Composer's Note: Blessed
By Courtney Bryan
Blessed, commissioned by the Opera Philadelphia Channel, was conceived in 2020 in the middle of a world-wide pandemic and an uprising in the United States. In response to the righteous uprisings and in anticipation of the November national elections, I chose inspiration from Matthew 5 from the Christian Bible, imagining how the lowly would eventually “inherit the earth.” Embracing the challenge of collaborating in the middle of a pandemic with social distancing, I based the creative process around this necessary physical distance with limited chance of us being in the same space.
For this digital commission, I realized the visual element would be extremely important. I invited filmmaker and visual artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden to collaborate with me on this project (as we are currently collaborating on her project, Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement III - The Triple Deities). We discussed our process of collaboration with the music and visual elements and decided that the visual ideas would be in response to the music, while both working together throughout the process on shared themes of lightness and darkness, as inspired by the text. As composer and pianist, I invited vocalists Damian Norfleet and Janinah Burnett to join this project as performers and collaborators, and we had a series of conversations on our responses to Matthew 5 and related concepts early in the process.
On November 4, the day after the national elections, I went to the studio and recorded piano improvisations based on Matthew 5 as well my reactions to the moods and thoughts of that particular moment. Each improvisation was in response to a chosen word (“darkness,” “light,” “meek,” etc.). Sound engineer Robert Kaplowitz shared my recorded improvisations with the creative team. From this set of improvisations, I created a written score that included both traditionally notated material and guidelines for improvisation, based on my conceptual approach. On December 18, both Damian Norfleet and Janinah Burnett recorded the music separately in the same studio, (adhering to necessary distance due to COVID-19). In addition to performing the notated material, Damian Norfleet opted to engage with the guidelines for improvisation to create his original improvisations / arrangements.
To create the form of the piece, I employed a “sonic quilting” process with the full set of recorded material, using the digital audio workstation Logic Pro. Robert Kaplowitz, using this draft, notes from the studio sessions, and the primary conceptual underlying themes of lightness and darkness, created a mix of the music. Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s visuals include, among her filmed material, footage of me in New Orleans and of Damian Norfleet and Janinah Burnett in New York City.