Orchestral Catalogue, the Composer Diversity Database is now a common-use resource for mainstream programmers. It’s not surprising, given the unequivocal statement on their “about” page regarding their intended end-users: “the audiences and students who will engage with the music, the conductors, performers, and educators who serve to bring that music to those audiences and students, and the composers themselves.”
To that end, they have designed the UI around the end-user rather than the data, and triangulate their three comprehensive databases with analysis of global programming trends and ideation to support more diverse and inclusive repertoire decisions. A complete and up-to-date entry in the database includes every piece of information needed to programme the work.
However, despite working within the framework of a research institute within a university (The State University of New York at Fredonia), at the time of writing all of the work extending and maintaining the three databases is run entirely on a volunteer basis by Rob Deemer and a team of students from the School of Music.
The other major catalogues of underrepresented composers may be smaller in scope, but their administrators work just as tirelessly, and without financial or technical support. Several database maintainers I spoke to learnt basic programming (of the web and software variety!) to build their systems, and spoke of the near-impossible task of upgrading their skills and tech stacks to keep the database active and functional, without finance or support. For many, the restrictions of available spare time and access to information meant their database was limited to static biographical details only, a valuable historiographical record but of little help in getting the music played. All agreed the never-ending task of sourcing and maintaining accurate URL links to recordings and publishers was all but impossible as a hobbyist cataloguer.
These databases are the bricks and mortar we use to build the foundations of more inclusive professional practice in classical music. But, the industry that so desperately needs them falls short on the skills required to support and develop them. We need an intervention.
It's not a new idea.
Music Community Lab (NYC) hosts a regular hackathon, Classical:NEXT held a Sibelius-themed hackathon in 2015, and San Diego Opera has had 2 successful hackathons with significant prize money up for grabs and some phenomenally exciting submissions. Hacking is written into the DNA of the Karajan Institute.
Outside the classical music industry, hackathons are a fertile and fun playground for coders to flex their muscles, scratch their creative itches, and give back to communities and industries that don't share in the fiscal resources of the tech giants.
I’m a baby coder, so can’t begin to imagine what a sophisticated developer might be able to design and build, but my first instinct would be that we could better leverage the power of APIs (what are they?), so that maintainers can automate the sharing of data with each other, rather than having to manually update the same fields across separate databases.
It may be preferable to work in vanilla code, as much as possible, to minimise reliance on dependencies that will require updates in the future. And perhaps a quick check of SEO and metadata on each site would also be useful, to ensure they are landing under the noses of their intended users. I’m sure more experienced programmers would have far more nuanced ideas to add to this bucket list.
And for those of us lacking in THOSE programming skills, there are many constructive ways to contribute:
A podcast and radio station for diverse repertoire, and repertoire consultancy services for musicians, radio producers, teachers, artistic directors and anyone else in the classical music industry looking to dig into the vast treasure trove of music beyond the canon and start programming it effectively.