How to Make ADEI-Centered Programming an Adventure

There’s no way to represent diverse voices in your concert programming without factoring composers’ ethnic identity, gender and sexual orientation into your decision-making. But what if most of that were done for you ahead of time? A website developed by an organization called New Muses Project aims to help you concentrate your programming effort, along with your curiosity, on the music itself. In a session at the Chorus America Conference in June, co-founder Gloria Yin will demonstrate the project’s composer recommendation system, which allows musicians to discover new or overlooked composers in an organic way. Here’s a preview with writer Don Lee.

Don Lee: Could you start with a quick description of the New Muses Project? Your website describes it as "a DEI-centered classical music organization, promoting justice and curiosity through performance education and scholarship." How do you aim to accomplish those things? 

Gloria Yin: The main thing we’ve created is a web-based resource,, which provides recommendations of composers of historically marginalized identities for you to explore based on your current interests. We have a search box, and it says, “give us the name of a composer you like.” And so you could say, "Oh, I like Brahms," and we might  say "great, then you should check out this composer." So we provide similar composers, based on parameters such as historical era, influences, genres composed, location, style, and sound. We give you the name and some fun information about them, biography, recordings: stuff that we think is going to be helpful to you to actually be getting to know this composer in a way that is not necessarily centered around their identity, or around any labels. The whole idea is for everyone just to be very adventurous, try and approach stuff that they might never have heard before. We want to encourage people to keep an open mind about the music and composers that they find interesting. 

DL: What signaled to you that there was a need for this?

GY: We started developing the site in 2021, around the time that a lot of people were talking about what diversity in the classical music field looks like, and then we launched the site in the summer of 2022. DEI has been an ongoing conversation for decades, of course, but there was a renewed interest in it in 2020, as we all know, and a lot of the discussion at the time revolved around how do we get more Black composers programmed? How do we get more women composers programmed? These questions are not necessarily themselves a bad thing, but we were feeling like people were treating it as another thing that they were obliged to do. We wanted to change the way people think about diversity, away from checklists and away from labels and identity. We felt like that wasn't necessarily a very sustainable approach or a very fun approach. We wanted to make it feel like approaching these composers is more about just being adventurous, just being willing to embrace stuff that's outside the canon. 

DL: Some of the information that I've read on your website uses the term “tokenism,” and in some ways, I think you're trying to position what you're doing as an antidote to tokenism. Would that be fair to say, and if it is, how so? How does it do that?

GY: Tokenism feels like it's definitely a tricky conversation. We do feel that discussing identities and discussing labels is not a bad thing and is sometimes necessary, but it needs to be very holistic and big picture and intersectional. It's not like you'll never see "this was a Black composer, this was an Asian composer" on our website.  It's just more like, we want you to focus on the composer's life and their music itself, and we'll try and present these composers in a way that helps you get to know them. We want you to take a listen to the music and see if you like it. We will try to just really connect you to the composers themselves.

DL: The number of names that could be added to your resource must be limitless. How big is your database now, and how have you built it? What guides you in making the choices? What resources do you have to accomplish even a sliver of what could be done?

GY: That's been one of our really big challenges. It's eternally going to be a work in progress. Our current list of composers that we want to add is in the hundreds—more than 400, for sure. And I believe the number of profiles we've written up right now is over 100, maybe 120 so far. Most of that has been down to the work of a small team of musicologists. All of the information is very custom-curated, so it is very time-intensive to create all of these profiles. And that's been a big challenge for us to have the time resources and the people resources to create all of that. 

DL: To identify overlooked composers, you must have to do a lot of detective work. And once you find them, do you go through a process to decide whether to recommend them?

GY: We start with our list of over 400 (and counting) interesting composers that we want to recommend, and in order to decide which of those composers to prioritize we had to ask, “Who are the composers people are more likely to have as their favorites and therefore put into our search engine?” We know people are going to put Beethoven [in the search box]. Beethoven should have five or six recommendations, and who are those people going to be?

