Interview with Musician & Producer Eun Lee

Eun Lee is the founder and executive producer of The Dream Unfinished - an activist orchestra that supports civil rights community-based organizations in New York City. The mission of The Dream Unfinished is to create a platform for classical musicians to show solidarity in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and its inaugural showcase in 2015 coincided with the 1-year anniversary of Eric Garner's death. In 2016, they are continuing with the cause with their #SingHerName series with their headline event falling on the 1-year anniversary of Sandra Bland's death (July 13th). In addition to producing, Eun is also a teacher and musician. She plays clarinet and teaches in music programs throughout NYC. I was so pleased to be able to speak with Eun further about her work and the work of this amazing activist orchestra. 

I LOVE the term activist orchestra - so powerful, and so original. How did you conceive of this idea? Can you give us the background on The Dream Unfinished and how you got it all started?

As the #BlackLivesMatter movement began to gain momentum in 2014, I participated by attending rallies, sharing relevant articles in my social media, and reading more to get “woke” to the issues of systemic discrimination. I also began to wonder if there was anything I could do uniquely as a classical musician to support this cause. One of my FB friends suggested we do some sort of benefit concert, so as I researched musician engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I was troubled by the fact that while hip hop, folk, jazz, and pop artists were issuing responses and taking public stances on these issues, classical music ensembles and organizations remained troublingly silent, even when the protest was brought into their own concert hall. (To date, the only other orchestras besides TDU that I know of who have explicitly engaged with these issues are the Baltimore Symphony and Soulful Symphony).

Despite this lack of institutional engagement, I knew many classical musicians within my own circles who cared deeply about these issues, but felt they had no platform on which to speak. When I realized that no organizations seemed to be doing anything related to BLM, I sent a cold email to James Blachly, a conductor who has a reputation for organizing concerts for various causes. It was through our initial email exchange that we began assembling the team of committed volunteers and musicians who launched our first headline event. While TDU was initially conceived as a one-off event, immediately following the concert, we saw such an outpouring of response from attendees and musicians that we realized, with all of this momentum, we had to keep moving forward. From this we decided to establish TDU as an annual concert series, which culminates in an orchestral performance each season.

According to your bio, not only are you the founder and producer of TDU, but you are also an educator and a clarinetist - how do you balance it all? What's a week in your life like?

I’m fortunate because I have a really supportive husband, and in both my day job at a community music school and in my work with TDU, I work with a team of colleagues whom I’m able to collaborate with and rely upon. Basically, I work a 9 to 5 job of working as an administrator and teacher, and when I’m not at work, I’m working on TDU. Things like google docs and uberconference are crucial, as our “office” is basically in the cloud. As for my clarinet playing, I also run a chamber ensemble, which is more active in the months of TDU’s “off season” when we’re focusing on planning and don’t have live events going on. And to be honest, there are plenty of weeks when I’m not balancing it all, and learning how to be OK with that has been a big part of this whole journey too.

When did you first discover your love of music? What has your musical journey looked like that brought you to this point in your life?

I actually come from a family of visual artists; my parents are children’s book illustrators and painters, my grandfather was a painter, my grandmother was a sculptress, my brother is an animator… so I expected to become a painter as well. But for some reason, after an initial four years of playing clarinet in my school music program and not enjoying it, something clicked when I hit my last year of middle school; I began to actually practice clarinet, and also taught myself tenor saxophone so I could audition for the jazz band. This was also during what I can now look back on as my “angsty” middle school years, and I think music was a refuge for me, as being in ensembles offered me a social outlet I didn’t have in painting and drawing.

Throughout high school I was in pretty much every ensemble I could audition for, and following this I went through a music education degree at Northwestern. After all that time studying classical music, I thought I owed it to myself to study something different before I began my career in the classroom, so I spent two years in South Korea teaching English and immersing myself in Korean traditional drumming. I returned to the States in 2011, and I’ve been teaching in public schools and various non-profit music programs ever since.

Who are three musicians/musical groups who have influenced you in your practice?

As an artist-activist, there is no one I admire more than Nina Simone. For their sheer persistence in the face of all odds and unwavering commitment to creating art of the highest quality, I find a lot of inspiration in the compositions and biographies of William Grant Still and Florence Price, two composers who have been highlighted by TDU.

Going back to TDU - can you tell us about the team you work with? Who are they, and what are their roles in the project?

At the moment, TDU is made up of a volunteer team of musicians and activists. While all of them are listed with their respective titles on our site, most of us are actually juggling multiple jobs, by also donating time as performers, and/or taking on other tasks such as editing, social media support, giving feedback on programming decisions, all the way down to the menial tasks of distributing postcards and fliers for our events.

You see in our work so much of this spirit of a “do what it takes” attitude, and a real willingness for people to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, and this energy has had its own gravitational pull, as more and more people learn about our vision and inquire about getting involved. It really takes a village to make all of this happen, and it’s because of all of these helping hands that we’ve been able to get any of our work off the ground.

TDU is putting on several events this summer that focus on women and in particular women of color, can you talk about these, including #SingHerName? This concert is taking place on July 13, 2016, the one-year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland - what do you think has or hasn't changed in the year since this tragedy? What messages do you hope the audience takes away from the concert?

