Chapter Two



One of the most interesting ways I’ve seen technology and music interact in real time has been as a witness to your collaborative performances, particularly the Afro-Futurist collaboration with Charlotte Brathwaite and Abigail DeVille – 'Prophetika: An Oratorio' (2015). What is your process like in collaborating and realizing experimental, improvised works like 'Prophetika?'


Collaboration was the key word in this project! Director Charlotte Brathwaite brought artist Abigail DeVille and me together to create this project. Some of the inspirations were Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, and Harriet Tubman. The musical element - drama, set design, lighting, etc. were also part of the work - included Jadele McPherson (vocalist/actor), Brandee Younger (harpist), Justin Hicks (electronics/composer), and me (composer/pianist). I was part composer/part facilitator/part performer. We had different levels of collaboration. Initially Charlotte, Abigail, and I collaborated on content and intent. I wrote elements of the music, Justin, Jadele, and Brandee included their own compositions and arrangements, and then we all improvised together. I had collected recordings of speeches by various freedom fighters, and Justin Hicks found interesting ways to arrange those with electronics as people entered the space. Using those same speeches, I made another piece, CAAS-mix (2015), with a track I composed on the digital audio workstation Reason some years ago. Each night of the performance was more intense than the last. It was unforgettable.



Women, and especially African American women, are often constructed outside the canons of composers in both classical and jazz circles. Yet these figures — from Lillian Hardin Armstrong, to Alice Coltrane, Mary Lou Williams, Nina Simone, and Geri Allen — have been central to American music developments as composers and musicians. Can you speak a bit about the impact of these important musical figures – both artistic and scholarly – on you and who you are as a composer?


Learning the histories and music of these important women you mentioned, as well as composers like Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Tania León, Nicole Mitchell, and Pamela Z, are so important to my journey. Nina Simone influences me with her integration of genius performance and arrangement with music of healing, both political and personal. Mary Lou Williams just amazes me in how in every stage of jazz, from her young days until the end of her life, she was always ahead of the curve and brilliantly at the edge of the next moment. Hazel Scott inspires me with her brilliant piano playing and her activism. Alice Coltrane’s music and legacy is impacting me in all kinds of ways that I have not yet even been able to describe, except to say that the spiritual power in her music overtakes me. I have had the privilege to be mentored by Tania León (and Alvin Singleton) on my piece Sanctum and to receive a scholarship in her name from ASCAP. And Geri Allen and I were both members of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark and she was a member of my dissertation committee. I am thankful for these experiences.



As a Native New Orleanian, you are part of several unique and diverse legacies of classical, jazz, and improvising musicians and composers. What are some of the key experiences and teachers you’ve had that have shaped your unique voice as a composer, and how has your individual approach developed out of these histories?


I am proud to be from New Orleans, and the city has had a profound impact on how I approach life in general. In New Orleans, time feels cyclical. I feel a living connection between the past and present, and I believe the future as well. I feel the sankofa approach of looking back to know where we are going is how I approach music history and innovation. My parents, Violet and Trevor Bryan, have always encouraged me and my sisters Amy Bryan and Alma Bryan Powell to explore our unique paths. The first collaborations I remember were with my sisters and my cousin Alden Young. My childhood in New Orleans and my relationship with my family has informed the way I approach my music.

I was fortunate to study with some amazing teachers in New Orleans who have influenced my trajectory in performance and composition.

My first music teacher, Mrs. MacDowell, lived on my street and taught my sisters Amy, Alma, and me. She taught the basics of piano as well as trained us in the practice of giving professional recitals. I was five years old when I began studying with her, and still remember highlights from the lessons, most vividly the preparation for our recitals, how to manage nerves, how to bow or curtsey following a performance, and all that went into preparing a piece to be performance ready.

