Courtesy of Melvin Chen

Amid the pandemic and social unrest, artists are using music to lead conversations about the injustice that afflicts communities of color. On Oct. 29, the Yale School of Music invited composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, or DBR, to discuss the role of music in society as the first part of the School of Music’s “Musical Bridges: A Conversation” monthly series.

The School of Music-based Norfolk Chamber Music Festival created “Musical Bridges” as a way to expand the scope of classical music and give listeners insight into the process of composing and developing a piece. Deputy Dean of the School of Music and Norfolk Chamber Music Festival Director Melvin Chen and Afa Dworkin, the president of the Sphinx Organization, hosted a public conversation on Thursday with DBR about his work and musicians’ social responsibility.

“I’d like to use the series as a platform to further discuss the role of art in society,” Chen said. “It’s an opportunity to really see art in the context of societal issues.”

DBR is a Black, Haitian American composer who was commissioned by Norfolk Chamber Music Festival for a chamber work, “Can We Talk About Why The Fires Burn?”, for piano, string quartet and two singers. Due to the pandemic, the work’s premiere was moved from this summer to 2021. The webinar began with a discussion about this piece, sparking conversations about confrontations between law enforcement and Black men and other people of color.

DBR said the piece was initially about the death of Philando Castile, a Black man who was shot by a police officer at a traffic stop when traveling with family in Minnesota. With the postponement of Norfolk’s 2020 summer festival, DBR expanded his piece to cover other recent killings of Black Americans, which he described as a “repetition of tragedy between law enforcement officers and people of color.”

In each installment of the monthly series, DBR will talk about how he constructs different components of the piece in relation to issues involving Black Americans and police brutality. He hopes to highlight the struggles faced by classical musicians of color.

“When politicians and pundits have failed us, art has always led the way,” DBR said.

Chen, Dworkin and DBR then discussed the lack of diversity in the classical music world. The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit organization “dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians,” is working with Norfolk to change this.

Dworkin said it is important to “redefine” American classical music by diversifying the repertoire performed at large music festivals such as Norfolk. According to Dworkin, there are volumes of works by composers of color dating to the Renaissance that are rarely performed.

“For too long, we have made limited and limiting choices that are not informed by empathy and that are not reflective of all the richness that is inherent in our communities,” Dworkin said. “These choices do not push forward the ideas of equity and representation.”

Dworkin hopes the classical music community will work harder in the future to uplift musicians of color in professional fields and arts leadership.

As the first Black, Haitian American musician to be commissioned by Norfolk, DBR said that his partnership with Norfolk is important in amplifying the voices of people of color. 

In addition to social justice issues, Chen, Dworkin and DBR talked about the current pandemic’s impact on the performing arts. With the cancelation of most performances this year, traditional ways of sharing art have been temporarily halted, and many musicians face economic hardship.

But Chen noted that the pandemic also presents musicians with the opportunity to broaden public access to the arts. As musicians learn to disseminate their work through new technologies like video editing and livestreaming, Chen said that music now has the ability to reach a larger audience.

From the standpoint of the Sphinx Organization, Dworkin said there is a “silver lining” to the pandemic.

“Right now is an opportunity for American classical music to be heard by more people, and for us to bridge that gap between humanity and art,” Dworkin said.

The program, sponsored by the Desai Family Foundation, will feature several composers and works, including two other commissions that will premiere at the 2021 Norfolk Chamber Music Festival.

Cynthia Sutanto | cynthia.sutanto@yale.edu