5 Questions to Pamela Z and Courtney Bryan (2019-20 Rome Prize Winners)

On April 9, 2019, the American Academy in Rome announced that composer Pamela Z was awarded the 2019-20 Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize, and composer Courtney Bryan was awarded the 2019-20 Samuel Barber Rome Prize. According to the Academy, these “highly competitive fellowships support advanced independent work and research in the arts and humanities.” As these are two of our favorite musical artists working today, we had to contact them to find out more.

First, congratulations to each of you on winning a 2019-20 Rome Prize. What were the circumstances of your learning about receiving the award, and what was your initial reaction?

PZ: The learning came in two stages. First, there was a phone call in late January from Shawn Miller letting me know that I’d been selected as a finalist and requesting that I come to New York for an interview with the committee. Then, on the heels of that interview (which took place a month after the first call), I received another call informing me that I was selected. In both cases, I was unavailable to receive the call, so I initially heard both the news that I was short-listed, and the news that I had actually won the prize by way of voice message. I was in flight from the interview when Shawn made that second call, and I listened to his voicemail in the airport upon landing. My reaction was one of great surprise, and even though I had a month of preparation, in a sense, it still took some time for me to really absorb the notion that, starting in less than a year, I would be living in Rome for nearly a year.

CB: When I received the call that I won, I was full of gratitude. While I realized I would miss being near my family, I know this experience is going to change me in ways I can’t yet imagine, and so I am approaching the year ahead with wonder, joy, and openness.

Courtney Bryan--Photo by Arielle Pentes

Courtney Bryan–Photo by Arielle Pentes

Can you describe what was involved in applying for the Rome Prize? What compelled you to apply?

CB: Applying to the Rome Prize included creating a proposal and sending existing work. I know the Rome Prize is a prestigious award that opens opportunities for one’s career as a composer. I also recognize that I personally need to visit different cities around the world to learn more about others as well as about myself.

PZ: In my case, I was nominated to apply. I received a letter from the American Academy in Rome informing me that I had been “suggested as a potential applicant,” and I was asked to consider making an application. I felt extremely honored to have been nominated, and I didn’t hesitate to confirm that I would apply. I love Italy and have visited countless times for performance engagements and art exhibitions. But I have had precious few opportunities to visit Rome, so the idea of being able to live there for eleven months, making new work, improving my Italian, sharing beautiful meals and stimulating conversations with thirty or so scholars from many different fields was a chance that I couldn’t pass up.

The application process itself wasn’t significantly more daunting than most grant applications but, as is always the case, the most challenging aspect was selecting and preparing work samples–as this is often the most important feature of an application and, in my view, the most likely thing to impact the jury’s decision. So I did spend quite a bit of time worrying over which works and what documentation to include. Then, of course, there was the need to compose a narrative about what project I would be working on in Rome, if selected. Those two things were really the most substantial part of making the application.

Pamela Z--Photo by Donald Swearingen

Pamela Z–Photo by Donald Swearingen

In the listing of your names in the prize awards press release, there was also a named project (Simultaneous for you, Pamela; and Caracalla: Inner Monologue of an Emperor, a melodrama, for you, Courtney). Can you tell us something about these projects?

PZ: My proposed Rome Prize project involves composing an intermedia song cycle with the working title Simultaneous, which will include several short pieces each exploring the concept of simultaneity in some way. I will make use of voice, gesture control, real-time electronic processing, language, and projected video–some of which will be reactive to sound and motion.

The idea was first sparked by a fascination I have with simultaneous translation. I’ve always been impressed by the mental mechanics of speaking aloud in one language while listening to another. I’m interested in the degree of accuracy that can be achieved by skilled interpreters, and I’m drawn, aesthetically, to the layered sound of different languages. The work’s content will stem from a range of ideas including the process of simultaneous translation, the mysteries of synchronicity, and the folly of our culture’s preoccupation with “multi-tasking.”