Another early teacher who had a huge impact on me was Mrs. Dean Curtis, my teacher in elementary school through the Orleans Parish School Board’s Talented in Music program. She not only taught me piano, allowing me to study Mariah Carey song transcriptions along with Frederic Chopin’s mazurkas, she was the one who encouraged me to call myself composer rather than saying, “here is something I made up.” This emphasis on taking myself seriously as a composer and musician was a lasting impact Mrs. Curtis had on me.

In high school, I had three main teachers. Dr. Daniel Weilbaecher taught me classical piano, and I learned to perform a Chopin Ballade, Mozart Piano Concerto, Bach Partita, Brahms Intermezzi, and a number of other standards of the European tradition. He gave me such a great foundation on piano, both technically and also in the rigor of interpretation.

Towards the end of high school, I studied orchestration with Mr. Roger Dickerson, and he not only taught me techniques of orchestration, but, as a black composer, made sure I knew about the legacy of black classical composers like William Grant Still, Florence Price, and many others. This was a revelation to me.

A teacher who had a very lasting and large impression on me was Mr. Clyde Kerr, Jr. As the jazz instructor at the New Orleans Center for the Arts, he taught us the skills to improvise in any given style or genre and taught in such a way that we were each encouraged to find our own voice and sound. He also taught using shapes, symbols, and language of music and spirituality in a way that has profoundly impacted my recent music. For example, in my composition His Love Endures Forever for jazz orchestra (2016), symbols are notated into the score in the form of music notes, including a heart, cross, peace symbol, and triangles representing the Holy Trinity. Other compositions that use numerology, shapes, and symbols as inspiration include Soli Deo Gloria for guitar duo (2016), commissioned by Duo Noire, and Blooming for wind quintet (2017), commissioned by Imani Winds.

All the teachers at the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp of New Orleans led by Jackie Harris and Edward “Kidd” Jordan have impacted me and my musical path. Mr. Jordan inspired my love of experimental music and the concept of approaching freedom through sound. There were other teachers along the way, including my classmates/colleagues. I studied with Moses Hogan and with Ellis Marsalis briefly at different moments and they both influenced me quite a bit.

Since leaving New Orleans, I have studied at Oberlin Conservatory (BM), Rutgers University (MM), and Columbia University (DMA). My advisor from Columbia University, Professor George Lewis, has really affected the way I approach music, think of improvisation, and express myself all around. Along with Lewis, Professor Ellie Hisama advised me on pursuing a career in academia. Some of my music professors include Fred Lerdahl, Stanley Cowell, Wendell Logan, Jeffrey Mumford, Marcus Belgrave, Billy Hart, Frances Walker, Susan Boynton, Farah Griffin, Robert O'Meally, Greg Tate, and various faculty at Columbia University Department of Music, Jazz Studies Center, Institute for Research in African-American Studies, and the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life; Rutgers University Jazz Studies in New Brunswick and Newark; and Oberlin Conservatory and College.

Then of course there are the many recordings I have studied that have influenced me as well as those who trained me as a church musician, including Lillian Whitaker, Rodney Smith, and the Bethany Baptist Church of Newark NJ choir; Jessie Reeder and the Rust Methodist Church of Oberlin, Ohio choir; and the complete St. Luke's Episcopal Church of New Orleans choir, as well as my experiences at other churches. My pastor, Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, has been a wonderful spiritual teacher and has encouraged me to combine my spiritual, artistic, and academic interests. My time as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Princeton University Department of African-American Studies encouraged my recent themes of social justice in my music. Now that I have returned to New Orleans, I am interested in the ways the city will bring different sounds to my imagination.

I have had the privilege to accompany you on your musical journey as a dear friend and colleague for almost a decade now, and I can only imagine the meaningful, boundless, and genre-busting work that you will continue to create. What are some of the stories that you hope to tell in your future work, and can you tell us a bit about upcoming projects that point us to the next phase of your powerful journey as a composer?

