The musical worldview of the composer and pianist Courtney Bryan is both deeply rooted and sweepingly expansive. Based in her hometown of New Orleans, where she is an assistant professor of music at Tulane University, Bryan writes and performs music that draws upon an array of traditional and experimental traditions: gospel, jazz, spirituals, and more. Her music is also interwoven with the present, particularly in its commitment to confronting contemporary social injustices and commemorating the victims of racist police brutality in the United States. In short, Bryan’s music-making doesn’t shy away from the big topics: history, emotion, justice, even matters of life and death.
Bryan’s upcoming appearances include a portrait concert as part of Baltimore’s Evolution Contemporary Music Series on March 26, as well as a lecture at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem on March 27. We spoke by phone about her current endeavors, creative process, and future plans.
National Sawdust Log: At your upcoming concert in Baltimore, one of the pieces you’ll be performing is your Songs of Laughing, Smiling, and Crying, which is such a wonderful title. Could you tell me a bit about that piece?
Courtney Bryan: Sure. Some years ago, Geri Allen was curating a series at the Stone, and she asked if I was interested in performing. I’d been doing work manipulating recordings on Logic, trying out different things, so I wondered, “What would it be like to do an hour-long performance of something like this, with piano and recorded sounds?” I started collecting songs, mainly from YouTube, that had that theme of either smiling, laughing, or crying. I collected this long list of songs from different genres and time periods. The piece starts off very happy, with “Put on a Happy Face” by Tony Bennett,” and goes through all kinds of emotions: from smiling to manic laughter to insanity to crying. It ends with a mashup of different voices singing Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” So I’m mixing recordings of people who wouldn’t necessarily have been together. Throughout, I improvise along with the recordings.
It’s really interesting how you use modern technological tools like YouTube and Logic to engage with the musical past.
Yeah, it’s an interesting combination. I would have loved to perform with Louis Armstrong, but I can’t do that in real life. But because I’m using the technology, I can.
Then on March 27, you’re giving a lecture at the Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Yes, we’re calling it “Making Music, Making Change: Social Justice in the Music of Courtney Bryan.” I’m going to give a talk about some of my recent works that have social justice as a theme, and do a little bit of performing, too. Specifically, I’ve done a few pieces that are responses to the situation of police brutality. One of those compositions is Sanctum, which I wrote for the American Composers Orchestra. I wrote it after I did Songs of Laughing, Smiling, and Crying, and I was using the same techniques, but it’s a very different kind of piece. In 2016, I was commissioned by The Dream Unfinished: An Activist Orchestra to write a piece about Sandra Bland, called Yet Unheard. I collaborated with the poet Sharan Strange and the vocalist Helga Davis. There’s also a piece I do with piano, called Spirits. Sometimes it’s solo piano, and sometimes it’s with improvising musicians. At the end, I read the names of victims of police brutality.
Could you say more about your collaborations with other artists and the role that collaboration plays in your process as a composer?
I love collaboration. It’s my favorite way of working. With Yet Unheard, the collaboration happened organically. Eun Lee, the leader of The Dream Unfinished, asked if I wanted to commission a poet. Right away I thought of Sharan Strange, because I really admire her poetry. For months, we talked back and forth about our intentions for the piece.
We decided that we were both mourning what happened to Sandra Bland and wanted to speak to what happened, but we also wanted to celebrate her life and end with some sort of hope. We thought that was very important. I also shared a long list of music I was listening to with Sharan. Orchestral music, gospel music, sermons. We were listening to George Lewis, Alvin Singleton, Ligeti, I think Beethoven…no, Beethoven wasn’t on there…Shirley Caesar, and a lot of Alice Coltrane. Eventually she sent a draft of a poem, and I responded with what I was hearing, how it made me think of these themes or these instruments. Her poetry really pushed me to do some things musically I may not have done otherwise.
