By Thomas May | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
An unmistakable harmony holds sway in Jessie Montgomery’s creative work. Her attunement to larger cultural contexts is eloquent and persuasive. Take Banner, Montgomery’s contribution to the tributes marking the U.S. National Anthem’s bicentennial in 2014. A compact, powerful piece for string quartet and string (or chamber) orchestra, Banner confronts what she calls “the contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.”
Montgomery’s bold sonorities challenge the anthem. They pressure it into unprecedented polyphonies of “American folk and protest songs and anthems from around the world… to create a musical melting pot,” as New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini remarked. The result is a multicultural ode—her generation’s equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s incandescent interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (whether in its original version or as retrofitted to the string-quartet literature by Kronos).
Here and elsewhere in her growing body of compositions, Montgomery manages to project a distinctly individual voice while at the same time drawing effortlessly on wildly varying registers and influences that, with less imaginative musicians, might come across as rambling eclecticism. Her conviction of music’s social significance reinforces rather than obscures a personal vision.
“A lot of artists were leading community-development initiatives in the neighborhood. I got to witness their sense of responsibility to maintain our community and to be in solidarity with one another,” Montgomery says of her childhood in a recent Zoom interview from her home in Greenwich Village. “I would go to a lot of events and shows and gallery openings with my parents back then.”
This is how Montgomery, a native New Yorker born in 1981, recalls her upbringing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was an exciting crucible for artistic experimentation during her childhood there in the 1980s and early ’90s. As the daughter of artist parents in a mixed-race marriage, she had access to a view from inside the action. Her mother is the Obie Award–winning playwright, actor, and teacher Robbie McCauley, a distinguished figure in the American avant-garde theater scene. Ed Montgomery, her father, is himself a composer, jazz musician, and indie filmmaker. (With the Sedition Ensemble, the couple has collaborated on such projects as the jazz opera Congo New York.)
“I was exposed to a lot of art as a kid,” Montgomery says—in particular, art of an avant-garde nature made by people eager to question norms and test boundaries. “At the same time, I was studying violin on a traditional track.” She started taking lessons at the age of four at the Third Street Music School Settlement, the legendary community music school founded in 1894 to support the underprivileged children of the Lower East Side’s polyglot immigrant population; since last fall she has served on its board of directors. So, from a very young age, Montgomery experienced firsthand the excitement of blending musical genres and philosophies that convention had otherwise deemed somehow incompatible.
Of her influences, Montgomery notes that “my basis and technique are really rooted in European tradition. Some of my favorite composers are Bartók, Debussy, and Britten; later, I started getting into more contemporary music, like Varèse. But I was surrounded by experimental music all the time while I was studying rigid European music—not that the music itself is rigid, but the pedagogy of it is rigid. I listened to a lot of indie pop and alt rock in high school. And I always considered myself a big consumer of jazz, though I never studied it. I grew up seeing free jazz musicians regularly, like Butch Morris, Willie Parker, violinist Billy Bang—they were part of my home life.”
The Way of Improvisation
Small wonder that bridging different worlds comes naturally to this musician. Montgomery channels her seemingly tireless creative drive into her work as composer, violinist, teacher, and curator, gracefully shifting between and sometimes amalgamating these roles. For example, she incorporates the improvisational approach that is a signature of her playing style into her teaching practice. Her model is the work of Alice Kanack, the innovative pedagogue who studied with Shinichi Suzuki and became a formative influence on Montgomery during her time at the Third Street Music School Settlement.
Regarding the method Kanack used when she was a student, which is known as Creative Ability Development, Montgomery explains: “It’s based on exercises using many repetitions, within which there are options for improvising various musical choices. This was always done in a group setting, where players would improvise these structures. This prepped me well for ensemble playing.” Montgomery regularly performs with such organizations as Silkroad and the Sphinx Virtuosi and is an avid chamber musician: she cofounded the PUBLIQuartet in 2010 and is a member of the Catalyst Quartet.
In fact, it was her violin classes with Kanack that initially kindled Montgomery’s interest in composing. “I had been practicing improvising a lot,” she says. “Alice suggested I start composing as a way to continue that side of my musical studies, so I began writing my own music around age ten or 11.” The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center lauded her with two Composer’s Apprentice Awards in high school. For the digital season now underway, CMSLC chose Montgomery as one of the composers being highlighted in its New Milestones series: a concert stream on March 11 includes her Duo for Violin and Cello from 2018. The performers, violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, join the composer for a livestream conversation about her work on March 8.
“Jessie’s obviously a wonderful violinist herself. She writes so effectively for the instrument, which I found from playing her Rhapsody No. 1 for solo violin,” Benjamin Beilman says in an interview after recording Duo in preparation for the stream. “While there aren’t any explicitly improvisational passages in Duo, there has to be a dialogue with the cello that does resemble the spirit of improvisation. The violin bounces off whatever choices my colleague has made.”
