An Interview with GRAMMY Winner Eric Oberstein

By Blaire Townshend

Arts Administration Alumnus Eric Oberstein is a producer, musician, educator, and arts administrator—and now also a two-time GRAMMY winner. His work as producer on Arturo O’Farrill’s “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite” earned Oberstein and his creative team the award for Best Instrumental Composition at the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards this February. This win closely follows a win for The Offense of the Drum at last year’s ceremony—to read more about that award, click here. Oberstein currently serves as the Associate Director of Duke Performances, as well as co-chair for the recently established Alumni Committee of the Arts Administration Program here at Columbia University. For this interview, Oberstein was able to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions regarding his recent GRAMMY win, his administrative and creative philosophies, and his insights into the field of arts administration.

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A screenshot of the team on stage at the GRAMMYs

1) Your GRAMMY win for “Cuba: The Conversation Continues” has come at a time when Cuban-American relations are undergoing significant change. What does this correlation mean to you, and what place do you feel that music has in political change?

This is a very significant and exciting time for Cuban-American relations. Our two countries are starved for engagement with one another and are figuring out how to constructively re-engage with one another after decades of estrangement and isolation. We’re really re-learning how to speak to one another again. Being half-Cuban (my mother was born in Havana and came to the United States in 1961 after the Revolution), it is very meaningful for me to see this process happen and evolve by the day.

We were (in a major coincidence) on the ground in Havana to record our album when the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States was announced. It was wild and surreal to be in Cuba at that moment. People were crying and hugging in the streets. We went into the studio 48 hours after the announcement; there was an electricity in the studio that you could feel. We felt both joy and an obligation to represent what this renewed conversation could look and sound like.

We’ve been fortunate to see an enthusiastic response to our album, which we envisioned as a project that could help, in our small way, to bridge the gap between our two cultures, in much the same way that American trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo united to help give birth to Latin jazz in the 1940s. The project features new works by a cast of both Cuban and American composers, as well as a lineup of both Cuban and American musicians. It was important to us to represent voices from both countries, and through music and collaboration, illustrate that we have more in common with one another than the differences often seen separating us.

We see music and this album as a powerful symbolic tool that has the capacity to show governments and everyday folks that we shouldn’t be scared of one another—that we benefit from engagement and learning from one another.

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During the recording session at Abdala Studios in Havana in December 2014 (Photo credit: David Katzenstein)

2) As both a musician and a music producer, how have your creative interests influenced your work as an administrator, and vice versa? Specifically, how has this integration of interests informed your work with Arturo O’Farrill?

I play saxophone and drums. I’ve always loved to play, and music has always been a large part of my life. I realized in college that I could combine my love for music and the arts, with my affinity for planning and organizing, and be of service to the arts as an administrator. That concept was very appealing—strategically thinking about how to support artists and the field, building organizations and structures that could nurture the arts and the people behind the artistic work.

I’d say jazz, and more specifically Latin jazz, has been my love. Growing up in a Cuban family, I was surrounded by the music of Cuba and Latin America. For me, Latin jazz was the perfect melding of my heritage and the jazz music I loved to listen to and play.

I met Arturo O’Farrill while a grad student in the ARAD Program. I attended the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s first concert in their new residency at Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in October 2007. I knew that Arturo had just formed his new non-profit organization, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, and I wrote Arturo a note on the back of an audience response card in my program that night telling him that I was half-Cuban, that I was a musician and a fan of the Orchestra, and that I was a grad student in arts administration eager to help with his non-profit. The organization was very small at that time, had no staff, and a small board of directors. I was fortunate to receive an invitation to meet with Arturo and begin working with him, and I quickly realized that I had an opportunity to combine my artistic/creative interest in Latin jazz with my interest in arts administration, serving an organization that was in its infancy and for whom I could immediately put into action the concepts and information I was learning about in my classes at Columbia. It was a very exciting time, and I’m grateful to have been entrusted at a young age with the opportunity to support and ultimately lead that organization.

You could say I fell into producing albums. I had been working with Arturo for a year, and because of my background as a musician and my knowledge of the recording studio (I had recorded an album with a rock band I had in high school in a professional studio, and had done an internship at a professional studio in Manhattan as well), he invited me to serve as Assistant Producer on his sextet album, Risa Negra. Including that first project, I’ve produced six albums total with Arturo, including four big band albums, as well as his solo piano record, The Noguchi Sessions.

