5 Questions to Courtney Bryan (composer, pianist)

Award-winning composer and pianist Courtney Bryan is one of the most sought-after musicians of our time. Creating a sound that is all her own, Bryan continues to bridge the gap between sacred and secular music while also maintaining a sense of freedom from any particular genre or style. She is unafraid to address police brutality, violence, and systemic oppression in her work, and does so with grace and fluidity. She recently signed with Boosey & Hawkes, making them the exclusive publisher of her work. We caught up with Courtney between the premiere of her piano concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony and a performance of her work Sanctum at Spoleto Festival USA.

Congratulations on your recent exclusivity agreement with Boosey & Hawkes! How do you imagine this relationship will support your catalogue and future projects?

Thank you! It’s an honor to sign with Boosey & Hawkes, and I’m looking forward to the ways they can help further my composition career. I’m excited about what it will do: the management, the support, a team that’s really helping me to strategize my career. I’m also happy about the idea of preserving my work past my lifetime and appreciate that my music will be in good hands.

About three years ago, I was introduced to Steven Lankenau, senior vice president at Boosey & Hawkes. We started talking about my work and goals, and I had a chance to learn more about how a publishing company works. During that time, I had the opportunity to think about what it meant to sign an exclusive contract with a publisher.

In consulting with other colleagues, I’ve realized that signing with a publisher is a very personal decision. Everyone has their individual priorities when it comes to copyright ownership, what is most beneficial to one’s career, and what exchanges are ideal. As someone who balances a full-time teaching career, composing, and performing, it is a great benefit to work with a team that can help me manage the business aspect of my creative work.

Courtney Bryan -- Photo by Taylor Hunter

Courtney Bryan — Photo by Taylor Hunter

Your orchestral piece Sanctum includes sounds and voices from the 2014 Ferguson uprising, a direct response to the death of Michael Brown and police brutality. How has your relationship with the piece evolved since the premiere, and what differences can we expect to hear in the chamber ensemble arrangement at Spoleto Festival USA this summer?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I received an opportunity from the London Sinfonietta to have my work performed on a program co-curated by George Lewis and Elaine Mitchener. For this concert, I re-orchestrated Sanctum for chamber orchestra (originally written for American Composers Orchestra in 2015). I remember re-orchestrating the piece over a number of weeks, and the process included studying the full score to identify the most important parts and rearranging the piece accordingly.

I felt moved by the premiere, which I heard online, and it was meaningful to have it performed in the fall of 2020, following a renewed movement against the crimes of police brutality following the murder of George Floyd. Since then, both the chamber and original full versions of Sanctum have had a new life, with the most recent being at Spoleto Festival USA this year. I am honored for my piece to be presented at this festival and in the historic Charleston.

You’ve written several works (including Yet Unheard and Saved) that chronicle the lived experiences of Black people in the U.S. What are some of the stories you’re hoping to tell in new works, such as your opera?

Police brutality and racial violence are themes that have been in a number of my compositions, but there are other themes that are present in my work, like spirituality, freedom, and my family. For example, my mother, Dr. Violet Harrington Bryan, wrote a book, Erna Brodber and Velma Pollard: Folklore and Culture in Jamaica (2021, University Press of Mississippi) about two Jamaican sister writers who are my father Trevor Bryan’s cousins. Observing her process of research and writing on that project inspired me to learn from my family’s scholarly and creative work.

I am in the early stages of brainstorming my first opera, and I’m enjoying this initial process of considering what stories I would like to tell. In the meantime, I look forward to using my time as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia to learn more about the opera writing process and the various elements that go into production.

The Courtney Bryan Ensemble performs a wide variety of musical styles and genres. How will your forthcoming album Sounds of Freedom continue to explore new sounds?

My Sounds of Freedom project includes an album that is currently in progress, and it is a concept I’m drawing from for upcoming works for the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Jacksonville Symphony. The unifying thread for Sounds of Freedom and my upcoming commissions are themes of freedom, love, home, and spirit, but with different musical approaches. The album includes discussions and improvisations with musicians I’ve been working with for years in New Orleans, and when I compose for the International Contemporary Ensemble, it will be inspired by conversations with musicians in the ensemble.

This past year, my focus has been on my new piano concerto, House of Pianos, and my piece for the New York Philharmonic, Gathering Song. I premiered the chamber version of the piano concerto on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series in February, and the full orchestra version premiered in May with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. And the New York Philharmonic premiered Gathering Song in March, which was written in collaboration with librettist Tazewell Thompson for vocal soloist Ryan Speedo Green.

New Orleans has a rich musical and cultural history. How has living there influenced your work, and what would you like people to learn about the city you proudly represent?

New Orleans indeed has a rich history that goes much deeper than what is commonly presented. The city has a huge impact on how I see life and the role of music, community, and spirituality.

One thing I’d like for people to know more about is Congo Square and its historical importance. If someone wants to understand the culture of New Orleans, especially if they love all of the musical styles that have come from the city, learning about Congo Square is important. In addition to growing up going to Congo Square for various cultural events, I have recently been learning more about the history of Congo Square from historian and author Freddi Williams Evans and musician and historian Baba Luther Gray. When I think of Congo Square, I think of Black history, cross-cultural expression, creativity, spirit, and home.

Courtney Bryan in Congo Square -- Photo by Taylor Hunter

Courtney Bryan in Congo Square — Photo by Taylor Hunter

Another thing I find exciting about New Orleans is a rich tradition of experimentalism in the city. In particular, thinking about the Black arts movement in New Orleans and Mississippi, there was so much innovative activity in theater, writing, and music. When I read my advisor George Lewis’ groundbreaking book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (2008), I gained a renewed appreciation for the community of musicians that I had as educators in New Orleans.

One of the major music figures has been Sir Edward “Kidd” Jordan — a huge influence on many generations of musicians — who recently passed away in April at the age of 87. One of Jordan’s early ensembles, The Improvisational Arts Quintet, was known for their experimental music. Drummer Al Fielder, who was a co-founder of the group, was one of the founding members of the AACM before he moved back home to Mississippi. Kidd Jordan was in Illinois earning his master’s degree at Millikin University around that time, as well, and he was very much part of this tradition of experimental music-making, which he continued for the rest of his life, having returned to New Orleans, a city that is mostly celebrated for its preservation of earlier styles of music.

Many of the experimental musicians of that time have also become legendary educators. At another point, I would like to expand on this history, but that is a work in progress. In the meantime, creative projects like my Sounds of Freedom recording are inspired by these communities I was blessed to grow up in and the related histories, approaches to pedagogy, and philosophies of creativity.


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