Although she grew up in a very culturally diverse New York City neighborhood that has also long been a hotbed for artistic experimentation and rebellion, composer/violinist Jessie Montgomery most strongly identifies with European classical music.
“I write for traditional classical instruments, and I actually feel the most comfortable with them because it’s the closest thing that I have [musically],” Montgomery acknowledges when we visit her East Village apartment, which is actually the same place she lived with her parents as a child. “I feel very connected to European classical music because of the way I have learned how to play the violin. The actual physical resonance of the instrument speaks to that language beautifully, and I think that tradition is so rich.”
Starting violin lessons when she was only four years old at the Third Street Music School (which, chalk it up to East Village rebellion, is actually on Eleventh Street), Montgomery wrote her first original compositions seven years later, her creative appetite whetted by her violin teacher at the school, Alice Kanack, who got her to improvise. She soon became totally immersed in the complex interplay of string quartets, playing in several ensembles as well as eventually writing for them, and received an undergraduate degree in violin performance from The Juilliard School. After her graduation, she performed for five years with the Providence String Quartet and then with the Catalyst Quartet. Since her late teens, she has been nurtured by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit developer of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and she has been a two-time laureate in the annual Sphinx Competition. But she realizes that her deep involvement with this music is somewhat unusual.
“For me, it happened to work out because I studied violin in a school on the Lower East Side that had a really good teacher,” she suggests. “Neither of my parents were necessarily into classical music at all, though now they are. But it was by chance that this happened because there was something in place where I could go study and get really good at it. I think that should be the case for any kind of music or opportunity, whether it’s learning a classical instrument or learning to play rock guitar or gymnastics. If we increase the pool of what’s available by creating opportunities for young people of all backgrounds to have access to, let’s say, classical music, then the pool from a fundamental level is more diverse. If people are attracted to classical music, that’s great. But there’s no need to force somebody to like classical music. … There is this feeling that it remains in this elite world and that people need to be drawn to it and that that raises you up into this place of classical music. I think that’s a faulty idea when you’re dealing with people. I’m African-American, so I think about black people and black music. But I wonder if the jazz community is having the same conversation. That’s black music; it’s a traditional art form that has developed into this super sophisticated thing that hasn’t brought their people along with it as much as they would like. I think that has to do, again, with enough people having opportunities to grow in whatever areas they’re interested in.”
While classical music has been Montgomery’s primary focus in life and the music with which she has the greatest affinity, she has never completely isolated herself from the many other kinds of musical activities that have been happening all around her.
“I happened to have come through it, playing a classical instrument and learning the repertoire, but I have always seen it as another reference point,” she elaborates. “My connection to that music has now became a part of this multifaceted language I’m drawing from. There’s European classical music, there’s jazz, there’s funk, there’s alternative rock, there’s African music—all these different kinds of music available to us now through recordings, etc., and also through just living in a place where there are a lot of different cultures just banging up against each other. … My dad ran a music studio so I was constantly surrounded by all different kinds of music. I would do drawings and my homework in the lobby while all these things were going on.”
Montgomery sees this polyglot musical environment as a quintessentially American phenomenon and something that has long served as a creative fuel for American composers. “The tradition of classical music coming to America and then what American composers have done with the music is so interesting,” Montgomery says. “There is this tradition in America with classical music to try and find other ways to connect to it. … People are starting to see American music as its own thing, its own unique voice, in relation to classical music.”
But what sets Montgomery’s own music apart from so many of her antecedents as well as peers is how deeply immersed she has been for most of her life in the performance of works by other composers. That insider’s knowledge has given her more than just an ability to write really idiomatic music, especially for strings. It has also helped her to understand the mindset of classical interpreters and to offer them music that allows for greater spontaneity and a little less formality.
“I really like the idea of adding elements of improvisation and chance and making the performers engage a little differently with the piece,” she explains. “Having played so much standard repertoire in String Quartet Land, there’s such a rigidity. There’s this expectation that things should always be executed a certain way. There’s a real beauty in trying to find your sound and your own voice in the way you interpret a piece of music that has all these expectations on it, but then I like to throw this other element in where it’s like screw all that stuff you just worked out and change the performance from one night to another.”