CB: I am very much looking forward to digging into this project. It combines my interests of finding inspiration from unique cities and landscapes, confronting socio-political issues such as state violence and how communities respond emotionally, and portraying human emotions through sound. For example, my compositions White Gleam of Our Bright Star (2016) for Colorado Springs Philharmonic and Bridges (2019) for Jacksonville Symphony have involved experiencing a city as a visitor and creating music that reflects living histories of those places, as learned through research as well as through direct interaction with residents of the cities. Another major inspiration for my recent works involves confronting socio-political issues through chosen historical or contemporary figures and presenting an imagined emotional perspective of these figures through music. Examples of this include my musical responses to the issue of police brutality, with Sanctum for orchestra and recorded sound (2015) and Yet Unheard for orchestra, chorus, and Helga Davis (2016). These compositions present an imagined perspective of victims of state violence and seek to provide space for an emotional response from the listener.

The city of Rome, with its rich history, provides a wealth of material for new music inspired by the concept of place and echoes of history. In particular, I am fascinated by the infamous Emperor Caracalla (188-217 AD), who reigned alone from 211 until his assassination in 217 and is known for the baths he built in Rome, the Edict of Caracalla, and other contributions to policy and currency. He is mostly remembered, however, for being one of the most tyrannical emperors of Ancient Rome, including the murder of his brother Geta and the ordered massacre of Geta’s supporters, and violence against people of the Roman empire and abroad.

So, while I have previously focused on imagining the mindset of victims of state violence, this project would flip that around where I would create a melodrama inspired by the history of Emperor Caracalla, that will delve into the imagined emotional space of this tyrannical emperor during a time of conflict following the golden age of Roman emperors. My melodrama will be a full concert length piece for male voice and string quartet.

Have you ever had to deal with a sociopath? It could drive you crazy trying to understand a human being that can outwardly appear normal and upright, but inside is lacking a conscience. They can be without guilt, shame, or remorse. What if this person becomes a leader of an institution, a country, an empire? What goes through the mind of a leader who lacks conscience or basic regard for others? Whichever way the mindset of Caracalla may be defined, I am interested to learn more about this particular historical figure and that time of the Roman empire. Also, as many of my projects do, they can start from one idea and then reveal the true focus to me once I get further into the creative process. So, who knows what will come out of my research, wandering, and experimentation? I’m looking forward to exploring.

Courtney Bryan at the MET museum in NYC with a bust of Caracalla

Courtney Bryan at the MET museum in NYC with a bust of Caracalla

What are the planned dates for your residency onsite in Rome? What do you expect will be the typical day, week, or month while in residence at the American Academy in Rome?

CB: I will be there for the full academic year, September through July. I look forward to meeting interesting artists and scholars at the academy, having solitary time in my studio, and experiencing the city of Rome by visiting historical sites and becoming acquainted with the contemporary artistic scene.

PZ: The fellowship dates start in early-September of this year and end in July of 2020. At the time I was informed that I had this award, I already had a number of commitments on my calendar, so I’ll be leaving Rome a handful of times for brief periods to fulfill those obligations. I’ll also have to arrive in Rome several days after the official start of the fellowship because the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, of which I am a founder and organizer, has its 20th anniversary festival at the beginning of September.

It’s hard to imagine exactly what the time in Rome will be like, but I know it will be inspiring. My expectation is that I’ll spend my days composing music and conceiving the visual and spatial aspects of Simultaneous while, all along, exploring Rome, studying the Italian language, consorting with incredibly bright and interesting people, and taking in all the beautiful food and culture to be had there. I will spend a substantial amount of time conversing with and interviewing people, and culling the recordings I make of those conversations for material to be used directly in my piece. I think that each day will be filled with surprises and discoveries.

Pamela Z--Photo by rubra (courtesy of Ars Electronica)

Pamela Z–Photo by rubra (courtesy of Ars Electronica)

Will you be required to work primarily on your named projects while at the Academy? Do you have plans, or are there opportunities, to collaborate with other fellows?

PZ: I’m not aware of any requirements regarding how my time there is spent, although I assume there is some expectation that work will be done on the proposed project. I also think that the Academy strongly encourages interaction with and possible collaboration with other fellows, and I look forward to seeing what transpires in that regard.

CB: I will primarily work on research for this project. However, I will be working on a number of projects that are in various points of their development including a musical, an opera, a Requiem, a violin concerto, a performance art project, and an upcoming album with my jazz quartet. For Caracalla: Inner Monologue of an Emperor, I have not yet formed a team of collaborators, and would be open to finding them at the academy or in the city of Rome!