Black Lives Matter in the Orchestra Pit, Too


Pianist Courtney Bryan has, in more than one instance, been called a “gentle soul.” She is affable, even disarming in conversation. But that swiftly melts away when she performs her arrangement of “City Called Heaven,” a negro spiritual that she’s turned into a melodic tribute to freedom fighters. Halfway through the song, Bryan’s vibrant refrain transitions into claps of thunder as she bangs on the keys with her fists. The result is not classical and clean. It’s an expression of the human condition, and more specifically, her experience as a black woman in America.

She’s applying the same sensibility to a new piece, “Yet Unheard.” It’s set to debut on July 13 at Sing Her Name, a tribute concert for the women of the Black Lives Matter movement on the one-year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death. The event is powered by The Dream Unfinished, an orchestra that supports NYC-based civil rights and community organizations; at this event, they’re donating proceeds to the African American Policy Forum.

While classical music is steeped in a tradition that typically involves tuxedos and gowns and a stoic reverence to the canon, The Dream Unfinished, by design, shifts these ideas. Founder and executive producer Eun Lee says her organization is able to make waves because classical music is overwhelmingly wealthy and white, stigmatizing musicians and composers who don’t fit into that space. “Within that paradigm, we’re using this medium for a means of social protest,” she says. “We also talk about systemic racism within classical music, because it affects larger societal ills.”

Lee, who reached out to Bryan after becoming aware of her expertise in combining composition and social justice issues, has a career as a clarinetist and teaching artist but shifted focus to the orchestra when she realized her musical community had no stance on human rights. “I was doing some strange Googling, like ‘classical music and Black Lives Matter,’ ” says Lee. “No one within classical music, within these institutions, was responding or engaging with [it].”

She reacted by curating her own team of experienced musicians who wanted to use their art as a platform, launching The Dream Unfinished in late 2014. Its inaugural event, in 2015, was a concert honoring Eric Garner. This year’s commemoration of Sandra Bland includes orchestral and choral performances of pieces written by women composers including Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, and Ethel Smyth.

“The story of Sandra Bland is inconclusive. I didn’t want the piece to end triumphantly, because it isn’t triumphant.” – Courtney Bryan

Bryan, whose piece will be performed in conjunction with verse by poet Sharan Strange, and sung by Helga Davis, is the only living composer honored at the event. Bryan, Strange, and Davis worked closely to bring the headlining piece to life. “We decided that we are mourning what happened to [Bland] but also trying to celebrate her spirit, so we wanted some element of hope in it,” says Bryan. “It wasn’t supposed to be a very pretty piece but there [are] moments of vulnerability.”

This vulnerability was fueled not just by these artists’ reactions to the loss of Bland’s life, but to Sandy Speaks, the podcast Bland launched just a few months before she died. Strange penned a poem about the wide resonance of Bland’s death, “Urging the audience toward, I hope, an apprehension of her death, among those of many others, as loss in a larger social sense,” says Strange.

Bryan’s composition mirrors these sentiments while also battling the posthumous character assassinations that attempt to degrade victims of color. It retains the tone of a negro spiritual but employs a wide cast of instruments to mimic the the composer’s complex experience as a black woman. The score includes brass, woodwinds, percussion, and a harp, which Bryan hopes will lend an otherworldly feel to the performance.

“The harmonies [move] a lot because I wanted things to be unsettled. I want the mood to be agitation and urgency,” she says, noting that voices of the chorus singing Strange’s poem will rise and fall throughout the piece. “The end will be a rallying call. The story of Sandra Bland is inconclusive. I didn’t want the piece to end triumphantly, because it isn’t triumphant.”

“Yet Unheard” aims to awaken rather than comfort, which is exactly what Lee had in mind when she approached the women to create it. “People are coming because they’re so thrown off by the idea of an activist orchestra. That’s our goal — to change as many minds as possible. To show people that they to have an agency and they too can be engaging these topics,” she says.

All this, of course, was planned before police killed two more black Americans, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, just this week. Sterling, of Baton Rouge, was selling CDs outside a convenience store and shot to death at close range. Castile, in Minnesota, was killed during a traffic stop. We find ourselves again asking the same question Bryan’s composition presents: How many lives have to be destroyed before there is change?

Lee says the recent deaths have made the concert even more urgent. Days before the show, the orchestra members are digesting the losses of Sterling and Castile, gaining even more clarity of purpose. “The more than we can [use] classical music as a medium for protest,” says Lee, “maybe people will recognize that we have to stop ignoring this.”