Because of historical and systemic marginalization of certain identity groups, it's true that the composers we want to recommend are a little more sparsely scattered through the historical ages compared to white men who have always been uplifted, but, importantly, that does not mean that those composers don't exist; we just have to do extra work to find them, and that's the fun part. It is a lot of detective work, but luckily we have a team of music nerds that love digging in the depths of archives and the internet. As you can imagine, it's not possible to always give recommendations that everyone will love. The good news is that we curate each of the connections (rather than relying on AI) and so we're happy for you to disagree with a recommendation or suggest a recommendation that we've missed.

DL: What about choral music organizations? What do you have to offer specifically for choral musicians?

GY: I come from a background of choral conducting. My co-founder, Joe Lerangis, comes from a background in choral music, and we were both in the same choral conducting program. So we initially focused on composers that were more familiar to us, a lot of choral music composers. We love how choral music really seems to embrace our ethos and diverse composers in general. In terms of specific resources, we don't filter anything by genre. We can't say, “Here are choral-specific composers that you should look at.” But when you explore our website, composers will have little tags underneath their name, which summarize the genres that they mostly composed in. 

DL: Since you got started three years ago, the momentum behind ADEI has slowed somewhat in parts of corporate America. Do you think momentum has shifted in the music world based on what you have occasion to observe?

GY: This is all completely anecdotal—no hard evidence for this whatsoever—but it felt like in 2020, there seemed to be a lot more institutional push towards DEI in terms of written statements, goals that people wanted to accomplish, ways to track their progress. A lot of it seemed to be top-down because people seemed to say, “This is a structural problem, this is an institutional problem, we need institutional solutions.” And I felt like at the time, it wasn't trickling down to the level of me, my peers, what were we doing as individuals. How are we keeping each other accountable? How was all of this informing our personal music choices? 

And now, I am hearing a lot less from institutions. Again, very anecdotal, just because I'm not in an institution right now. But I'm still constantly gratified when my peers have continued to use resources that are out there, resources like New Muses Project and other databases. I feel like there are more pieces that didn't used to be in the canon five or 10 years ago that feel almost canonical now, just by virtue of having been performed frequently in the last couple years, which is very gratifying. It's sort of hard to measure, like, is this real progress? And what does real progress even mean? But I do feel like that's where organizations like New Muses Project come in. It can be about counting composers, but it can also just be, Are you still being adventurous? Are you still being curious? Are you still wanting to learn about music that's outside the canon? Then it's intrinsic to your approach to music.

DL: When you think about what you have accomplished in two or three years with New Muses Project, where would you place yourself now in terms of accomplishing those goals? And where do you hope to be, say, five years from now?

GY: It turns out that running an organization is very hard. Three years ago, we were in my studio apartment, just typing away, and sort of like, “We'll make a website, why not?” And now it's an organization and we're discussing various ways of organizing it and how to find funding and be productive and all those things. We do have very exciting ideas for where we want the website to go next. We have some prototypes. We're in the process of finding funding for it. We're hoping that the result—website 2.0, 3.0, whatever it turns out to be—is going to be a much more collaborative, personal online space for all musicians to explore, a way for people to more fully immerse themselves in this music.

DL: What would that collaboration look like? 

GY: I mentioned that one of the difficulties so far has been, okay, we want to write profiles for hundreds of composers. We will constantly need a team of musicologists to do this research into all these composers. We recognize that there's a lot of work being done out there, and we want to be a space where people can have a landing page, a platform to share their research, rather than for all of it to come from New Muses Project. So we want our space to be more open source in a way, but still feel curated.  We don't want it to be a Facebook-style mass of information. 

This is a very long-term goal. Otherwise, I'm happy to be chugging along. If we're just opening some people's minds and we're creating a way to think about music that feels more refreshing, that feels more adventurous, then that's really most of our work being done.

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.