Composer Courtney Bryan could be considered a musical architect, highly gifted in crafting intricate, introspective, and oftentimes politically charged compositions that immerse you into her sonically compelling world.
The New Orleans native is one of this year’s MacArthur fellows. The MacArthur Fellows Program awards exceptionally talented individuals to continue their creative, intellectual, or professional endeavors that contribute to the benefit of human society.
Courtney is a world-class pianist and composer, having received her Bachelor of Music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory, a Master of Music degree from Rutgers University, and finally a Master of Arts and Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Columbia University. Her work has been performed in numerous venues including: the Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Carnegie, and many more.
Courtney masterfully weaves jazz, gospel, soul, and religious traditions into her postmodern classical pieces.
Courtney’s works, whether for solo piano, chorus, music ensembles, or an orchestra, evoke the fullness of her cultural identity and spirituality. With her New Orleans upbringing providing the life line for much of her creative inspiration, Courtney masterfully weaves jazz, gospel, soul, and religious traditions into her postmodern classical pieces. Courtney delves into her interest in religious and spiritual practices in Requiem (2020). This piece is an experimental medley about mourning that blends the death practices of the Anglican Church, Neoshamanism, Catholicism, and funeral traditions of New Orleans.
Her pieces are also a reflection of the times and a preservation of Black people who have been made political martyrs. Yet Heard (2016) serves as an homage and a moment of mourning for Sandra Bland, a Black woman who was found dead in a jail cell in Texas. Courtney seamlessly incorporates Sandra’s voice from her Facebook videos into the piece, in a way that immortalizes Sandra’s life and her activism.
Courtney continues to bring awareness to contemporary social and political issues and centralize the stories of Black individuals (specifically Black women).
Similarly in her piece Sanctum (2015), Courtney includes excerpts from sermons by preachers such as Shirley Caesar, recordings of Marlene Pinnock (a Black woman beaten by the Los Angeles police), and Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Sanctum is a call to action and a call to God to end the violence against Black people at the hands of the police. With works like Yet Heard and Sanctum, Courtney continues to bring awareness to contemporary social and political issues and centralize the stories of Black individuals (specifically Black women).
Courtney is currently the Albert and Linda Mintz Professor of Music and composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia. In November, Courtney premiered her latest work, DREAMING (Freedom Sounds), at the Kaufman Center in New York. This composition is a response to a question posed by a fellow MacArthur fellow, George Lewis, back in 2003: “What does freedom sound like?”
Additionally, she has been working on her first opera entitled Myal, which follows the lives of two Black women in colonial Jamaica. The opera is inspired by Courtney’s family members and is yet another illustration of Black spirituality and liberation rituals.
Courtney seeks to use her authority as a “minister of music” to spread healing, love, and freedom and offer a space for Black realities to be sanctified. Congratulations Courtney Bryan!
© Courtney Stanley (1/10/24) — Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read more about Courtney’s career and her MacArthur award here.
Watch Courtney’s Sanctum performance here.
Watch Courtney’s Yet UnHeard performance with the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus here.
Read Courtney’s interview with The New York Times here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Photos courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.