by Jasmine J. Mahmoud
I began playing violin at age three, and growing up I participated in orchestras from elementary through high school. These orchestras were highly diverse, with students from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds. And yet, the composers we performed — from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Debussy — were almost exclusively dead white men.
Dr. Quinton Morris is seeking to change that racial landscape of classical music. On Juneteenth — this Saturday, June 19 — at 3 p.m., he hosts the inaugural episode of Unmute The Voices, a new radio program on KING FM (98.1), Seattle’s classical radio station. As host, he will serve as KING FM’s first Artist-Scholar in Residence, drawing upon his expertise as a tenured faculty member at Seattle University, where he directs the chamber and instrumental music program. I spoke with Morris to learn more about this new radio program
The format of the hour-length show is structured similar to a concert, Morris told me. “With our programming, I’ve tried to give people more of a humanistic experience when they listen to the music so that they can feel all of those different moves throughout the hour,” he described. This content includes performances of works by BIPOC composers and performances by BIPOC classical musicians.
Framing this listening experience is the program’s theme music, composed by Tahirah Whittington, a Black cellist. “It’s so good,” Morris gleefully expressed. “So good. So good. I cannot wait to premiere all her [music] because listening to the samples, there are parts in it where I was like, ‘Ooh, that sounds Black. Ooh, ooh, that’s soulful. That has a Latin twist to it.’ And there’s also parts in it where it sounds kind of eerie, but it has a scholarly component to it as well. There’s just so many diverse sounds. Most of all, the music is tuneful so it’s easy to remember.”
After Morris named Whittington, I asked him to share more of his favorite composers of color. “David Baker, who’s now deceased, was chair of Jazz Studies at Indiana University; Patrice Rushen; we know her as an R&B singer, but she was actually a composer; Jessie Montgomery, [a] Black composer; I love Joseph White, a Cuban composer,” Morris detailed. He also named classical musicians and groups. “… ensembles: Imani Winds [a mostly Black wind ensemble founded by Valerie Coleman in 1997], Harlem Quartet, and Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet at the New York Philharmonic.”
Naming these composers and musicians frames the conceit of Unmute The Voices to recenter the highly white classical music world towards artists of color who often encounter numerous barriers in the field. In our conversation, for example, Morris described how many composers of color lack the connections necessary to get access to major symphony stages. “Our composers have the toughest [time] because they’ve written music that a lot of times no one ever hears. You may not have [gone] to one of the more elite conservatories or universities, or you don’t come from wealth, you’re not really fully connected to people who are extremely passionate about new music, [so] your music never gets performed.”
A video series accompanying the radio show will provide even more insight into featured composers and artists. “The video series will enable me to interview the artists or composers who are being featured,” Morris described, continuing, “and that gives us an opportunity to talk more about their writing, about their fears, about social justice issues and just things that have inspired them.” Hosted on Unmute The Voices’ YouTube Channel as well as Facebook and Instagram pages, these videos will be made by videographer and photographer Sung Park.
Unmute The Voices welcomes submissions from composers of color and musicians of color, as well as from musicians of any race that perform composers of color. “I did this because I think it’s important especially for composers and performers to be spotlighted for the wonderful contributions that they have given for a very long time to classical music,” Morris explained. “There are so many people who are brilliant performers who performed the music of Mozart or Shostakovitch or Bernstein that no one ever knows because there’s not a platform that has provided them with the opportunity for their performances to be heard.” Artists can submit via WeTransfer (free, no registration required) or email and learn more about submission details via Unmute The Voices’ KING FM page.
In this new role as a KING FM host, Morris builds upon his longtime community-engaged work that has sought to make the music and arts sector much more equitable. Morris founded and runs Key to Change, a nonprofit music education and mentorship organization serving racially diverse youth in South King County. Morris also co-chairs the Seattle Arts Commission, and he recently wrote a highly circulated letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan calling upon the City to make arts funding more equitable. In his role as host and Artist-Scholar in Residence at KING FM for Unmute The Voices, he hopes to continue to, as he told me, “provide value to an untapped market or more specifically, a hugely underserved population of people in classical music who are just not given a chance.”
Unmute The Voices debuts on Saturday, June 19 at 3 p.m. on KING FM at 98.1. Find out more on the program’s web page.
Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud is an arts writer, curator, and assistant professor in Performing Arts & Arts Leadership at Seattle University. She lives on the border of Westwood, South Delridge, and White Center in (south) West Seattle.
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