Commons Highlights: The Composers of Color Resource Project

Welcome to Commons Highlights — a new series highlighting groups, sites, and organizations that make the Commons their home. We will be speaking with users who have created vibrant and thriving communities on how they did it, and the lessons they have learned.

The Composers of Color Resource Project

What do you do with the urgent desire to make societal change? How do you capture that initial spark, and turn it into sustained momentum? As Aaron Grant, a founding member of the Composers of Color Resource Project has said, “Many want to do anti-racist pedagogy in classes, but where do you start?” In May of 2020, as worldwide protests erupted in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, a group of music theorists created a Slack channel that was committed to start answering these questions. The channel was created, in part, as a space to discuss ways of diversifying the music theory curriculum and developing anti-racist pedagogy. The channel immediately had a large influx of members as the music theory community reckoned with how to create and sustain badly needed DEI (diversity equity and inclusion) work within the discipline, but after a strong start the channel began to lose momentum. Among those who joined the Slack channel were the scholars who would start the Composers of Color project: Amy Fleming, Aaron Grant, Megan Long, Jan Miyake, and Sam Reenan.

Members of the Composers of Color Resource Project. From top right: Amy Fleming, Aaron Grant, Megan Long, Jan Miyake, and Sam Reenan.
Members of the Composers of Color Resource Project. From top right: Amy Fleming, Aaron Grant, Megan Long, Jan Miyake, and Sam Reenan.

As membership and discussion slowed down within Slack, Jan Miyake suggested using Zoom to have a workshop where a subset of Slack channel members analyzed music by BIPOC composers in small groups, wrote up analytical notes, and tagged their notes with search terms that they would want when looking to diversify their teaching examples. Those who were invested in making change had something to participate in, and with this first Zoom workshop the Composers of Color Resource Project was born.

Where Do You Start?

Since July, the Composers of Color Resource Project has hosted seven analysis sessions, generated 78 pages of analytical notes,  explored the work of 31 BIPOC composers, analyzed at least 80 works, created at least 30 annotated scores, built a user-friendly spreadsheet cataloging these works, and presented it all within Humanities Commons. Many users, including team members themselves, have found new research topics through the spreadsheet cataloging all of the works. Users can submit new entries through a Google Form, which are then vetted and added by the project team.

Creating the Composers of Color Resource Project wasn’t easy. To engage members the team devised a deliverable-oriented workflow to crowdsource this work, allowing users to participate without feeling solely responsible for the entirety of any one piece of it. According to Grant, “It was low effort on an individual level with crowdsourcing, but created a high impact on the discipline and on theorists’ everyday lives. Finding suitable pieces and recordings for the classroom would normally take an immense amount of time.” Crowdsourcing allowed the many people who wanted to do something to accomplish much more than they would have been able to do on their own. The group has now been able to link to existing recordings, and to identify pieces that need recording through this process.

How Humanities Commons Helped the Project Grow

Team member Sam Reenan was on a Society for Music Theory committee looking at using the Commons for society business, so he was familiar with the basic functionality of the platform. As the project team looked for a place to store the ever-expanding amount of materials, it became clear to the team that Google Drive and other file sharing services would not be adequate. Humanities Commons’ group functionality, with its ability to upload files, create collaborative documents, and group website capabilities proved to be a good fit.

“The website gave our subset of people an identity, a name, and an email,” Megan Long says. “It gave the project boundaries and became more focused. [Humanities Commons] made it easier to do stuff and organize events.”

Grant, too, sees the Humanities Commons group and site as giving the group legitimacy: “That legitimacy is necessary for things to become more than ‘backyard projects.’ There have been Google spreadsheets circulated for years. But while they are useful, not everyone feels as invested in a spreadsheet. Legitimacy makes a big difference in terms of momentum.” Grant notes that earlier projects that relied on technologies like Google Sheets didn’t create a sense of personal responsibility in those who participated. He goes on to say, “Humanities Commons is much more accessible to those who are not as tech-savvy. Having it all hosted on this website and easy to navigate is so crucial. Just like using Zoom for our meetings. Everyone now knows how to use Zoom. It’s easy to lose track of the conversation on Slack, so it’s been great to use HC and Zoom in tandem.”

While the Humanities Commons group is private (Commons users must request membership), the website is open to the public. Reenan explained, “Our field is sort of odd in that there’s a lot of people teaching music theory that aren’t music theorists (e.g. performing musicians, high school teachers). The group website is a great way of targeting people who aren’t doing this all day everyday — graduate students, adjuncts, and those who teach it as part of a larger curriculum, providing them with accessible and readily-adaptable materials.”

Publicizing the Group and Gaining Momentum

The project has over 200 members on their mailing list, and 78 participating in the Commons group. The membership has drawn those early in their career as well as senior scholars. The team has used social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter), Society of Music Theory (SMT) listservs, and Zoom events to grow their network. Through word-of-mouth even non-members are using the group’s resources. One of the ways the project team has sustained their growth and expanded the available materials is through events. Zoom sessions to work collaboratively are announced through their email list, social media, and SMT listservs.

As the collection grows, more people are exposed to the project, and the team notes that there is almost always someone in their annotated score spreadsheet. The majority of discussion has been held within Zoom, email, or Slack, however they’re currently looking at utilizing the group’s forum for further discussion. Future plans include finding ways to leverage the social media aspects of the Commons, and taking advantage of the group’s event calendar to announce events.

Plans for the Future

What’s in store for the Composers of Color Resource Project? Some of the next steps planned by the team are:

  • Multiplying the number of resources they have available through further crowdsourcing
  • Mining the resources currently available for future projects
  • Collecting volunteered, ready-made handouts and lesson plans that educators have created for their individual classroom and sharing them on our website
  • Further growing membership
  • Creating small groups to discuss anti-racist policies in syllabi
  • Creating opportunities for performers to make recordings of the pieces that have yet to be recorded

In addition to further growing the current resources, there are plans to create resources to fit into other types of curricula, crowdsourcing syllabi, and continuing to develop the raw resources available into more classroom-ready materials.

“The idea that in addition to some groundwork laid in data mining a lot of these sources, there’s a lot of room for refinement of these materials,” Grant says. “For a lot of people who may not have as much pedagogical training we could streamline that process and have a repository for handouts, lesson plans, and units.”

The Composers of Color Resource Project is a great example of like-minded people finding each other and using the power of crowdsourcing to get things done. The old adage “many hands make light work” applies here. While this type of project would be a huge and heavy lift for just a few people, by spreading it across a group diverse in age, background, and training they’ve successfully launched a growing and thriving space providing materials for those both within and outside the music theory community.

One Reply to “Commons Highlights: The Composers of Color Resource Project”

  1. Very interesting project! Congrats on the initiative and also using these resources of HC to make your work available to our public eyes. I may have some contributions to the project database, some already published (although in Portuguese, but a resumed English translation is possible) and others I would be interested in developing. Of composers but also, if accepted, of some “common musicians” here in Évora as part of the research project I’m collaborating with.
    all best

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