MacArthur Fellows Program

Courtney Bryan

Composer and Pianist | Class of 2023

Melding elements of jazz, classical, and sacred music in works that reverberate with social and political issues of our time.

Composer and Pianist
Newcomb Department of Music, Tulane University
New Orleans, Louisiana
41 at time of award
Published October 4, 2023

About Courtney's Work

Courtney Bryan is a composer and pianist threading together elements of jazz, classical, and sacred music in pieces that foreground the lived experiences of African Americans. In works for solo piano, chorus, chamber music ensembles, and orchestra, Bryan bridges gaps between often disparate musical worlds. She layers styles from African American traditions, such as gospel, soul, and spirituals, onto postmodern classical concert works, and there is a subtle improvisational impulse to her compositions. Many of Bryan’s compositions reverberate with pressing social and political issues of our time.

In Sanctum (2015), a work for orchestra, Bryan incorporates recordings of sermons by well-known Holiness preachers; of Marlene Pinnock, a Black woman beaten by Los Angeles police; and of Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Dual melodic themes—the first a bold motif led by the brass section, and the other more intricate—run throughout the piece and are suggestive of both the courage and the fragility in Pinnock’s voice. At the same time, snippets of ecstatic preaching from gospel artist and pastor Shirley Caesar and strains from Charles Albert Tindley’s hymn “Stand by Me” counterbalance this grief with a sense of hope and resilience. Bryan dedicated Yet Unheard (2016) to the memory of Sandra Bland, a Black woman found dead in a Texas jail. The text for soprano voice entreats listeners to remember and to mourn Bland’s death while honoring her spirit. Bryan’s Requiem (2020) exemplifies her wide-ranging interest in sacred music. She was inspired by death rituals in various cultures, including from the Anglican Church, Neoshamanism, and funereal traditions of Bryan’s native New Orleans, and drew vocals from the Bible and traditional Catholic funeral mass.

Bryan has recently expanded her work into larger forms such as opera. Her current project, Myal, depicts the lives of two Black women in colonial Jamaica and combines her interests in spirituals and the storytelling traditions of the African diaspora. Through her unique melding of secular and sacred musical idioms, Bryan creates musical realizations of collective grief, frustration, and hope.


Courtney Bryan received a BM (2004) from Oberlin Conservatory, an MM (2007) from Rutgers University, and an MA (2009) and a DMA (2014) from Columbia University. She has been affiliated with Tulane University since 2016 and is currently the Albert and Linda Mintz Professor of Music and composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia. Her work has been performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Stone, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Ojai Music Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. She has released two records, Quest for Freedom (2007) and This Little Light of Mine (2010).

In Courtney’s Words

“My overall ambition is the creation of uninhibited beauty.”

I consider myself to be a minister of music, using this medium to share a sense of freedom, unconditional love, and a spirit of healing. My spirituality is the central thread of my body of work. As a composer and performer, I aim to be ever present and honest in my music. My compositions often prioritize stories of Black women figures, respond to historical and contemporary social issues, act as a musical meditation as part of my ever-evolving personal interest in spirituality, and value the importance of place. The culture and spirit of my hometown New Orleans remain a major inspiration in my work, as well as the various cities where I have lived. My overall ambition is the creation of uninhibited beauty.

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