Meet Jasmine Barnes, rising composer and latest success story of Baltimore arts programs

Jasmine Barnes can barely believe her good fortune. When she tells me that June marks a year since she left her job teaching music to work full-time as a composer, she laughs and admits it still “feels weird to say it.”

But there’s not much time for reflection these days. At 30 years old, Barnes’ career is taking off with a slew of commissions, residencies and performances all over the country. When I chat with her on the phone, I catch her in between travel: She’s just returned from New York City, where the American Lyric Theater premiered a one-act opera she wrote as a resident artist; in a few days, she makes her way to Baltimore for another premiere by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and American Spiritual Ensemble.


That performance is particularly special: Barnes has lived in Dallas for the last four years, but she’s a Baltimore native, and a product of city public schools and arts programs.

She credited programs like MICA’s Young People’s Studios and TWIGS at Baltimore School for the Arts for exposing her to the arts as a child — and at no cost to her mother. (The Young People’s Studios provide some scholarships; TWIGS is an after-school arts program that’s free for admitted Baltimore City students from second through eighth grade.)


Studying visual art and dance gave her “a well-rounded approach” to creativity, Barnes said, but she was “always doing something that brought me back to music” — even though it wasn’t until college that Barnes attended a concert of classical music, saw an opera or heard a live orchestra.

In fact, Barnes didn’t even intend to study music when she began her undergraduate degree at Morgan State University; initially, her declared major was architecture.

Attending a concert by the Morgan State University Choir changed everything. She remembered thinking, “I need to do this. I didn’t know exactly what ‘this’ was, whether it was singing or creating what I saw, but it was a feeling like, ‘I have to do this.’”

Despite having had no prior formal training, Barnes discovered she had “a gift for singing opera.” She changed majors, threw herself into performance — and soon developed a vocal injury. During the forced silence of her recovery, she began arranging songs for the Morgan State choir as a “therapeutic” exercise.

“I specifically wrote for voices during this time, I guess because I couldn’t use mine,” Barnes said.

But it wasn’t until her last semester — the spring of 2015 — that Barnes felt pulled toward composition as a career. Her senior recital took place the same day that protests over the death of Freddie Gray began.

“I had so many mixed emotions around it,” Barnes recalled. “I felt I wanted to give a voice to what was happening, less than singing songs that were already written and didn’t tell the narrative I wanted.”

Since then, Barnes said, she’s channeled the energy and ethos of the Black Lives Matter movement to inform her artistic direction. She returned to Morgan State for her master’s degree, where, according to her professor James Lee III, she became the first person to graduate from the program with a concentration in composition.


“I think the luxury of me being at an HBCU for my master’s degree in composition was I still wasn’t dealing with the competitiveness of a predominantly white institution,” Barnes said. “I was strictly dealing with someone who actually wanted to see me succeed.”

Succeed she did: Barnes assembled a full chorus and orchestra for a massive two-hour master’s concert she titled “Reality, Race & Religion” — and hasn’t slowed down since.

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The commission from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society is yet another outgrowth of that direction.

Barnes’ four-movement work, “Portraits: Douglass & Tubman,” sets quotes from two of Maryland’s most famous abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and is meant to be paired with Mozart’s “Requiem.”

Thematically, the pairing works more as a counterpoint, Barnes explained. Musically speaking, requiems are compositions that set the text of the Catholic Mass for the dead; mood-wise, they can be fraught and grim: Mozart’s certainly is. Barnes wanted the focus of her work to be on life rather than death, so she selected some of the more inspiring quotes attributed to Douglass and Tubman and set them in an uplifting musical soundscape.

“I’m really excited to be able to premiere this piece,” said Anthony Blake Clark, music director for the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. “It starts off very urgently, just like the Mozart. Then further you get into the piece, the more it gets into African-American spiritual traditions.”


The American Spiritual Ensemble, the acclaimed choir whose mission is to preserve the art form of the spiritual, joins the Baltimore Choral Arts Society for the performance of Barnes’ work; they will also perform a collection of spirituals on the concert program.

Mozart’s “Requiem” is the closer — and afficionados can keep their ears attuned to changes. Continuing the tradition of completing the unfinished work in Mozart’s style, Clark penned a new performance edition: This concert is its premiere.

IF YOU GO: The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, in collaboration with the Baltimore Choral Arts Orchestra and American Spiritual Ensemble, performs “Mozart Requiem Reframed” on Sunday, May 29, 3 p.m., at Goucher College. Tickets start at $20.