How An Orchestra Is Using Music To Say Black Lives Matter

Editor’s Note: This week alone has seen two horrific incidences of police brutality against two Black men — Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. As the nation reels from these grievous abuses of power, it has become more necessary than ever for all institutions in our society to take a stance in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Black musicians comprise only 2% of American orchestras — a statistic that’s remained virtually unchanged over the last decade, despite growing diversity initiatives among arts organizations. In 2014, the nation’s oldest symphony orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, welcomed their first Black principal musician into their ranks after five years without a single Black player. But this historic move came almost 50 years after a case was brought before the New York City Commission on Human Rights accusing the Philharmonic of racial discrimination. At the time, their Black membership clocked in at that familiar number — one — a cellist. While this case prompted affirmative action, current data shows that orchestras have a long way to go.

Enter The Dream Unfinished (TDU). A self-described activist orchestra based in New York City, TDU brings marginalized musicians and composers to the forefront of their classical music programming. However, their mission goes beyond diversity for diversity’s sake. “Big institutions are constantly touting their work with communities of color, but they’re not directly dealing with the issues impacting these very same communities that they claim to serve,” says founder and executive producer Eun Lee. She speaks the names of Black classical pioneers like Florence Price and William Grant Still in the same sentence as Eric Garner and Sandra Bland.

Image from TDU's headline event in New York City on July 17, 2015.
Image from TDU’s headline event in New York City on July 17, 2015.

When the Black Lives Matter movement took off in 2014, Lee was working in Queens as an educator with El Sistema, which uses music as a tool for youth development and social change. Despite the program’s progressive orientation and the fact that she was teaching predominantly students of color, Lee felt a disconnect between her music world and the national conversation unfolding about police brutality and systemic racism. Whereas musicians in other genres — hip-hop, rock, pop — openly took political stands, classical musicians and organizations remained silent. So after several months of fruitless Google searches for anyone, anything linking classical music and Black Lives Matter, Lee took it upon herself to build that bridge. She connected with conductor James Blachly (who now shares the title of artistic director with Grammy Award winner John McLaughlin Williams), and together they assembled a team of musicians, producers, and designers committed to musical resistance.

Now in their second season, TDU curates programs combining music with speakers or discussions on topics such as race, gender, and media representation. These events are equal parts entertainment, consciousness-raising, and support for partner organizations — currently, The Center for Constitutional Rights, Black Women’s Blueprint, and African American Policy Forum — that take home portions of proceeds for direct political work. And then there are excursions outside the concert hall, like a pop-up performance of Jessie Montgomery’s “Soul Force” at Grand Central Station — until the authorities asked them to leave. (Tellingly, of the dozen musicians who gathered for the “symphonic flash mob,” the only one stopped by police and prevented from participating entirely was a Black man, Lee recounts.)

As a young organization, and arguably the first of its kind, “most people are initially kind of . . . confused,” Lee admits. “They’ve never heard the term ‘activist orchestra,’ but I like to think that means we’re innovating.”

Indeed, political activism doesn’t exactly jibe with the black-tie, conservative-leaning image that is usually associated with the symphony. Originating in the church and then the royal courts of Europe, Western classical music has historically survived, to a certain extent, on the patronage of powerful institutions. Today, orchestras operating on multi-million-dollar budgets depend on wealthy donors, foundations, and corporate sponsors. But ultimately, creators and performers are bound by a belief in music as an expression of human emotion and spirit. Perhaps, then, it makes all the sense in the world to situate art within the fight for justice, for equality, for a society that honors inherent human dignity.

Broadway performer Tanya Birl sharing the story of Leonard Bernstein's activism and the historical significance of On the Town, July 17, 2015.
Broadway performer Tanya Birl sharing the story of Leonard Bernstein’s activism and the historical significance of On the Town, July 17, 2015.

Lee emphasizes that while some enter the concert hall to take a break from politics, being able to check your identity at the door isn’t an option for everyone:

“I think it’s important to infiltrate these established spaces, and to say to all community members that they are welcome here, that they matter here. Because a lot of people are sent the message that their money or who they are bringing in their own personhood is not valid or not valued.”

The inclusion that TDU seeks for its audiences is modeled on stage — their roster of instrumentalists, trained in some of the country’s top music programs, is one of the most diverse in the game — as well as in their leadership. Industry-wide, executive and artistic directors, the ones responsible for determining repertoire, guest conductors, and other major decisions — are women and/or people of color just once in a blue moon.

In Lee’s view, this top-down structure also contributes to classical organizations’ political neutrality. “Free thought isn’t necessarily championed as you’re sitting in an ensemble,” she says. “Freelancers who just show up for that pick-up orchestra or that wedding gig [are] kind of treated as the help. You’re in the background . . . People normally aren’t given any soapbox to stand on.” That’s why TDU has two conductors who set the group’s programming collaboratively, as well as several concerts in their summer series in which orchestra members play solo or small ensemble works of their own choosing.

On July 13, marking the one-year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death in police custody, TDU will present “Sing Her Name,” a concert featuring old and new compositions exclusively by female composers. Such programming is a rarity — in the 2015–16 concert season, a mere 1.7% of works performed by U.S. orchestras were penned by women. “I think for the audience it will be very interesting to hear all these different women who wrote for orchestra,” says composer Courtney Bryan, who will be premiering a new work commissioned for this event. “So many concerts are all [music by] white men who are no longer living. That’s very specific. It kind of makes you think, why not? Why not have all-women concerts?”

There are economic pressures. Familiar repertoire is most popular; programs with lesser-known composers tend not to sell as well. With orchestras struggling to stay afloat amidst budget deficits and falling subscription numbers, there’s limited real estate left for emerging writers and those left behind by the canon. “That’s one of the really exciting things about The Dream Unfinished,” Lee says. As a primarily volunteer-run enterprise, “we have nothing to lose — because we don’t have anything in the first place — and everything to gain by bringing in these composers that are lesser known but may appeal to a much broader demographic.”

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‘Sing Her Name’ will debut on July 13.

There’s a sense in everything TDU does that many individual parts have combined to create something vast. A year after its founding, a year after Lee decided to fill the classical community’s silence with the sounds of artist-activists from across New York City, the organization surpassed its $10,000 crowdfunding goal to finance the 2016 summer series. Included in this is Bryan’s commission, a piece for orchestra and chorus set to text by poet Sharan Strange.

Bryan and Strange worked closely over the course of months on what was characterized as the kind of collaboration that a collaboration should be: that which compliments, creating a product greater than the sum of its parts. They discussed inspirations: John and Alice Coltrane, Alvin Singleton, Lucille Clifton, and intentions: “to show the humanity of Sandra Bland,” Bryan summarizes. They exchanged ideas until Bryan finally sat down to write out a full score in the spring.

Describing the soon-to-be-unveiled work, Strange reveals the essence of ‘Sing Her Name’ and The Dream Unfinished:

“The heft and solidity of life, the inherent integrity of a life, a self ripe with will, purpose, self-knowing, and the gap left by its tragic and unjust destruction. Life snatched away in the context of power: anti-Black power, misogynistic power. Community catalyzed by loss…Remembering, narrating, and honoring those losses as a means to devising resistance and a better possible future.”

‘Sing Her Name’ will take place on Wednesday, July 13, 2016, 7:30–9:30pm, at The Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City. Tickets are available for pre-sale through Eventbrite ($10 for students, $25 general admission) or at the door ($15 for students, $35 general admission).


All images courtesy of The Dream Unfinished.