A string quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn might not seem like the most obvious departure point for improvisation.
But when the violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery was working with New York’s young PUBLIQuartet, that’s exactly what they did: Play Haydn, then riff on it.
“I’ve always been interested in trying to find the intersection between different types of music, or different types of playing,” Montgomery said. “That kind of practice with that quartet certainly informed a lot of my writing, in terms of trying to draw different materials together … and finding the intersection of all of them.”
Montgomery, a native of New York City who turned 35 last month, is one of the rising generation of American composers now making its mark on the wider culture. They include writers such as Missy Mazzoli (age 36), whose opera Breaking the Waves made strong debuts in Philadelphia and then New York in the past couple months; Nico Muhly (35), whose credits include the score for Bernhard Schlink’s film The Reader and the opera Two Boys, written for the English National Opera; and Gregory Spears (39), whose opera Fellow Travelers bowed at the Cincinnati Opera last summer.
Tomorrow, one of Montgomery’s short pieces, Starburst, is on a concert by the Nu Deco Ensemble, the “21st-century orchestra” now in its second year of presenting programs. Sunday night’s event at the New World Center in Miami Beach, given in partnership with the Dranoff Two Piano Foundation, features the two-piano partnership of Duo Yoo and Kim, and includes music by Steve Reich, Fredrik Sixten and Frank Zappa, in addition to Montgomery’s piece.
Sam Hyken, Nu Deco’s CEO and a trumpeter whose arrangement of the English rock band Radiohead’s song “Everything in Its Right Place” also is on Sunday’s program, said the larger string setup required for the Sixten concerto gave Montgomery’s piece an opening.
“I was familiar with her work, I had always wanted to program it, and one of the pieces I liked the most was ‘Starburst,’” Hyken said. “And it just felt like a perfect time to do it.”
Montgomery said Starburst came about as a commission from the Sphinx Foundation, the Detroit-based nonprofit that advocates, and provides, larger participation by blacks and Latinos in classical music. It’s a 3½-minute work for strings, lively and full of idiomatic string color, that chugs along with tricky rhythms and jazz-flavored harmonies. The effect is effervescent and exciting.
“It was written for the Sphinx Virtuosi tour to be an encore. I was definitely trying to experiment with color, and trying to get as many quick, bright gestural colors as I could out of the ensemble. We had to rehearse it a lot because there are a lot of challenging ensemble issues for such a short piece,” she said, speaking over a Skype connection from the Manhattan apartment where she grew up and still lives.
Montgomery said she wanted the piece to be “fun and exciting,” and chose the name Starburst because “it reminds me of something cosmic, and so I found an appropriate name for that.”
Hyken said he was acquainted with Montgomery’s work from his years at the Juilliard School, where they were in some of the same classes. Montgomery earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from Juilliard and a master’s in film scoring from New York University.
“I feel like it’s really in the context of the repertoire we’re trying to present,” Hyken said of Starburst, which will be the first piece by a woman composer to be featured by Nu Deco. “It’s got a funkiness to it; it’s modern but it’s also beautiful and tonal. Jessie herself does a lot of genre-bending work, and it fits very much in the context of the program: Music that’s really beautiful and that very much has a groove that can relate to today’s audiences.”
In late October, Montgomery heard the premiere of her tone poem Records From a Vanishing City, which was debuted by the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The 13-minute work evokes the Lower East Side of New York in Montgomery’s childhood, before gentrification began to change what had been a vibrant artists’ community.
Montgomery does this by trying to echo the sounds of that community, and also draws from the record collection of the late James Rose, an illustrator and writer who had a large collection of jazz recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to “snippets” from some of those records, she uses a traditional Angolan lullaby from the collection, woven together in textural fashion.
“I had this imagery of the city vanishing, and as the piece goes from beginning to end there’s a sense that these themes are evaporating. In the last section, in the winds, there are solos, and the themes are swirling around each other, weaving in and out of each other … an idea will be stated, and then it evaporates, and then another one comes in, and it evaporates in relation to it,” she said.
“Throughout the course of the piece, there’s a section that’s super structurally obvious, and then the material begins to split apart and vanish as it gets toward the end,” Montgomery said.
Reviewer Rebecca Lentjes, writing for the British classical music event portal Bachtrack, likened the piece to Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, and called it “a joy to listen to,” saying its “colorful mélange of unexpected textures and harmonies” livened up Orpheus’s program of otherwise familiar repertoire.
Montgomery said she was thrilled with how Orpheus played the work.
“It’s amazing how well they did. It’s a pretty hard piece, transition-wise, and they nailed it,” she said.
Central to the tonal language of the piece is its identification with African-American culture. The daughter of Ed Montgomery, a white musician and filmmaker, and Robbie McCauley, a black actress, college professor and Obie Award-winning playwright, Jessie said she is increasingly exploring aspects of her African-American background, as she did in a string quartet work called Source Code (2013), which includes an invented black spiritual.
“It’s been more and more of an interest of mine to learn more about black music, and to use that in my palette, along with all the other influences, because it is part of my heritage, and it’s such a rich culture and such a rich music,” she said. “I’m also interested in the idea of finding the common denominator between different types of music and the idea of a folksong, of a natural idiom of any culture is interesting to me … I needed to say something personal in that piece, and so I turned to song rather than trying to tell a story.”
Montgomery said she found that experience illuminating.
“I thought, ‘There’s something here; there’s something that I’m connecting with’ in a different way in my composing, and with that subject in particular, and so I’m continuing to experiment with that, and explore that.”
Montgomery, whose debut album Strum: Music for Strings, was released on the Azica Records label in late 2015, will be the composer in residence for 2017-18 with the Alabama Symphony in Birmingham. And for the Toronto-based Volcano Theatre, she’ll be working on a revised version of Scott Joplin’s ragtime opera Treemonisha.
She also is a passionate proponent of educational outreach in underserved communities, and enjoys working with children, particularly when she can return multiple times to the same group.
“It’s central to my beliefs about music and community. Education is key; it’s an important aspect of human development,” she said. “And we need that desperately; we need access, we need students to feel like they have a voice, to experiment and learn about their own abilities … finding a space where you can be the fullest expression of yourself, and look at the world through a much wider lens.”
Like a significant part of the artistic community, Montgomery was disturbed by the results of the presidential election, but said the ascendancy of Donald Trump has encouraged her and some of her colleagues to think about “how to create from a place of concern and urgency, and feeling the need to say something.”
For Montgomery, that is taking the shape of reorchestrating her 2014 work Banner, a piece for string quartet and string orchestra that premiered at the New World Center. In one part of that work, the bass plays James Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” underneath music written to the rhythm of the Pledge of Allegiance in a sonic struggle to coexist. She hopes to get several performances of the new version of the work through a consortium of orchestras nationwide.
“I think it is important for artists to make and choose projects that address political or social issues directly. And I feel like a lot of people are doing that … and I think we should respond to it in any way that we can,” she said.
“We have to be just aware of our actual strength, and the value of our existence, basically,” Montgomery said. “We’ve been given a voice, and it’s been established that there is this multicultural aspect of the United States that’s very strong. And we have an ability to represent, and claim multicultural nationalism.”
The Nu Deco Ensemble performs at 7:30 Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach. Tickets range from $35-$50, but are almost entirely sold out. Visit www.nu-deco.org for a ticket link and more information.