The Spirit That Moves Her
Courtney Bryan sees her paths as classical composer, jazz pianist and church musician as one shared faith.
Courtney Bryan is back where she began. Though her work as a pianist, composer and educator has led her many places, it ultimately landed her where she was born and raised, in New Orleans. At Tulane University, where she has taught since 2016, she now serves as Albert and Linda Mintz Professor of Music. Last year, the Louisiana Philharmonic appointed to the newly created position of Creative Partner. The road back home makes perfect sense to her. “In New Orleans,” she told me recently, “Everything moves in a circle.”
So much so that she is also back at St. Luke’s Episcopal, her childhood church, where, while still in grade school, she performed one of her earliest compositions, a hymn about angels. Bryan, who earned her doctorate in music at Columbia University and who performs with equal zeal in concert halls and jazz clubs, has for most of her life also been a “church musician.” She’s now back at the piano every Sunday at St. Luke’s, a commitment she renewed during the pandemic.
Bryan’s spiritual life reverberates throughout her music and her scholarship. In her PhD. dissertation, “A Time for Everything,” which included a four-part choral piece based on Bible passages, she described a formative period at Columbia, when she was both an organist for Bethany Baptist Church, in Newark, N.J. and a gigging musician at various New York City jazz clubs. Back then, she would “explore new concepts” in private piano lessons and at composition seminars during the week and, on Sundays, “perform impromptu piano or organ improvisations related to the weekly scripture.”
What might have seemed a double life instead became a path toward a sense of unity—of purpose and perhaps even of mission. Recently, through her music, her inward spiritual search has led to outward offerings in the face of specific pain and suffering. In “Sanctum,” she blended the sounds of a live orchestra with the recorded voices of demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo. Her oratorio “Yet Unheard” commemorated the life of Sandra Bland. Her “Requiem” written for the vocal quartet Quince Ensemble and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, draws upon a wide range of death rituals. It turned out to be “a response to our times,” Bryan said, “but written a little before.”
When we spoke about via Zoom, the virtual background behind Bryan was a reproduction of sheet music to “A Love Supreme,” a suite composed and recorded by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane in 1964 that remains one of jazz’s most enduringly popular albums and its most overtly spiritual expression.
What were your earliest experiences of spirituality or religion and how did they relate to music?
Because the church has been so important throughout my life, it has always been a part of my musical awareness. My first musical memories and my earliest spiritual memories go together naturally. I grew up in a church named St. Luke’s Episcopal, in New Orleans. It was a Black church that was Episcopal, but it didn’t fit into what people generally call the Black church. My father is from Jamaica, and the folks there were mostly from the Caribbean community within in New Orleans. There was an organ, a piano, and a small choir. We did Gregorian chants, Anglican hymns, and Spirituals, and often people added a rhythm, sometimes on a tambourine or with West African drumming. Those elements always found their way in and blended. I think all that had a profound impact on how I conceive of blending music of different Gulf cultures, and of blending church music with other styles.
As a child, I liked certain hymns. I remember one that I loved was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” And those hymns inspired me to compose music. When I was still in elementary school, I wrote a piece called, “My Angel.” When I played it in church, they named it “My Little Angel” because they thought I was saying something cute. But I wasn’t being cute. I was genuinely fascinated by angels and archangels, and the otherworldliness of spiritual life. I still am.
What were some of the listening experiences that helped you develop the connections with spirituality that you now make in your music?
Certainly, John Coltrane was someone who helped me piece together a lot of different ideas and approaches. I was always moved by the spiritual nature of his work, especially the later work. There was something in his music, in his sound. I didn’t know all the associations back then, but I could tell there was something in that music that was beyond the music itself. My introduction was through “A Love Supreme.” That was a big window for me, and that album has come at different points in my life during pivotal moments in my own spiritual growth, and has guided me.
During your time at Columbia, it seems like you experienced a collision of all the things you were interested in at once—classical music, jazz, church music, secular and sacred traditions… How did that affect you?
My whole time at Columbia was about bringing things together. Throughout my life, I’ve been interested in different things, and I was able to exist in different worlds. In fact, it was important to do that, in order to learn and develop. I was able to compartmentalize different aspects of my life, including my lives as a church musician, a performing musician and a student. When I got to Columbia, it became important to really figure out What is my focus? What is the thread between everything? Musically, I had one kind of music I created when I improvised and another I did when I was writing: To bring that together was one project. But there was a deeper unity to be found.
At Bethany Baptist Church, I was working for Rev. Dr. William Howard, and he wanted me to bring my full self as a scholar and musician, and to bring people in for discussions about music and spirituality. The next step was to ask: How do I bring this important church experience and my spirituality into my work at Columbia, and into my music in a very conscious way? I guess it was always there. My spirituality and my creativity are tied together. But in such a serious academic setting, where you have to explain your process and the theory behind your work, I had to find ways to talk about spirituality in terms of my musical process. Sometimes, I felt like people might look at me like I’m crazy—talking about the idea of connection with God instead of a connection with music theory.