Duo partakes of the improvisatory spirit that is a cornerstone of Montgomery’s practice—but that it does so within the framework of a three-movement chamber piece likewise informed by classical tradition enhances its fascination. Montgomery originally wrote Duo in 2015 for herself and cellist Adrienne Taylor. “It’s an ode to friendship that is meant to be fun and whimsical, representing a range of shared experiences with friends.” Montgomery recently gave the movements names (“Antics,” “In Confidence,” “Serious Fun”) that hint at this emotional arc of a friendship, alongside the camaraderie required to play chamber music honestly and engagingly.
“I have several pieces with open sections that call for improvisation,” she says. “Some of my compositions, like my solo violin pieces, can and should be played with an improvisatory attitude. Whenever I get questions about what speed to take or how to phrase a passage, I always end up saying: ‘This is your piece now. The tempos are what I think needs to happen for the music to feel coherent, but I write it in a way that I hope gives an elasticity for you to make it your own.’ Duo needs to have that flexibility.”
Combining Creativity and Social Justice
While an undergraduate at Juilliard, Montgomery shifted her focus to violin performance. “But in the course of my junior year, I began writing again on my own, outside school, and was composing pieces for colleagues after I graduated.” She then worked for half a decade at the MusicWorks Collective in Providence, Rhode Island, where she focused on her interest in music as a vehicle for social justice, writing pieces for the students and for her own chamber group.
All of this activity, Montgomery says, “cascaded into my first real commission”: Strum for string quartet or quintet, which is also available in a version for string orchestra. Initially written for Community MusicWorks and premiered in 2006, it was revised in 2012 on a commission from the Sphinx Organization. Along with her chamber compositons, Montgomery’s catalog to date includes songs, orchestral pieces, and film music—the last category reflecting her graduate studies at New York University’s film scoring program. “I enjoy that application of story or narrative to help me find structure for my piece,” she remarks. “And it’s a fun way to do research and find historical and or musical references that might be relevant to what I’m trying to discover.”
Montgomery believes that her work as a touring performer and educator has kept her from being closed in by silo thinking as a composer—“which can happen a lot in classical music. I’m able to get myself out in the world, often playing my own pieces with quartets. I think that helped getting the wheels turning early on.”
The Sphinx Organization, with which she has been affiliated since the late 1990s, is a longstanding anchor for Montgomery’s social-justice concerns. One of the most powerful advocates at work today for diversity in the arts, Sphinx named her composer-in-residence with its professional touring ensemble, the Sphinx Virtuosi, and, in 2015, awarded her a grant for her debut album, which includes Strum—by now one of her signature pieces—as the title track.
Strum: Music for Strings (Azica Records) is a collection of Montgomery’s music for strings. In essence, the album seamlessly braids together several aspects of her artistic practice. It demonstrates her work as both composer and performer; her fluent command of classical language, of the vernacular idioms of African American spirituals and folk music, and of the intersectional potential of the string quartet; and her engagement with social justice.
Of the last-mentioned aspect, Montgomery elaborates: “I feel that my social-justice commitment is most present when I’m working with students and talking about what their futures might look like—in the way I discuss their self-leadership and advocacy for their own work and artistic voice. In addition, just being an African American person and writing music that references these traditions can fall under the realm of social justice in that it’s acknowledging the contributions of oppressed peoples and making sure that audiences are remembering and recognizing the importance of those contributions.” And her work as an artistic board member for several organizations, she adds, creates “yet another opportunity to reach a larger field and make an impact.”
Expanding Her Vision
A recent project in which these goals also intersect was to have had its premiere last spring: a “musical reimagining” with Jannina Norpoth of Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera Treemonisha, the first opera by a Black artist about life in the aftermath of slavery. It was produced by Volcano Theatre and co-commissioned by Washington Performing Arts, Stanford University, Southbank Centre (London), National Arts Centre (Ottawa), and the Banff Centre for the Arts.
The reanimated, freshly adapted Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha became one of several casualties of the pandemic, during a season that would have seen numerous premieres of Montgomery’s work. When it does premiere, it will represent her first operatic collaboration. Montgomery is also eagerly awaiting the completion of a new song cycle for soprano Julia Bullock, who premiered her Five Slave Songs as part of Bullock’s 2018–19 residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A nonet for winds and strings titled Sergeant McCauley (2019) and commissioned by Music Accord for Imani Winds and Catalyst Quartet similarly fuses Montgomery’s flair for blending genres—neatly mirrored in the mixture of timbres and registers—with a natural gift for storytelling. Already in demand to compose dance music, Montgomery is preparing to make her debut as an original opera composer (alongside the Treemonisha project). The opera shares its title with that of the nonet and is based on the experiences of the composer’s great-grandfather, who was a Buffalo Soldier (with the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army).
“The Buffalo Soldiers were also simultaneously participating in the Great Migration,” she explains. “I’m charting his path during that time in the early 1900s, trying to find songs—spirituals and/or other folk songs from the regions of America he traveled in—to use as anchors for moments in the opera. I like that multidimensional way of looking at a piece.”