Jessie Montgomery talks about the evolution of her ‘Transfigure to Grace’

Five years ago, Black creative and performing artists nationwide were tapped to be a part of the 1619 Project. It was a massive effort by the Pulitzer Foundation and the New York Times to reflect on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African captives to the American shore. On that single ship were some 20 shackled detainees, destined for slavery in the British colony of Virginia, with many more vessels to follow.  

Among the artists asked to compose a work for this project was Jessie Montgomery, Mead Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After writing something for that 400th anniversary year, she soon found that she was not yet finished mining the 1619 Project’s rich vein of inspiration. Her new work for the CSO, which receives its world-premiere performances May 11-16, is called Transfigure to Grace

“I was just speaking with maestro Muti about the origin, and how it is the latest of several works dealing with some of the same musical ideas,” Montgomery said in a conversation before rehearsals of the new piece began. “Transfigure to Grace started out as a much smaller piece for the 1619 Project. I called it Passage, and it was for nine players — including me on violin — at the Virginia Arts Festival in 2019 with the Dance Theatre of Harlem performing. Then later, I reworked the music for dancers with full orchestra, and elements of that music have stayed with me still.”

If the word “passage” summons the specter of the dread ocean crossing that left so many souls at the bottom of the ocean and awakened others into slavery, there are also aspects of its meaning that Montgomery found to be inherent in the water’s surge, its expanse, its mystery, and its transformative power: “These are elements that have since flowed through other pieces I’ve written, incorporating themes of self-reflection and the natural world — perhaps as a way to regain a connection to self and purpose,” she said. 

The composer is keen to hear what Muti will do with it. “He didn’t ask me a ton of questions this time around,” she said. “He seemed satisfied with how it seems to flow as we looked over the score. We are going from a much smaller instrumentation in my original dance piece to one in which the music is for a much larger ensemble, but at the same time can be much more intensely concentrated. In dance, you needed time for people to get on and off the stage, requiring transitions and extra music, things that took up space. 

“But this is concert music now. There is no need for that extra stuff; it’s just the music that has to hold itself together. So it will be exciting for me to hear it from someone so widely known for his interpretations of opera and theatrical work. I want to see what he finds. In my last piece for this orchestra, Hymn for Everyone, which has a sort of lyrical quality, Muti knew immediately how to respond.” 

Asked to describe her new piece, Montgomery admitted freely to “a little bit of romanticism, although it’s not quite the word exactly. It’s more of a desire to have the music connect with the listener in a way that is not cheap, not pandering, just really about me the composer trying to connect, and melody is a good way to do that. We have all of this information and history of music having broken apart and gone through these big fractures and in hyper-sophisticated directions. All of that is part of my composer’s tool kit in a way, and I still find a lot of that music really fascinating. 

“But I also think of music of [Russian composer] Sofia Gubaidulina, which has a simplicity to it, and that’s actually a lot to learn from.”

Montgomery has been writing music since she was 11, and often her first compositions arrived while she was playing around on the violin. Her parents, both artists, encouraged her, doubtless because they knew music was in her blood: She is the daughter of Ed Montgomery, a jazz saxophonist and composer, and Robbie McCauley, an actress and storyteller, who died in 2021. Jessie grew up in Manhattan’s East Village, surrounded by artists of every kind, and her musical vocabulary, while very sophisticated, also roams easily among all those influences. 

Among the projects coming up for Montgomery are more compositions on the theme of her great-great-grandfather, who was a Buffalo Soldier, the Black men in U.S. Calvary between 1867 and 1896. The regiments worked on building the Panama Canal and on major projects in the American West. That’s rich material to fire a composer’s imagination: “We have pictures and newspaper clippings,” Montgomery said. “He was leader of the military band. He played French horn. It’s just the general history of it that makes it interesting.”

Up next for Montgomery is what she calls “another exciting round of work,” including a concerto for CSO Principal Percussion Cynthia Yeh. “We have done a couple sessions on this project already, getting a library of instruments together, but we haven’t figured out her set-up yet,” she said. “I’m super excited to work with her.” The premiere is already set: May 30, 2024.