Composing plays a larger role for Jessie Montgomery

Jessie Montgomery: Acclaimed for weaving classical with elements of vernacular music, improvisation and language.

Jiyang Chen

A lot has happened in the last few years for Jessie Montgomery. Her composing profile has soared, and the demands on that facet of her creativity have intensified. Though she’s known as a violinist in the Catalyst Quartet and with the Silkroad Ensemble, she has changed her focus. “Composing is becoming more of a central part of my musical activities,” she said.

In the 2019-20 season alone, she was commissioned to write works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the National Choral Society and the ASCAP Foundation. In addition, the New York Philharmonic chose Montgomery as one of the featured composers for its Project 19, which celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment, granting women’s suffrage.

Two of her works were featured in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series in May 2019: Break Away (2013) and the world premiere of an arrangement of Gay Guerrilla by Julius Eastman, an African-American composer who was homeless and almost forgotten at his death in 1990 at age 49.

The CSO’s commitment to Montgomery’s music continues this season. For the first episode of a new streaming series debuting Jan. 21, members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the CSO’s pre-professional training ensemble, will perform her Starburst (2012) for string orchestra. Also featured on the free online program are John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Tyshawn Sorey’s Sentimental Shards and Andy Akiho’s LIgNEouS 1 for Marimba and String Quartet. CSO musicians will perform another work by Montgomery in an upcoming episode of CSO Sessions this spring.

As a commission from the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which promotes the advancement of young African-American and Latino musicians, Montgomery wrote Starburst for an 18-piece string ensemble. The three-minute work was intended to serve as an encore for the Sphinx Virtuosi during its debut tour. “I just had this image of stars exploding in space,” she said. “I wanted to feature that energetic attitude of the ensemble.”

Tyshawn Sorey’s Sentimental Shards has been described as a nod to both John Adams and Duke Ellington; it references the third movement from Adams’ American Standard and  Ellington’s jazz ballad “Sophisticated Lady.” Like Montgomery, Sorey has been hailed as a leader on the new music scene. In a recent interview with the New Music Box, Sorey discussed the impact on his compositional style of a tour stop in Chicago with trumpeter Dave Douglas. Sorey was playing drums for Douglas, who advised him: “Pay attention to how everybody else in the band is responding.”

At that moment, Sorey said, “I finally got it. … That experience in Chicago also opened a lot of doors for me. … You need to respond to everything else. This is communication. This is not a thing where you do this, and everybody else has to respond to you. That’s not how this works. So I try to bring moments that I’ve experienced in my own life. Just like I’m telling you this story, I tell everybody else this story, too. Stories are what help people really get deeper inside of themselves, rather than me telling people what to do. I think stories ingrain this sort of information into one’s mind.”

In a program note, Andy Akiho explained how his LIgNEouS 1 was sparked by an exhibit featuring composer-architect Iannis Xenakis’ original architecture sketches. “When I left, I was inspired to sketch out a pitch world with color-penciled ‘LI – NE- -S’ by connecting vertical rows of chromatic pitches, expanding the full range of the five-octave marimba, with geometric diagonal lines and collapsing triangles,” he wrote. “These visually linear note combinations became the foundational scales for the piece.”

Like Akiho and Sorey, Montgomery draws on the music, especially classical and jazz, that surrounded her as a child. With composer-violinist Jannina Norpoth, Montgomery was asked to reimagine Scott Joplin’s ragtime opera, Treemonisha, written in 1911 but not performed in full until 1972. Co-commissioned by Washington Performing Arts, Stanford University, Southbank Centre (London), National Arts Centre (Ottawa) and the Banff Centre for the Arts, the work was to premiere last April at Toronto’s Volcano Theatre but the pandemic delayed its debut.

Along with ragtime and jazz, Montgomery remains inspired by 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.”