New Music Speaks: Steven Bryant

Despite his commercial success, impressive compositional pedigree, and substantial impact on the development of wind music, Steven Bryant is an unpretentious man. Growing up in Arkansas to parents who were never full of themselves, Bryant was instilled with good humor and an aversion to self-importance. His bio includes accomplishments such as “trained for one summer in the mid-1980s as a break-dancer, was the 1987 1/10 scale radio-controlled car racing Arkansas state champion, and has a Bacon Number of 1." However,  composition is an art form he does take very seriously:

"I strive to write music that leaps off the stage (or reaches out of the speakers) to grab you by the collar and pull you in. Whether through a relentless eruption of energy, or the intensity of quiet contemplation, I want my music to give you no choice, and no other desire, but to listen."  

In college, Bryant studied composition with John Corigliano at The Juilliard School, Cindy McTee at the University of North Texas, and Francis McBeth at Ouachita University. Bryant’s father was a band director and music administrator for thirty-six years. Thus, Bryant’s early life was immersed in the band world. He took up the saxophone as his primary instrument, and it was not until college that he encountered many string players or orchestral performances. It was natural that Bryant was drawn to write for winds. His first collegiate composition teacher, Francis McBeth, also composed extensively for bands. Due to McBeth’s influence the band at Ouachita programed a full concert cycle of student works each year. While Bryant studied with McTee and Corigliano he focused on other mediums.

It is at Juilliard that Bryant met Eric Whitacre, and Jonathan Newman, and the three became close friends. In the early 2000s the three teamed up with Jim Bonney to create a “composers’ consortium” called BCM International. Mind you, the group is not actually a corporation, rather the name stemmed from a joke between the four about finding the most innocuous, corporate knock-off of a name possible and BCM International happened to stick. The mission of BCM is “to create high-quality literature for all concert and educational mediums. While diverse in background and stylistic approach, we share a desire to enrich the repertoire with music unbound by traditional thought or idiomatic cliché.” Although the group is not very active currently, it is largely due to the success of the four composers in co-promoting their works. I recently asked Bryant about BCM and he said, “We talk every so often about how to use and build upon what we created—I envision it having a role in enriching music education, but we’re all so busy composing we haven’t yet found a clear path. For now, it waits in the wings.” The group has two CDs to its credit as well as a large catalogue, educational articles, and many sample programs.

Bryant’s compositional influences vary. He mentioned in our interview “Bruce Hornsby, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Paul Simon, Aphex Twin, Mr. Bungle, and Radiohead,” as a small sampling. Regarding how single works in his oeuvre have been influenced he says, “My Concerto for Piano is all built from a single bar of a Bruce Hornsby song, and Nine Inch Nails is a huge influence on Ecstatic Waters and Solace. A rhythm from Radiohead’s Pyramid Song permeates my Concerto for Wind Ensemble. I much prefer these sorts of inspirations - tiny kernels of ideas mixed with particular sonic texture / soundscapes, and creating a dramatic shape with those building blocks. Often particular turns of phrase will also catch me ear, so I hesitate to say “literature” is an inspiration, but tiny snippets of poetry and such do act as launching pads.” 

Although his schedule is hectic with frequent travel and varies depending on deadlines, Bryant likes to keep a schedule where he begins work early in the morning. “I think more clearly and I write much more music per hour.” His work station consists of a full-size keyboard, computer, and a 30” monitor in his studio. He considers himself “a very slow composer, with occasional, unpredictable exceptions when I write a massive amount of music in a short period of time.” He waits to consider a piece finished until he has heard it performed, and then made any necessary edits. In the fifteen years prior to 2008 Bryant avoided all caffeine, but discovered coffee in Austria, “and it made me feel like I was superman.” He still drinks it today but uses it judiciously to speed-up his work—two cups a day maximum, or it becomes counter-effective.

For composers and other musicians looking to find an audience and find their footing professionally, Bryant has this advice to offer: “I do believe, as a composer, you have to write music you really love listening to. I think you have to be ruthless with yourself in making sure what you create really is as good as it can be. Once that’s done, I think there will naturally be an audience for what you've made.” Bryant has found that wind ensembles of all levels are voracious when it comes to new music, whereas orchestras are much less so. Also vitally important to finding/reaching audiences is music education: “Embedding [classical/ long-form /whatever-you-want-to-call-it] music in a culture so that it’s not a foreign experience for most people. So a wider base of the population has the mental muscles and interest in listening to music that lasts longer than 3 minutes.” As far as reaching professional networking contacts, Bryant stated, “Conventions and conferences are still vitally important—meeting people face-to-face trumps online contact without question. I reach the conductors of all levels of ensembles via a number of methods—the most important is word-of-mouth amongst conductors. After that is performances of my works at conferences, and then there’s the traditional publicity of my works being distributed by the likes of Hal Leonard. Mostly, it’s been a long, slow process of pushing the boulder up the hill year after year.”  Additionally, Bryant has had his website (http://www.stevenbryant.com/) up for nineteen years, and he is fairly active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—but only posting things that he finds truly interesting.

Recent additions to Bryant’s catalogue include a Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Ecstatic Waters (for orchestra and electronics, scheduled for premiere in May of 2015 with the Minnesota Orchestra). The Concerto for Alto Saxophone was premiered by the Michigan State University Wind Symphony with Joe Lulloff (saxophone), and Kevin Sedatole (conductor) on April 22, 2014. Read more about it and listen here: http://www.stevenbryant.com/concertoforaltosaxophone_windensemble.php