I am so grateful to have you as a friend and colleague. Our conversations over the past decade are an important part of my development, and so it is an honor to have this conversation with you as we continue our related journeys. I am very excited about my upcoming projects, which are a continuation of many of the recent projects we’ve discussed.

My recent projects dealing with social justice and spirituality have compelled me to journey further into imagining what it means to live with and without the body, and to put these ideas into sound. I am currently working on a Requiem for Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, inspired by the traditional Anglican burial mass as well as the celebratory jazz funerals in New Orleans culture; Benediction for Davóne Tines along with poet Sharan Strange, a musical meditation on the theme of death; and Elegy for Ensemble Pi, inspired by the iconic piece, Strange Fruit. Other projects I am working on include compositions for Jacksonville Symphony, Aperture Duo, collaboration with writer Ashon Crawley, collaboration with my sisters, visual artists Amy Bryan and Alma Bryan Powell, and collaboration with artist Tiona McClodden.

I am planning two recording projects: one with a New York-based collective ensemble, including harpist Brandee Younger, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Kassa Overall, and another inspired by my return home with New Orleans-based musicians, including saxophonist Stephen Gladney, cellist Gary Washington, bassist Brian Quezerque, drummer Joe Dyson, and other guest artists.

In the coming years, I will begin writing an opera that brings together the elements of composition, improvisation, collaboration, spiritual interest, and social and political aims. My forthcoming scholarly work focuses on the musical process, spirituality, and politics. Currently, I am working on an analysis of the late sacred works of Alice Coltrane. My work is ultimately about love and the creation of uninhibited beauty. I give thanks to God for music and will continue to journey where the spirit leads me.


Matthew D. Morrison, Ph.D., is a North Carolina native, musicologist, and Assistant Professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is a 2018-2019 fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and his research, teaching, and public work considers how the embodiment of music and sound shape humanity and society.

Prophetika: an Oratorio (2015)
Prophetika: an Oratorio - performance conceived by Charlotte Brathwaite, Courtney Bryan, and Abigail DeVille.
CAAS mix
Florence Price
FLORENCE B. PRICE: Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934) - First Section Karen Walwyn, piano New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, Leslie B. Dunner, conductor from Albany TROY1295


Margaret Bonds
"Troubled Water" performed by Samantha Ege Rymer Auditorium, University of York Technician: Ben Eyes Photographer: Donnie Richburg


Tania León
Tumbao, performed by Jade Simmons
Nicole Mitchell, Herb Alpert Award Artist (2011)
Interviewed by Irene Borger in May 2011 when she received the Herb Alpert Award in Music


Pamela Z, Herb Alpert Award Artist (1998)
Pamela Z performs a suite of solo works for voice and electronics to open a concert by Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra (in partnership with LA Philharmonic's Noon to Midnight Festival) on Sunday, November 19th, 2017, in Santa Monica, CA. She is processing her voice using custom MAX MSP software and manipulating sound using gesture-controlled MIDI instruments. Excerpts in this video include: 0:00 Quatre Couches 3:21 Badagada 6:14 Typewriter 7:47 Breathing © 2017 Last Letter Music (ASCAP)


His Love Endures (2016)
The New York Jazzharmonic commissioned and premiered "His Love Endures Forever" movement 4 of "After Coltrane" at Symphony Space, NYC 2016
Soli Deo Gloria (2016), Duo Noire


Blooming (2017), Imani Winds
Intercession/Come Away, My Beloved Ekmeles vocal ensemble; Intercession, Courtney Bryan (piano) (2015)
performance at 2012 Callaloo conference, Princeton University


Tribute to All Freedom Fighters/City Called Heaven (2003/2007)
performance at Princeton University, HER (in honor of) with Sarah Elizabeth Charles (voice), Brandee Younger (harp), Mimi Jones (bass), Kimberly Thompson (drum set)

""I feel a living connection between the past and present, and I believe the future as well. I feel the sankofa approach of looking back to know where we are going is how I approach music history and innovation.""