Lara Downes creates Black-focused label Rising Sun Music

Pianist Lara Downes is working to break traditional classical music stereotypes.Rik Keller

February 23, 2021

While the classical music industry continues to reckon with a lack of diversity in its programming and personnel, world-renowned pianist Lara Downes is actually doing something about it. She has launched a new label that aims to go beyond the newly heightened awareness around social change in classical music.

The roots of Rising Sun Music go back to her upbringing and education as a classically trained pianist, when she noticed that music by Black composers just wasn't available. They weren't taught, they weren't published and they were rarely performed, she says. Drawing from her Black and Eastern European heritage, she wants the record label to celebrate Black excellence.

"Rising Sun Music came from a place that's not unfamiliar for most of us who work in this industry and just feel very much an outsider," she said. "Either by virtue of being a person of color, or with me, my background and childhood studies in Europe, which was an old-school traditional approach that really left me with this gap in my ability. I had to reconcile who I was with the music that I love and the work I wanted to do. That search led me to my very first encounters with composers of color."

Downes has arranged a partnership with publishing company Theodore Presser to print the music released by Rising Sun Music. The label plans to be comprehensive and continuous in its goal to bring Black classical music to the ears of everyone via radio and streaming services. It hopes to release a new track each week, resulting in a new EP every month.

Digging music out of archives and libraries and getting the works in the hands of performers, students, teachers and scholars for education and enjoyment is crucial to the longevity of the label.

"I think it started initially as a search for self, a search for understanding of identity and place," she said. "It has evolved into a search for a common understanding, but global understanding."

The end of February marks one month since the record label's first release, Tangamerican, by Margaret Bonds. Since then, works by Benny Golson, Eubie Blake and William Grant Still have come out. Future recordings will include works by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, Carlos Simon and Quinn Mason, and performances by Jordan Bak, Nicole Cabell and Titu Underwood.