Interpretative freedom is a hallmark of Montgomery’s 2013 string quartet Break Away, a work she created expressly for the PUBLIQuartet, which she had previously been a member of when the quartet first formed, since the group is equally adept at performing standard repertoire, newly commissioned works, and open-form improv. Ironically it was inspired by the group’s performances of the Five Movements for String Quartet by Anton Webern, a composer revered as the spiritual forefather of total serialism, a compositional approach that tends to eschew a great degree of performance variance. In another string quartet, Voodoo Dolls (2008), which is being performed by Fulcrum Point in Chicago on April 29, 2016 as part of a concert entitled Proclamation!: The Black Composer Speaks, the players tap on their instruments before launching into cascades of ostinatos. In Color from 2014, scored for the unlikely combination of tuba and string quartet, was commissioned by jazz tuba giant Bob Stewart with whom the PUBLIQuartet premiered it in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, though Montgomery claims that when “jazz language comes into play” it’s more a result of her “memory of what jazz sounds like” rather than its being overtly informed by a deep immersion in jazz performance practice.
Another defining attribute of Montgomery’s music is that narratives are woven through so many of her compositions, even though—with the exception of a new piece that was just premiered by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City—she has written exclusively for instruments and mainly for strings. This is clearly because her compositions initially grew directly out of her playing, but now they are evolving beyond it. She obtained a master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University and credits that experience with taking her out of her comfort zone of writing only for strings. During the 2011-2012 season, while she was the Van Lier Composer Fellow at the American Composers Orchestra, she composed a quartet for four wind instruments. The Albany Symphony will premiere her second full orchestral work in June, and a piece is also in the works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Most of these pieces contain some kind of programmatic element.
“The practice of writing for films forced me to use a wider instrumentation,” Montgomery remembers. “But when I applied to NYU, I hadn’t written anything for films. I think I got in basically on the premise that I was writing from this idea of image. And I’ve been continuing to write from that point of view. My mother is a theater artist and storyteller and a lot of her work is based in family history. I think I’m starting to take that on in terms of finding a narrative in each one of my pieces. Words are the easiest way to tell a story, for sure, but sound can conjure lots of memories. There’s this collective memory that can be aroused through sound, and I like trying to get at that somehow.”
One of the ways that Montgomery has transcended the trappings of the inherently abstract, non-representational medium of instrumental music is by infusing her pieces with audible ciphers such as references to materials with which most of her listeners would be familiar and which conjure very specific associations. In the string quartet Source Code (2013), she made overt references to the sound world of African-American spirituals. The Isaiah Fund for New Initiatives, the work’s commissioner, requested a piece that addressed what it means to be an American, so Montgomery’s response was to attempt to musically convey her parents’ participation in the Civil Rights movement. For Banner, a string quartet from 2014 which was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Montgomery weaved in references to many songs in addition to our national anthem to convey her own complex feelings.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a die-hard patriot,” she confesses. “We should celebrate, but also take note of struggles that have occurred in order for us all to be in this ‘land of the free’ which is the hard question in that song for me, as well as a lot of people. So that piece is all about songs. There are a lot of Civil Rights songs and also anthems from Puerto Rico and Mexico and a Cuban socialist song as well as ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Some were exactly quoted and some were just used as motivic devices. … Somebody asks you to write a piece based on whatever idea they would like you to write a piece on, and you sort of have to find a way to that place.”
Break Away, Source Code, and Banner are all included on Strum, the debut CD of Montgomery’s music which was released in October 2015 on Azica Records. In addition to these three string quartets and another from 2006 titled Strum, the disc contains a very energetic piece she composed for string orchestra in 2012 titled Starburst.
There’s also one track scored for violin alone, titled Rhapsody No. 1, which Montgomery plays herself.
“This is probably going to evolve as things go on, but I do consider myself primarily a violinist,” she admits. “That was my first love.”