Commencement 2021: Robbie Bui ’21, Student Speaker for the Class of 2021

NEC's 150th Commencement on May 23, 2021 included not one, but two student speakers—Esther Tien ’20 MM, who spoke on behalf of the class of 2020, and Robbie Bui ’21, who spoke on behalf of the class of 2021.

Robbie Bui speaks at a lectern from the Jordan Hall stage during Commencement 2021.
Robbie celebrated a year of music from under-represented composers, and envisioned a future of music made richer and more expansive through diverse musical ideas.

For the past four years, I've had the pleasure of being in this community, mostly either as a composer of new music, or a cellist specializing in new music. It placed me in a position where I love to ask: what really is the future of music, when we say it so much? What really defines our generation of musicians, embarking in this real world after having experienced this past year?

Especially this past year, we strived for a lot. We were bolder, we were madder, fiercer; we demanded and fought for reform regarding democracy, brutality, community health, social testimony. But what did we do behind these conservatory walls as artists?

Well, here are some names that I saw on concert programs this year... Clara Schumann. Jessie Montgomery. Unsuk Chin. Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Kaija Saariaho. Earl Kim. Fanny Mendelssohn. Anna Thorvaldsdottir. William Grant Still. George Walker. Pamela Z. Florence Price. And countless others.

I'm pretty sure that in high school, I played Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony more times in my life than a conductor had ever put any non-male, non-white composers' work on my stand.

I'm also confident that a bit over a year ago, some live stream audience member out there wouldn't have been able to answer: can you name one Black composer?

Now I'm sure that they can name, maybe, a few.

Great. That's a start.

Next year, let's aim for naming many, and actually knowing many: knowing their bodies of work, their thinking, their struggles, their origins; the same way we know so well Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Mozart, and Beethoven.

It goes beyond the facet of visibility. We've started to have these voices seen, but we can progress to actually having them be heard and listened to.

We could achieve a quota of diverse voices in future-forward programming, but among those voices imagine discovering those that offer new insights, different visions, nuanced approaches, and those that strike you differently and make you say: it sounds like the future of music.

It's a future of music perfectly aligned for a generation as progressive as we are. The actual scale of how much music there is by people from all kinds of creeds, colors, genders, and upbringings, offering radical reinterpretations on defining music, is so much bigger than what our Eurocentric roots have reserved ourselves to. We don't have to follow the same cookie-cutter model of repetition within this one shape for more centuries to come.

We have the power to bend and shape the mold of what defines music in whatever way we wish.

As we exit NEC today, I hope that we feel a mutual sense of responsibility for not only ensuring the inclusion of different voices, but augmenting the potential of the art that we already create into something much bigger, much brighter, much more exploratory, and much more advanced.

Thanks for everything, NEC, and I'm really excited to see what we come up with.

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