Many composers of the past devoted as much to performing as they did to the pen. Think Mozart or Rachmaninov. In our time, Philip Glass has done much the same, leading an eponymous ensemble for decades that has showcased his work.
New York-based composer New York composer Jessie Montgomery 37, might not yet have achieved the same level of recognition as those three composer-performers, but the violin has been a central part of her life since her childhood. She is a member of the Catalyst Quartet, which consists of four laureates and alumni of the diversity-promoting Sphinx Organization, and appears with Yo-Yo Ma’s esteemed Silk Road Ensemble.
Along with Montgomery’s busy performance schedule, she makes a point of squeezing in time for her composing. “It’s like 100 percent and 100 percent,” she said with a laugh. “So the Catalyst Quartet has a very active performing season, and I’m involved in a lot of commissions, and I somehow manage it all.”
She will be featured in her composer capacity for the season finale May 20 of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series, which features a mix of new commissions and other recent works. Montgomery knows Missy Mazzoli, the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence and the series’ curator, through a mutual friend, bassist Eleonore Oppenheim. “Over the years,” she said, “the connection has strengthened, and then she [Mazzoli] invited me to be a part of MusicNOW.”
Montgomery has composed music since high school, but she did not pursue it seriously until 2008, when she started writing more frequently with the encouragement of colleagues. At the time, she was living in Rhode Island and working as a member of the Providence Quartet. A year later, she enrolled at New York University, to pursue a graduate degree in composition for film and multimedia. “Then I began writing more and more and more,” she said, with commissions from organizations such as the Albany Symphony, Joyce Foundation and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
Serving as a kind of breakthrough was Strum, which she wrote in 2008 originally for cello quintet, later revising it for string quartet and string orchestra. “It’s like this really fun, pizzicato-y piece — light and dance-like,” she said. The work is included on “Strum: Music for Strings” (2015), a recording of six of Montgomery’s string chamber works released by Azica Records. Second Inversion, a 24-hour streaming channel overseen by Seattle’s KING-FM, described it this way: “The album combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music, spirituals, improvisation, poetry and politics, crafting a unique and insightful new-music perspective on the cross-cultural intersections of American history.”
Montgomery is influenced by the music that surrounded her as a child — the classical works she learned as a violinist and the jazz she heard from father, a saxophonist and clarinetist. She also was a fan of rhythm and blues and hip-hop. “I think harmonically some of that language seeps in — the R&B and jazz stuff — here and there,” she said. “You have to perk your ears up to hear it. But when I sit down at the keyboard, that’s what is in my ear along with everything else.” Other elements include what she calls “big symphonic colors” and “groove-based” rhythms.
Montgomery will have two works featured on the May 20 program, including Break Away, which was premiered by the PUBLIQuartet in 2013 at the Music of Now festival in New York City. While she was still a member of the quartet, she began writing the five-movement piece, which is based on improvisations and repertoire, including a piece by Anton Webern, that the group was working on at the time. Three of the movements incorporate improvisatory moments, when musicians in the quartet break away from the foursome and then return. “It’s exciting always to work on this piece with musicians who are not part of PUBLIQuartet, because I’m so used to their interpretation of it, of course,” she said. “I’ve heard a couple of other performances of it, and I’m surprised and interested and moved by how people interpret those sections differently.”
In addition to Mazzoli’s new arrangement of Passage, What Does It Mean?, a work by Meredith Monk, the May 20 program will feature world-premiere arrangements of two works by Julius Eastman, Joy Boy and Gay Guerrilla. The adventurous African-American composer, a founding member of the S.E.M. Ensemble, died in 1990 at age 49 after becoming homeless and largely forgotten. The first public notice of his death materialized eight months later in an obituary by new-music advocate Kyle Gann in the Village Voice. But in recent years, there has been an Eastman revival, with his first retrospective at the Berkeley (Calif.) Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 2012 and the publication of a biography in 2015.
Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley are generally considered to be the pioneers of minimalism, but Montgomery believes that Eastman should be on that list as well. “He needs to be included in the discussion,” she said. “You can really never say what came first, but it is very, very clear that he was purposefully doing this improvisatory, time-based, immersive, experiential music at least at the same time or before.”
Montgomery was introduced to Eastman’s music about two years ago. She served on a grant panel and encountered a funding application for performances of all of his known works for piano and percussion, and she was struck by what she learned about him. She later discovered that he had been living in the East Village at the same time she was growing up there. “I just thought that was an interesting connection,” she said.
In 1979, Eastman wrote Gay Guerrilla, which is meant to be performed in exactly 28 minutes and 30 seconds, at a time when he was heightening his political activism and highlighting his identity as a gay, black man. According to an essay that Gann wrote to accompany a 2005 recording of Eastman’s music, Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” appears in the work through a “tonal fog” and is “subversively transformed” as a gay manifesto.
Montgomery has created an arrangement of the four-piano work for seven string players: three violins, two violas, two cellos and one double bass. In writing it, she consulted with cross-genre cellist Seth Parker Woods, who has experience in performing Eastman’s music.
“This piece in particular is really about resonance, about the sustain of the pedal and the sustain of the pitches on the piano,” she said. “So capturing that sense of sustain within a string ensemble is difficult, because to play a string instrument requires a certain physicality.” She had to distribute the parts across the seven musicians in such a way that they could take breaks while maintaining the work’s uninterrupted quality of continuation.
Immersing herself in Eastman’s music as an arranger provided an intimate way for her to learn more about him, Montgomery said, and she worked hard to do justice to him and his legacy. “That’s a big task and an important task, and of course, working with CSO musicians on my pieces is a great privilege,” she said. “Also, to work with Missy in this way is awesome, because we actually haven’t worked together before. So, I’m excited about that for sure.”