A thought struck Kori Coleman in 2017 after attending a concert that featured the compositions of William Grant Still and Shelley Washington: She hadn’t heard a piece of chamber music by a Black composer before.
As a former musician, that experience didn’t sit right. Coleman immediately started to lay the foundation for what would become D-Composed, an all-Black chamber collective that centers the works of Black composers and creatives.
“I had this lightbulb moment where I realized it never occurred to me that this was a space where Black composers were present — it hadn’t been introduced to me,” said Coleman. “I realized it wasn’t just me who doesn’t know about these untold histories.”
She turned to her network and asked them to connect her with Black chamber musicians in Chicago who could pitch in. In addition to exclusively performing works by Black composers, the goal was to create programming that celebrated Black chamber musicians and set them “free from the constraints of classic music” and traditional pathways to it
That same year, Coleman launched D-Composed. The group, which has partnered with such institutions as the South Side Community Art Center, Steppenwolf Theatre and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., will help anchor an event Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago called 21 Minus that aims to engage youth under 21 in the arts.
Coleman, a former violinist and oboe player, fell out of love with classical music after feeling the pressure to pursue a “traditional” classical music career. Ultimately, she put her instruments down in high school and pursued a philosophy degree at Spelman College in Atlanta, though she remained a fan of classical music.
Though Coleman no longer performs live, she recalls the thrill of the ensemble’s first event in September 2017 at Chicago’s Retreat at Currency Exchange and how it reignited her musical spark.
“It was so well received. People immediately were asking when the next event was. I hadn’t anticipated a follow up, but we got so many questions after the event and on social media,” said Coleman. “It was clear that there was a gap in the music scene and music access in Chicago that we could fill.”
Serving as the group’s executive and artistic director, Coleman tries to secure partnerships with companies like AT&T and Apple to help underwrite the cost of tickets, so audiences can attend performances for free or at a low cost. A corporate brand strategist who has worked with companies such as Twitter, she wants to eliminate the steep paywall that traditionally exists between the public and chamber music.
“Classical music is an investment that a lot of the people we serve can’t afford to make,” Coleman said. “We are intentional about meeting the community where they are so we do pop-ups at places like the South Side Community Arts Center or at neighborhood libraries. I never want someone to feel like they can’t afford a D-Composed experience.”
Coleman also pledges to make sure the artists in her ensemble are compensated for their time and skills and pays them by securing grants and donations.
Tahirah Whittington, one of the founding members of D-Composed, said being offered the chance to be part of the start-up ensemble was an immediate yes.
“D-Composed was my outlet to connect with the Black musical community and to connect with other Black string players,” said Whittington, a cellist.
Around the same time she began to perform with D-Composed, the seasoned cellist was also performing with another group — as part of the musical ensemble for the Chicago production of the Broadway musical Hamilton.Though she was in what’s considered “the big leagues,” she said joining D-Composed “helped her spirit” as she navigated being one of very few people of color in Hamilton’s orchestral chamber.
“At D-Composed we can just be ourselves — cutting up in rehearsals in a way I can’t do at other places. You can do things and exist in ways you don’t have to explain because the people around you just get it,” said Whittington.
Caitlin Edwards, a violinist and another of D-Composed founding members, said that for her D-Composed was the kind of chamber music experience she longed for but didn’t exist.
Having followed the “traditional” pathway to chamber music since she was 8, Edwards said that just prior to joining D-Composed, she felt discouraged pursuing music in the traditional way. When the opportunity arose to join this ensemble, she jumped at the chance to be surrounded by other Black chamber musicians because, similar to Whittington, she was often the only or one of few Black people in an ensemble.
Being part of D-Composed has allowed for music to feel familiar, natural and comfortable again. On top of that, it’s also allowed her to explore composing.
“I’m inspired by a lot of jazz and gospel and my compositions infuse that. Kori encourages me to explore that and we’ve performed my original works before. In the traditional world that would never happen — because I’m still considered a young musician and because of the slightly nontraditional sound,” Edwards said.
The musicians say one of the most rewarding parts of being a part of D-Composed is the response from audiences.
“I’ve had little Black girls come up to me after shows hugging me and asking me questions about violin,” Edwards said.
As the group expands its audience base, Coleman said the ensemble will always be a space for Black musicians.
“We have members rotate in and out but the constant is that this is a space for Black musicians. That’s what makes us unique,” she said. “It feels good to not create something that’s trying to please someone else.”
If you go: D-Composed will be performing at 21Minus event on June 17 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. Ave. Tickets are free for youth under 21 and their families.
Samantha Callender is a digital reporting fellow for WBEZ. Follow her across socials @OnYourCallender.