3) Your work at Duke Performances stresses the importance of producing “willfully eclectic, forward-thinking performing arts of the highest quality”. Could you expound upon what “forward-thinking” means to you? Is this a philosophy that applies to your work more generally?

I was fortunate to receive an invitation from my mentor, Aaron Greenwald (Executive Director of Duke Performances, where I had worked as an undergrad), to return to Duke Performances as Associate Director three and a half years ago. I really admire Aaron’s vision for the organization, one that presents a season of 70-80 performances annually, featuring some of the world’s finest artists from across music, dance, and theater of all kinds, to serve Duke and Durham, a very diverse community.

To me, “forward-thinking” means artists who are not simply in the business of entertaining, but instead are invested in new ways of thinking and doing in their art. These are practitioners and community builders, artists who are equally invested in their work and the conversations that emerge from that work. At Duke Performances, I coordinate artist residencies (in addition to wearing various other hats), where artists are able to engage with our community beyond the performance—through class visits, public conversations, master classes, listening sessions, and other types of interaction that puts the artist in conversation with our community. These artists are bringing a critical eye to complex issues, using their art as a medium to reflect on and initiate dialogue among communities about these issues.

I would say that I am attracted to artists like this, in my work at Duke Performances, but also in my producing work. I was initially attracted to Arturo’s work not only because he was a brilliant pianist, composer, and bandleader, but because he had a larger vision for what Afro Latin jazz could be—a vehicle for exploration of artistic ideas, education, and community engagement.

While I don’t think entertainment is necessarily a bad thing (I think it’s actually a very hard thing to do well), I’m invested more in artists who are always thinking and expanding the conversation in their work.

4) What projects are you currently working on, and what are you particularly passionate about moving forwards?

I’m in talks on various projects at the moment, but unfortunately can’t quite make them public yet, as artists and logistics are still being confirmed.

I plan on continuing my album producing work, though, and hope to collaborate with musicians and artists across styles over the course of my career. I am also very much energized by my work at Duke Performances, continuing to learn how a performing arts presenting organization, especially one in a university setting, can positively impact the culture of that place—develop audiences for artistic work, commission new work, and facilitate important opportunities for connection and dialogue.

I am very much interested in projects in the future connected to Cuban music and culture, and I think that will be a large part of my life’s work, being so closely linked to the island personally and artistically.

I also hope to teach arts administration in some capacity at some point in the future. I am indebted to the ARAD program for the training I received, and my work since has reinforced for me just how much we need good people in this field. I enjoy working with students and believe education will continue to play a large part in my career moving forward.

5) Since graduating from the Arts Administration program in 2009, you have had an active career in both the music industry and the arts education community. Based on these experiences, do you have any insights into those fields to share with future arts administrators? What skills and philosophies have you found most valuable to you in your career to date?  

I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to work across various settings in the arts, including music and arts education (both community settings and in higher education). Both realms are filled with passionate, daring people trying to effect change and bring new ideas to the table. For future arts administrators, I’d say the lesson is less music or arts education-specific, but is more about always maintaining a learning orientation in your career, no matter the context. As arts administrators, it’s our job to continue to gather as much “information” as possible—to see new artistic work, to engage with colleagues, to read about our field and our peers. It’s important for me personally to continue to grow, especially because our field is such a dynamic thing, changing every day, forcing us to adapt, respond to new ideas, and utilize the various parts of our brains and the skill sets we’ve developed. The more information we have, the better informed we are in making responsible decisions when artists, organizations, and communities depend on us.

I value relationships in my work and my life, and I think it’s imperative for arts administrators to continue to nurture and grow old relationships, in addition to building new ones. I also think it’s important that we surround ourselves with people who will make us better, who have expertise we might not have, or can help us overcome our blind spots.

Finally, there’s a quote that has inspired me since I first encountered it in college, by the great Cuban poet and national hero, José Martí. It actually lives in the inside jacket of our album, Cuba: The Conversation Continues.

Hacer es la mejor manera de decir.
To do is the best way to say.

I try to live this quote every day. If there’s a statement you want to make in your career or life, deliver through your actions. Sometimes it just takes one person doing one small act to make a dramatic impact on others. I’ve also learned that if you work hard, with integrity, and pursue meaningful opportunities, you’ll find fulfillment in your work.

You can watch the GRAMMY acceptance video here.

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