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Artist's music responds to police brutality

Courtney Bryan’s composition ‘Sanctum’ moves audience members in live performance

On Monday afternoon, the room fell silent as composer and performer Courtney Bryan played a recording of “Sanctum,” which she composed as a response to police brutality. Some attendees of Bryan’s performance at Orwig Music Library closed their eyes in attentiveness as they listened to the 12-minute-long musical composition. 

Bryan, an assistant professor of music at Tulane University, was invited to participate in “Music Now,” an informal series created by the Department of Music that brings composers, sound artists and performers to the University to discuss their music. Bryan is “known for collaborating across genres with a whole range of artists, so I think, especially given the interdisciplinary focus of Brown, it’s really interesting to our students and faculty to see her approach to making music,” said Eric Nathan, assistant professor of music composition-theory and one of the founders of “Music Now.”

Bryan began her lecture by explaining that her recent work has been a series of responses to police brutality, beginning with “saved” in 2013. Inspired by the IMPACT Repertory Theatre, an arts and activism group for young people, Bryan worked with three different church choirs to create a piece based on tradition and improvisation. With each choir, Bryan discussed the lynchings of Laura and L.D. Nelson in 1911, which had prompted her to create “Saved.”  She and the respective choirs then followed a basic musical structure to improvise a response to that history. “It was the first piece I did that had a direct theme of racial violence. It had a really big impact on me,” Bryan said. She related how some of the choir members “went to another place spiritually” during the recording. One young choir member had a vision of a man with a machete while performing, she said. 

“Saved” led to “Sanctum,” which was originally performed by the American Composers Orchestra at the Lincoln Center in 2015. In her talk on Monday, Bryan broke down different influences in the composition, from the “whooping” of the holiness-preaching tradition to modern protests chants, she explained. In “Sanctum,” she also incorporated recordings pertaining to situations and victims of police brutality, such as an interview with Marlene Pinnock, a woman who was beaten by a police officer on a highway in 2014. When the ethics of the use of such recordings were questioned by a student, Bryan assured them that such creative practices were legal and that she intended to share her music with the people whose voices she had used.

After explaining the themes and influences present in “Sanctum,” Bryan played a recording of the entire piece. She then briefly spoke about one of her recent compositions “Yet Unheard,” which she helped write in honor of Sandra Bland, a young black woman who was found dead in her prison cell in Texas three days after her arrest at a traffic stop.

Attendees of the event were most struck by Bryan’s live performance. “When composers are giving lectures in that room, they rarely perform live. She also spoke the prayer at the start and the names of unarmed black victims of police brutality at the end. That kind of live experience is not something that we get that much in these lectures, at least not yet,” said Seamus Hubbard Flynn ’21. 

Deven Carmichael ’21 also commented on the live performance, saying, “It’s powerful music, both recorded and live, but it’s just so completely moving to see someone actively playing that music. It’s really physical during some parts — she’s smashing notes. Seeing the kineticness and actions and motions that she’s using to create these sounds was really engaging.”


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