In European classical music, they spent so long moving away from the composer-in-church thing. But I don’t feel burdened by that history. Also, in contemporary classical music, especially in academic spaces, there is a lot of emphasis on whatever you’re doing that’s breaking away from the past. But I don’t think much about breaking away from anything. Growing up in New Orleans, I never thought of breaking from the past as a major inspiration. We’re always in a cyclical space in New Orleans. Everything moves in circle.
Did all that questioning and research lead directly to the four-part choral cycle you composed while at Columbia, “A Time for Everything”?
I guess so. I had a chance to write for Jeffrey Gavett and his vocal ensemble, Ekmeles, for a Columbia Composers concert series, where students get to write for professional ensembles. Musically, I wanted to challenge myself to get the most out of these voices as instruments. The piece also represents a very intentional decision to try to express love of and immersion in Christian church music with advanced study of classical and new music. I wanted to build music off this Bible verse and then consider: What does that cause me to think of musically that I wouldn’t have without that Bible verse?
I chose a passage from Bible, Romans 8. And this goes back to Coltrane, too. I was having a conversation with Rev. James Forbes, the former pastor at Riverside Church in Harlem. He mentioned Romans 8, verses 26-27, about speaking to Holy Spirit in moanings and groanings, and how that would be the clearest communication, not having to find words. That’s my interpretation, anyway. Rev. Forbes related that to why I was so drawn to John Coltrane—because he expressed that, wordlessly. That verse became a fascination for me.
I called that cycle a musical meditation because I saw these pieces as Bible study for myself.
Some of the music you’ve composed since then, especially “Yet Unheard” and “Sanctum,” speak overtly about responses to injustices. Are these political or spiritual pieces, or both?
They’re both. I know when I wrote “Sanctum,” that was a major moment for me, to say that this piece is about this issue or a response to this issue. That was a big choice. I’ve always had an eye toward what’s going on around me. And at Bethany Baptist, the talk about the Bible was always applied to what was going on in the world.
“Sanctum” was a very conscious choice but didn’t start that way. When I got the commission for “Sanctum,” I knew I would work with orchestra and electronics, and with recorded sounds. I decided that my inspiration would be the idea of improvisation. I was thinking about jazz but also about improvisation in Holiness preaching traditions. I’d never been to Holiness church. But I began listening to pastor Shirley Caesar and Rev. C.L. Franklin—focusing in an abstract way on how they use melody in their delivery and how they land on certain tones. And then, the sermons themselves started to seep in and to relate to what was going on around me, especially in terms of police brutality. I was listening for one reason but then it became another thing.
There was this woman, Marlene Pinnock, who was a victim of police brutality in Los Angeles. She lived through it, and someone had filmed the incident. I sampled her voice from a news interview, her talking about her experience. I was haunted by these interviews, and her presence on social media. You scroll down, you see this woman being pummeled. I kept waking up with it every day. It was an organic experience. It started with her. Once I was writing, Mike Brown was killed. Ferguson exploded. And that’s how “Sanctum” came about.
That’s an example of it all coming together. Even the title, Sanctum. I wanted something that suggested a safe space that maybe doesn’t exist in this world, the idea of us dreaming of a safe space.
What was the impulse behind creating “Requiem”?
Musically, it began with my meeting the members of the Quince Ensemble. I wanted to write an a cappella piece for them. Then, I got a commission from the Chicago Symphony, so I turned it into something with instruments, except for the first section.
I guess the idea for a Requiem came a bit out of my “Yet Unheard” piece, thinking about Sandra Bland, and the idea of acknowledging someone’s life. But it was really a more general piece about mourning that grew out of all the work I’ve ever done, including that piece I wrote as a child, “My Angel.” At first it started off as me deciding between Anglican Mass and Catholic Mass. Then, I started thinking about different traditions. I thought about New Orleans jazz funerals. I got interested in death rituals around the world.
I had this strong impulse to write a requiem, but I didn’t know why. It scared me a bit, but I stuck with it. It ending up making sense later. It was supposed to be performed in March of 2020, which is right when things shut down. I’m glad I followed the impulse to do it when I did. It ended up as a response to our times, but written a little before. I wonder what music I would have written had it been after all these things happened—the pandemic, and the killing of George Floyd. I wonder if it would have been more dissonant or strained. I don’t know.
You mentioned “Sanctum” in terms of a safe space. Does the church and spiritual music represent your safe space?
For me, yes. I know a lot of people have had different experiences in churches. But mine have all been positive, and where I could find my path. And there is something unique to creating music with that in mind. During this pandemic, I went back to being a church musician at my childhood church. I saw it as me making an offering, but then I realized how much I needed it myself.
Are your compositions these days attempts to infuse a spiritual message into the lives of listeners, or are they reflections of your own spiritual search as a function of your artistry?
I think especially the latter, but then I kind of always hope for the first with anything I do. I think I don’t start there because that’s an overwhelming feeling and I don’t know how my music will affect people. So, I start with the inner motivation. Once I have the music down, I’m always hoping that my intention will translate to the listener, so that even if they have a different belief system, maybe the intention will be inviting to them.