Les Cenelles is based on the first anthology of poetry published by African Americans in 1845. It constitutes the major portion of Harrison's Ph.D. thesis in composition in the Department of Music.
Harrison’s advisor, Stephen Jaffe, commented that “through these settings Ryan is restoring a bit of New Orleans’ history to the city. This attractive composition is musically original; the four songs of Les Cenelles are fully contemporary and go far beyond mere revival. I found Les Cenelles a beautiful project--historically resonant, artistically accomplished and ambitious.”
About his work, Harrison writes:
“The poets of Les Cenelles called New Orleans their birthplace and chose to symbolize the fruits of their labor---and the Créole cultural milieu which shaped them—with les cenelles, a type of mayhaw fruit native to southeastern regions of the United States. Young men would traverse the swampy, gator-infested waters of Louisiana to collect the fruit to present to their mothers, darlings and other special women in their lives, who would further boil and strain the mayhaws into scrumptious jellies. The poet’s offering of literary “fruits” to their sweethearts sought to preserve their culture via the exultation of this courtly tradition.
Each of the four songs of Les Cenelles contain elements of blues, jazz and opera, musical genres which played foundational roles in New Orleans’ artistic heritage. The bluesy/jazzy elements influence the entire gamut of the song cycle, from the embedding of the twelve bar blues progressions within each song, the usage of twangy syncopations and swinging rhythms, and through the emphasis on blue notes and other melodic frameworks characteristic of blues and jazz genres. Operatic influences are expressed through inflections of arias and recitative, two prominent and contrasting singing deliveries within the genre.
Additionally, the song cycle hopes to proliferate a social message. Many of the poets of Les Cenelles played vital roles in contributing to the cultural and intellectual development of New Orleans. Armand Lanusse, the chief contributor and editor of Les Cenelles, managed schools for black youths, hoping to ensure better futures of African Americans through education. Lanusse and the poets of Les Cenelles sought to expand the range of liberty, citizenship, and humanity, not just for those within their time and place, but for all human beings across time through advocacy and publication. “In a city, a country and a world overwhelmed by brokenness and unrest, such a message of love and peace is sorely needed. (I Corinthians 13).”