Multitalented musician to live in Italy, create chamber piece based on the life of an ancient emperor.
Composer and pianist Courtney Bryan ’04, a New Orleans native who teaches in the Newcomb Department of Music at Tulane University, has been awarded a 2019-20 Samuel Barber Rome Prize for Musical Composition.
The prize is awarded annually by the American Academy in Rome, the oldest American overseas center for independent study and advanced research in the arts and humanities. In addition to composition, it is presented for visual art, design, architecture, literature, and medieval studies, among other disciplines. Winners of the Rome Prize are determined by independent juries of distinguished artists and scholars.
Bryan joins an illustrious roster of past winners of the Rome Prize with ties to Oberlin, most recently Ashley Fure ’04 in 2017. Others include Oberlin Professor of Composition Stephen Hartke (1992) and Assistant Professor of Composition Jesse Jones (2012).
Bryan has been called “a pianist and composer of panoramic interests” by the New York Times. In addition to her studies at Oberlin, she earned an MM at Rutgers University and a DMA at Columbia University, where her mentor was renowned composer and trombonist George Lewis.
Bryan also maintains an active career as a jazz pianist, and she looks forward to cultivating gigs in Rome.
The prize includes a stipend and expenses associated with a stay at the academy’s Rome campus from September 2019 through July 2020. Over that period, she will research and compose a piece tentatively titled Caracalla: Inner Monologue of an Emperor, a melodrama.
Bryan’s subject of choice—a man widely considered among the cruelest of ancient Rome’s rulers—arose from her twin desires to delve into a topic that was quintessentially Roman and to explore the theme of leadership. Some of her recent works have been artistic responses to the issue of police brutality; Caracalla signifies an opportunity to continue down that path, but with a welcome shift in focus to another time and place.
“I’ve never lived outside the country and never been to Italy before, so I figure there will be an adjustment,” she says. “Like I do with anywhere I go, I want to get involved. Those kinds of environments help you grow in ways you just can’t imagine.”
And she would know: Bryan was also a 2018 winner of an Alpert Award in the Arts, presented by the Herb Albert Foundation.
Her compositions are heavily inspired by jazz, gospel, and spiritual music, as well as experimental sounds. And her work has been presented in a wide range of venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Kennedy Center, and the Blue Note Jazz Club.
Bryan fondly remembers her years at Oberlin, where she finished as a composition major but also immersed herself in studies of classical and jazz piano. She recalls playing in the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble virtually from her first day on campus till her last. She was also influenced by her time as a musician at Rust United Methodist Church of Oberlin.
“I remember walking around and just feeling the creativity,” she says. “I met so many people at Oberlin that I still work with.”
She was heavily influenced by the teaching of Wendell Logan, Jeffrey Mumford, Alvin Chow, and Frances Walker, though she also proceeds to rattle off the names of numerous others—including jazz professors Billy Hart, Marcus Belgrave, Dan Wall, and Gary Bartz, plus Meredith Gadsby, Johnny Coleman, and the entire Africana studies department—who helped shape the musician she has become. She even followed in their steps, serving a stint as visiting teacher of African American music and jazz history at Oberlin in 2012.
Bryan is a friend to and collaborator with no shortage of prominent Oberlin alumni across the musical spectrum, among them drummer Kassa Overall ’06, trumpeter Theo Croker ’07, and pianist Sullivan Fortner ’08.
In the coming year, she will take on a commission with violinist Jennifer Koh ’97 that is slated to be workshopped on campus with the Oberlin Orchestra. She is also in talks about a piece for the Oberlin-bred International Contemporary Ensemble, with whom she hopes to incorporate even more work with Oberlin students.
“A lot of the musicians I have connected with and still work with were in the college as well as the conservatory, and they were great musicians,” she says. “They focused on whatever styles they wanted. They didn’t have to choose classical or jazz. Inspiration was coming from everywhere.
“I really thank Oberlin for opening my mind, and especially for preparing me for a lot of experiences that were to come later.”
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