Meeting Helga Davis happened at the exact right moment. I did a fundraiser for the event, a concert of Nina Simone’s music. It was livestreamed, but Helga Davis came in person, and I was completely fan-girling when I met her. She was interested right away. She preferred to work collaboratively, as I did. So at some point she, Sharan and I all met in New York in a practice room. We shared our ideas, improvised, and recorded. Then the deadline was coming up, so the collaboration had to stop. Over the course of two weeks, I wrote the piece. I composed it, but when I say the title, I always try to mention all three of our names.
Yet Unheard, performed live at the 2017 Ojai Music Festival
Yet Unheard and many of your other works deal with police brutality and other violent manifestations of racism in the U.S. What is it like working with such emotionally fraught material?
I feel compelled to do this work. When I think about these topics, I feel hopeless, but when I do music, I’m able to process my emotions. Although I can’t say it always makes me feel better. When I wrote Sanctum I listened to a lot of recordings over and over again. That was haunting. I was using the voice of Marlene Pinnock. A bystander filmed her being beaten by a cop on the interstate in California, and she lived to talk about it. She talks about how he beat her and she didn’t know why. Things like that are very hard to take in. But I was in kind of an unusual situation while I was writing the piece. I was on a postdoc at Princeton, and I wasn’t teaching that semester, so I had a lot of time. I could work on this piece, and then I could go for nice walks. There was a lot of green around. So it bothered me, but I had time to process.
Ever since then, I haven’t had as much time, so I’ve been trying to figure out ways to process. For Yet Unheard, I went into a zone where I was writing. I got into it, I wasn’t thinking anymore, I was just letting it come out. But after the performance itself, for two or three weeks I had nightmares almost every night. I needed to balance that out, so right after that project, I did a puppet show with the puppeteer Lake Simons called The Bremen Town Band, which is based on the fairy tale about the musicians of Bremen. There are moments of sadness in it, because the animals are trying to escape abuse, but at the end they’re happy. Also, I was working with a group of musicians I love working with: harpist Brandee Younger, bassist Dezron Douglas, drummer Kassa Overall, and saxophonist Tyrone Birkett.
What are some of the pieces you’re working on now?
I have several projects coming up that are basically on the theme of death. In May, Ensemble Pi will perform a short piece I wrote called Elegy, which is a response to “Strange Fruit.” I collaborated with the cellist Gary Washington here in New Orleans. It was actually very difficult to write, because I didn’t have that time to process, and it was a heavy topic. But I still feel happy with what I did. I’m also working on another collaboration with Sharan Strange, a piece for the singer Davóne Tines and string quartet called Benediction. And I’m doing a larger piece called Requiem for the Quince Ensemble.
I also wanted to ask you about something happening in the classical music world more generally. In recent years there’s been a slow effort to think about how black composers and female composers and queer composers have been excluded from the canon: I’m thinking of the reintroduction of Julius Eastman’s work, or of Florence Price’s. Why do you think that might be happening now, and what do you hope might come out of it?
I wonder. I remember something my advisor George Lewis said about history: it’s as if there’s a photo of everyone who was in the room creating at one time, and then some people get cut out of the photo. He said our job is to put them back in, right where they were.
That’s a beautiful way to think about it.
I know. I love that way of thinking about history. And whenever this happens, I want to encourage it. If a person like Florence Price is being rediscovered, there’s others… Margaret Bonds, other black women composers. Also, it takes people investing in the work in order to be able to actually hear the music. It takes historians knowing that she’s an important figure to write about it, and it takes people like Trevor Weston, who recreated Florence Price’s Piano Concerto. All of that matters. So I don’t know why it’s happening now, but I think it’s something that needs to keep happening.
Courtney Bryan will be featured in the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An Die Musik in Baltimore on March 26 at 7pm; details here. Bryan will deliver a lecture/performance at the Jazz Museum of Harlem on March 27 at 7pm; details here. The Talea Ensemble performs the world premiere of Bryan’s Thicket at St. Peter’s Church, Chelsea, on April 13 at 8pm; details here.
Lucy Caplan is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, where she is writing a dissertation on African American opera in the early twentieth century. She is the recipient of the 2016 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism.