The Changing American Cannon Looks Like Jessie Montgomery


The history of classical music in the United States is a long identity crisis: the search for a local sound, free from any European influence. This anxiety has manifested itself time and time again in the form of self-sabotage, with some composers – almost always white men – exalted as pioneers, while the truly original work of artists of color has been overlooked.

That has changed in recent years: in spurts, then suddenly, with the wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd. Classical institutions en masse have made serious, if at times awkward, efforts to rise to the occasion and pay belated attention to marginalized composers who have always had answers to the question of America’s musical identity.

One composer the estate has particularly turned to is Jessie Montgomery, whose often personal but largely resonant music – forged in Manhattan, a mirror turned nationwide – will be hard to miss in the coming season.

The number of times Montgomery’s orchestral works were scheduled more than doubled each year from 2017 to 2020, said Philip Rothman, his publishing agent. (And that’s just a corner of his production.) Several years ago, that number was around 20; by 2021, they are expected to be close to 400, notably at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. And his calendar is filled with commissions far away, including as New Chicago Symphony Orchestra Composer-in-Residence.

Some of the spotlight on Montgomery is a product of pandemic restrictions; many ensembles have made cautious returns with small pieces for strings, which are at the heart of his work. But its rapid rise in power is also the result of redesigning orchestral repertoires to put more emphasis on composers of color – an achievement that can sometimes seem like a burden for a single artist to speak for an entire race or race. nation.

A new portrait of American sound has emerged nonetheless, with Montgomery’s music providing some of the crucial final touches.

“She is changing the canon of American orchestras,” said Afa S. Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, which promotes racial and ethnic diversity in music. “The true language of American classical music is something that will set our canon apart, and it shapes its evolution.”

MONTGOMERY, 40 years old, is a Lower East Side child born to artist parents. His mother, Robbie McCauley, did theater that questioned the racial history of the country; her father, Edward Montgomery, ran a studio where young Jessie sometimes manually operated the elevator for jazz, punk and opera musicians.

With Montgomery studying the violin in a room; his father composing in another; and her mother rehearsing or writing in a home studio, their apartment looked like an artist’s residence. “There was no routine,” Montgomery said in a recent interview. “Everyone was sort of in their own modules and doing their own thing. But I was still in a state of wonder.

She was exhibited from an early age in her parents’ downtown core, while learning violin techniques and repertoire suited to both the upscale establishment and the world of improvisation.

His teacher Alice Kanack, recalls Montgomery, “created these improv games with the philosophy that every child has their own individual, innate and creative voice, and that they should be nurtured while they are young.” These games provided a natural follow-up to the composition, which she began in earnest at age 11.

In the 1990s, Montgomery was a serious college student who also spent her nights with raving friends in Queens listening to house music and hip-hop; there were, she says, “a lot of drugs.” But the violin was kind of a salute for her, and she followed it to Juilliard School. (Leaving town was never a question because, she said, “I was always in the frame of mind that there is no other place like New York.” )

The violin also led Montgomery to the Sphinx Organization annual competition. It was the first time that he had been asked to play a piece by a black composer.

“I lived in New York City, so I was always used to having all kinds of different cultures in my group of friends,” Montgomery said. “So it was not unusual. But they were purely black and Latino children. And the way we have all stayed in touch and continue to collaborate with each other is really the strength of the organization. “

She has been associated with Sphinx for years, performing in the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber ensemble, and eventually forged a relationship that extended to teaching at the Sphinx Performance Academy and, shortly before the pandemic, had received the organization’s medal of excellence.

“Jessie was a beautiful chamber musician from the start,” Dworkin said. “Then she had a voice as a songwriter. It wasn’t until several years ago that I knew there was this other side.

There was also a third side to his art: teaching. Shortly after graduating from Juilliard, she joined Community MusicWorks in Providence, RI, inspired in part by her own education at Third Street Music School Settlement in New York City and by her mother’s community practice.

“I use the word rigor a lot, but I think what makes all the value is the amount of rigor, the focus. The amount of energy you put into it is the thing that really matters, ”she said. With that to guide her, she added, “I’ve seen children’s lives in some cases go from really, really difficult situations to – you know, five or six of the students were the first in their families to go to school. college, and some of them at the Ivy Leagues. It was intense, but beautiful.

