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UNC music professor's project emphasizes the importance of female composers

Clara Yang, Associate Professor of Piano and Head of Keyboard Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, plays the piano. Photo courtesy of Clara Yang.

From her performances to her lessons, Clara Yang is expanding the definition of classical music. 

“The two words, 'classical music,' they really mean not only a narrow range of composers. Classical music is now so broad,” the UNC associate professor of music said. “Classical music now encompasses a really broad range of composers."

Yang, the head of keyboard studies at the University, said her focus on underrepresented voices in music started after she finished her classical training.

Although she expressed gratitude for the curriculum she studied and the people who trained her as a pianist, she said her independence as an artist gave her the ability to think about her goals and impact as a performer.

“In the process, you start to rethink about, as a performer, your role of being a performer in society," Yang said. “What you do, what you play, not just how you play, does matter.”

Now, Yang has an upcoming project with the UNC Process Series involving a showcase of performances across all different disciplines that highlights new works in progress. Yang's performance, titled "Her Story: Journey into the Musical Worlds of Women Composers," will take place on April 23 and April 24.

The event is set to feature the compositions of three acclaimed female composers: Amy Beach, Florence Price and Liliya Ugay. Yang and her co-presenter Sunmi Chang, the founder and artistic director of the Summit Chamber Music Series, will perform pieces throughout the concert.

Beach was a white American musician from the Boston area who became one of the first women to receive national recognition for her compositions around the early 1900s.

Yang said that Beach went out of her way to help other women throughout her career. 

“She helped a lot of people for their early careers," Yang said. "She was the head of many institutions. She promoted women and women’s work. (Chang and I) both were really in love with her music immediately. Her music really conveys a lot of emotions very easily."

Florence Price was a Black composer from Arkansas. In 1933, she became the first female composer of African descent whose symphonic work was performed by a major American symphony orchestra. 

Yang spoke about Price's masterful talent and the variety of influences she drew from in her music. 

“(Price) had really impressive compositional skills and her language, musical language, is also really amazing," Yang said. "She draws from spirituals and there’s also a lot of Western techniques in her approach as well. Her music is just really emotional and obviously really reflects her personal experience.”

The third composer, Ugay, is an award-winning assistant professor of composition at Florida State University. She composed a piece titled "Mother Tales" specifically for this performance. 

Yang spoke about the connection she has to both Chang and Ugay. All three are Asian-American mothers, which makes the performance particularly special, she said.

"It’s really wonderful to be able to collaborate with other Asian musicians," Yang said.

Yang said she doesn't take issue with what’s already included in the core repertoire of classical music in higher education, but she wants to add to it. Specifically, she wants to highlight the work of underrepresented composers — not just for their identities but for their talent as well. 

“Classical music has a core repertoire that often doesn’t include these composers, so we want to elevate the underrepresented composers, their works,” Yang said. “My point is that it’s not just to say because they’re women we want to play them, which is a good reason too, but I want to emphasize that their works are really incredible. The merit of their work is worthy of any concert hall, and that’s the point.”

In her classes last fall, Yang said she assigned a project that focused on researching and then performing the work of Black composers.

“It was at once encouraging and dismaying to uncover so many previously lesser known or lesser heard artists and composers,” one of Yang's students, Sydney Thai, a senior studying biology and music, said in an email. “There have been so many pieces by African American composers that are quirky, nuanced and full of meaning, yet are lesser-known or played simply because the composers did not have the same exposure or opportunity that their white colleagues had.”

Thai performed Price’s "Fantasie No. 2" in G minor. A video of the entire class’ performance is available on the UNC Department of Music’s YouTube channel

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With the upcoming spring performance, Chang said in an email statement that she is grateful for the chance to share their dream project through the UNC Process Series. She will be performing alongside Yang in "Her Story: Journey into the Musical Worlds of Women Composers." 

Chang was born in South Korea and left the country when she was 14 to study music across the globe. Her personal experiences have impacted how she has engaged with the classical music scene, she said.

"Upon looking back, there were many incidents where they were really about the fact I was a young girl from Asia, hence race, gender, age. I didn't think much of it then, and even throughout my graduate school years," Chang wrote. "Now, as a mature adult, I think more about what kind of influence I can have as a musician on the next generation of artists and what I can do to encourage the classical music scene to bring the balance it needs."

Yang is also excited about the new direction that classical music is going in.  

"I think it’s really interesting and really great that people are starting to think about things more broadly," Yang said. "I wanted to sort of push the boundary of the definition of classical music. It’s really not just what people think.”

@_aishabee_ |

Aisha Baiocchi

Aisha Baiocchi is the 2023-24 enterprise managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer on the university desk. Aisha is a junior majoring in journalism at UNC and international comparative studies at Duke University, as well as a minor in history.