“Sometimes I Have Vivid Dreams:” An Interview with Paul Yeon Lee

David Johnston

Paul Yeon Lee, Con Edison Composer-in-Residence at Flushing Town Hall


2011-12 Con Edison Composer-in-Residence Paul Yeon Lee responded to our questions on his process, his dreams and a few of his famous mentors.

How did you start composing?

I started to compose music seriously when I finally realized music is the highest form of art and human communication.

You have a premiere coming up with American Composers Orchestra, for the Sonic Festival.  Tell us something about this new commission, “Echo of a Dream.”

Sometimes I have vivid dreams. Some dreams are dramatic, volatile with colorful impressions like abstract paintings. Some are fluid, and I hear fragments of soft melody in the mist. As a composer, I get up in the middle of night to sketch images of dreams and write down the tunes that I hear for my future compositions. “Echo of a Dream” has the characteristic of tenderness and longing, yet fiery passion with dissonant harmony. Like a painter, I challenged myself to reflect my dream and portray it musically. Echoes of descending minor thirds are heard in the main theme, first gently introduced by cellos. For me, the sound of a long descending minor third has a sense of yearning that expresses love. However, when the two minor thirds converge, it becomes a tritone, which expresses tragedy. My music is intensely personal, and I hope it speaks for itself.

You’ve had some prominent teachers and mentors, like Bright Sheng and William Bolcom. What has that experience been like? How has it affected your own work?

Fortunately, I have had great composition teachers who were open-minded and encouraged me to find my own musical voice. Leslie Bassett taught me to think like a painter who can orchestrate music with the beautiful mysterious colors. William Bolcom taught me to think like a good speaker who can control musical timing of expression and communication: when to say and when not to say, as in musical phrase and musical climax. Bright Sheng taught me to think like an architect who can diagram musical structures and forms. Pablo Furman taught me to think like a true artist who is not afraid to say what is on his mind.

What are you looking forward to with the Con Edison Musicians’ Residency at Flushing Town Hall?

I’m looking forward to a new challenge to compose my first musical experience exploiting daegeum, a Korean bamboo transverse flute. I have been always fascinated with the mysterious sound of daegeum. For me, daegeum evokes the unique and profound soul of Korea. I look forward to collaborating with the energetic daegeum player, Seung-hee Choi.

Tell us about your current project, incorporating traditional Korean musicians and instrumentalists.

The title of my music is “Scattered Wind,” and it is for daegeum and piano. My music will incorporate many traditional Korean music notations and also western music notations. However, I do not wish to imitate Korean traditional music. My passionate goal for this project is to evoke an authentic 5,000 year old Korean spirit in my music, fuse it with piano and transmit my manifestation to the music listeners of all races. I plan to re-weave the sound of western and Korean elements into unifying celebration of multi-cultural American heritage.

You’ve worked as a church vocalist as well, a baritone.  Does performing influence or inform your composing?

Vocal music has been and always will be very important to me. When I write music, regardless for full orchestra or small chamber music, I always think of vocal lines and phrases as if someone is singing them.

What’s challenging about being a composer in NYC? What’s positive?

New York City has many good composers and musicians. There are many concerts that I can attend and learn about other people’s music. The city is always vibrant, which challenges me to stay active and busy.

What’s next?

I must finish some chamber music for DuoSolo and Del Sol String Quartet. I must always stay busy and look forward to new challenges.

Paul’s “Echo of a Dream” will premiere Saturday, Oct. 22 at 7 PM, at the World Financial Center Winter Garden, 220 Vesey Street in New York City. Admission is free.  Check out the Sonic Festival for more details.

Listen to Paul’s music at his website.


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