Following our inaugural season, I wanted us to continue this dialogue with #BlackLivesMatter by highlighting specific issues within the larger umbrella of the BLM movement. This year we are focusing on the intersectionality of female-identified individuals of color: how they are uniquely impacted by racialized policing, largely absent in media coverage as well as historical documentation, as well as their marginalization within both civil rights activism and feminism.

The recognition of Sandra Bland’s passing was and wasn’t a pivotal moment for mainstream coverage of black women victims and survivors. While Bland’s death made clear the fact that women of color are also impacted by police brutality, as Sandra Bland’s mother herself said at the first ever Congressional Caucus for Black Women, there were SIX other black women and girls last July (just in that month!) who died in prison, and they are not household names. Outside of Sandra Bland, the media has been virtually silent in the deaths and assaults of other black women. Just as an example, if you do a google news search, while Eric Garner’s death has approx. 329,000 related articles, the conviction against Oklahoma city cop Daniel Holtzclaw for his sexual assault of over 18 women has only 20,000 articles. While the 263-year sentence of Officer Holtzclaw shows we’ve come a long way from the horrific inaction of cases such as Recy Taylor, we still have so much work to do to recognize and reconcile the centuries of systemic rape and brutalization that black women have faced in the U.S.

However, given what seems to be a wave of activity with programming such as the aforementioned caucus, Black Women’s Blueprint’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and BET’s Black Girls Rock!, there seems to be a lot more attention being drawn to these issues. It’s our hope that through Sing Her Name, we support sustaining the momentum of these new initiatives, and inspire more allies to stand in solidarity with black women as well.

All of the TDU events combine conversation and music - how do you determine the composition, and how do you feel these elements reinforce one another?

There are other arts organizations which raise awareness and funds for charitable causes, but what really sets TDU apart is that our musical programming reflects whatever issues we are tackling. As we Sing Her Name this year, our 2016 season exclusively programs female composers, with an emphasis on black female composers. This allows us to discuss the full range of biases against black women, as we bring up both externalized conflicts of violence and assault, but also shed light on the biographies of our featured composers, and how they dealt with implicit and explicit racism in their careers as musicians. I’m also fortunate in having two artistic directors and two chamber concert producers, and it is in these teams that we’ve curated our musical programming and selected works that we feel are exceptional, and worth bringing to the attention of wider audiences, within and without the context of our work.  

For each of your events, TDU works with partners including The Center for Constitutional Rights, Black Women's Blueprint, The Museum of Women's Resistance, and Project142. Can you tell us about each of these partnerships and their respective missions?

The Center for Constitutional Rights and Black Women’s Blueprint have been instrumental in helping us secure speakers and venues (such as the Museum of Women’s Resistance), and we are honored to be able to support their respective missions and activism. BWB is also acting as our current fiscal sponsor, and allows us to function as a non-profit. Live event platforms such as Project142 have also allowed us to access new spaces and tap into their audience base as well.

You've noted that the classical music community compared to other genres has been absent in the social justice dialogue, unwilling to or uninterested in responding to the undeniably pervasive racial and gender-based violence and oppression that exists in our country today- "I hoped to see a level of response from the classical music community that paralleled that of the larger community and found that the classical music community was both visibly and viscerally unresponsive.”  - what has the response been from the classical music community then to TDU? And the larger music community in general?

Compared to an organization like the Berlin Philharmonic, which has been around since 1882, TDU is still in the embryonic stage, and not that many people even know we exist. In general, when people do get wind of us, they tend to be either a little skeptical, or incredibly receptive. That, I think, comes with the territory of being innovators. More often than not we’re able to win people over to our side once they see the level of substance and care that is put into our work.

Lastly, for readers who want to learn more about the intersection of music and activism, what are some resources you can share? Writers? Groups? Musicians?

WQXR’s Terrance McKnight’s radio documentaries and Videmus Music’s YouTube uploads have been a big resource for us to research a lot of the composers we’ve chosen to feature. This year we also referred a great deal to Helen Walker Hill's book "From Spirituals to Symphonies," which details black female classical composers, and we were also fortunate enough to work with Melanie Zeck at the Center for Black Music Research as we begin drafting programming for future seasons. Sankofa.org is another great organization who we are building a relationship with, that creates a platform for celebrities and artists to engage with activism. While he’s not a classical musician, jazz composer Vijay Iyer has been very vocal with his engagement with BLM, and we always try to stay up to date with his happenings.

Lastly, through our work we’ve been so fortunate to get connected with artists such as soprano Janinah Burnett, who curates an event called I Too, Sing America, which deals with police brutality through a recital of art songs; as well as harpist Angelica Hairston, who recently had an incredibly successful event called #ChallengeTheStats, which challenges the color line that exists in the classical music industry. Our 2016 composer this year Courtney Bryan has also been engaging with artist-activism prior to her involvement with TDU, and all of her work is worth checking out.

All of these folks are doing incredible work, and it is our hope that we can begin building a network of artists who all believe that orchestras and classical music ensembles should look and sound like the communities they serve, and provide programming that is both of the highest artistic quality and also socially and culturally responsive to its constituents.