Throughout his career, Montgomery tried – with mixed success for his sanity – to balance pedagogy with performance and composition. She was a founding member of the chamber group PUBLIQuartet and later joined the Catalyst Quartet.

“When Jessie joined, it was like Catalyst had become what we had always imagined,” said Karla Donehew Perez, another violinist in the group.

Catalyst became a sounding board for Montgomery’s writing. For the 2015 album “Strum: music for strings”, the group recorded some of their most performed works: the “Source Code” with spiritual accents; the lively “Strum”; and “Banner,” which deconstructs and builds on the US national anthem. Along with Imani Winds, the quartet also premiered the nonet “Sergeant McCauley”, about one of the great-grandfathers of Montgomery and the Great Migration.

Together, the Catalyst cast have also taken on major projects – most recently, the “Uncovered” series, which dedicates albums to composers who have been overlooked because of their race or gender. But Montgomery felt increasingly unable to devote the time the quartet needed from her, which she described as “24/7, 365 attention.”

“It doesn’t seem balanced within the quartet,” she said, “especially when they perform my pieces and I reap the benefits.”

Last year, Montgomery announced his departure from Catalyst – a difficult decision that sparked a tense conversation. “It’s not a fully mended relationship,” she said, “but it’s mostly mended.” (Donehew Perez said Montgomery was like a member of his family and remained “a great longtime friend.”)

Montgomery continues to perform, including as part of his improv duo Large Dog Small Dog, with bassist Eleonore Oppenheim. She also performed her music in the Pam Tanowitz dance premiere “I Was Expecting Echo of a Better Day” this summer and has a new collaborative project in the works, with exploratory rehearsals starting in September.

But the bulk of his work going forward – with commissions currently scheduled until 2024 – will be his writing, which with its spirit of improvisation, embracing of a wide variety of influences, and concern for personal history. reflect his upbringing.

“I have this idea in my mind that there is something beyond fusion,” Montgomery said. “There is this other sound that I am looking for and which is the result, like the crash, of different styles and influences. I do not know if I have succeeded yet.

Observers may disagree; composer Joan Tower described Montgomery’s music as having “a real confidence” and a mixture of references that “intertwine cohesively”. And Alex Hanna, principal bass of the Chicago Symphony, noted the “richness in tones and colors” of his scores.

“You feel like she wrote the music in an afternoon,” he said, “because she has the honesty of improvisation.”

Works like “Source Code,” “Sergeant McCauley,” and the recent premiere of “Five Freedom Songs,” written for soprano Julia Bullock, reflect that Montgomery is “a multiracial person who lives and breathes and tells uniquely American stories. “. said Dworkin.

“Banner”, she added, is a “shining” example. “There’s music in there that borrows from the Mexican anthem, Puerto Rico, the idioms of blues and jazz galore. It’s American music and American history.

But trying to capture a country’s soul in music is a level of pressure Montgomery tries to avoid when considering a new commission. She said she did not consider her works to be particularly political.

“I think people sometimes take blackness or a projection of blackness as a political statement, that to be black is to embody politics and culture in itself,” she said. “And it’s a burden, actually.”

A burden that has been particularly acute over the past year. “I spoke with my colleagues of black origin, and we all feel that sort of thing to be put on,” she said. “I realized there was this shared desire to just be able to create without that kind of pressure or expectation whether you’re the spokesperson for running or better or more diverse classical music or whatever.”

She would like to see programmers not only hire black artists, but do so in a thoughtful and flexible way. “A commission that tackles the injustices suffered by blacks, as a means for the institution to admit or confront their own conformity in atrocities against blacks, does not allow this composer to express total joy, for example, ”she said. “It comes down to the simple fact that black people – any people, probably – want to own our own narrative and not necessarily be held responsible for undoing institutional crimes.”

In her own musical creation, Montgomery is more interested in supporting her peers through her actions – whether as a curator, performer or educator – rather than public statements.

“I think the work shows what you want to show,” she said. “And that’s what’s important. Work comes first, and then statements come after.


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