Composer of the Year:
Jessie Montgomery

By Heidi Waleson

Jessie Montgomery grew up surrounded by jazz and activism. A Juilliard-trained violinist, she gravitated towards composition in her 20s, and later learned to associate her own Black identity with her music. The resulting body of work has been embraced all around the world for its freshness and energy.

2023 Muscial America Composer of the Year:<br>Jessie Montgomery
Photo © Todd Rosenberg

Suddenly, Jessie Montgomery’s music is everywhere. Orchestras in the U.S. and overseas are opening their programs with Strum, Starburst, and Banner, vivacious pieces that incorporate vernacular and improvisatory elements while manipulating familiar textures and sonorities into something fresh and new. 

Montgomery is in her second year as Mead Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony; the orchestra premiered her Hymn for Everyone in the spring of 2022 and the world premiere of a new orchestral work is scheduled for 2023. Rounds, her piano concerto for Awadagin Pratt, was performed by all nine of its co-commissioners; many more orchestras, including Chicago and the Boston Symphony, have programmed it for 2022-23. 

Future projects include a piece for the New York Philharmonic as part of Project 19, its multi-year initiative commissioning female composers in celebration of the centennial of the 19th amendment. 

“It’s ironic—I never wanted to be an orchestra musician,” says Montgomery, who trained as a violinist and remains a devoted chamber music player. “But that’s where I’ve spent the last several years.” 

A gifted composer with an original voice who happens to be both Black and female is a godsend for organizations intent on shaking up their programming in the wake of recent reckonings over race and access. Yet Montgomery, whose work now embraces her Black heritage, had her own journey towards melding her personal identity with her music-making. Her early training excluded it. “In classical music, we didn’t talk about Black people. My identity was not represented; it wasn’t important to learning and being good at this music. I didn’t think of Duke Ellington as a composer—he was a jazz musician.” 

Montgomery, 40, grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then a funky area populated by artists and rebels where her parents—her father, a white jazz musician, and her mother, an actress and playwright active in Black political theater—fitted right in. Montgomery cites her mother Robbie McCauley as a powerful influence. “She modeled life as an artist, as an independent thinker and doer, and the idea that whatever your thoughts are about what you are doing, they have validity and are worth investigating deeply. Living around somebody like that is a gift.” 

In preschool at Third Street Music School Settlement, Montgomery thought the children walking around with violin cases looked serious and asked for lessons at age four. Her teacher, Alice Kanack, incorporated improvisation into the Suzuki-based program; at 11, Montgomery started taking composition class, which she describes as “really loose—not theory based.”  Meadowmount, her summer music camp, was completely different. “It sounded like torture—all those hours of practice—and I went kicking and screaming,” she recalls. “But it was so rewarding I went back every summer. The structure was what I needed, and I got good enough to get into Juilliard.”

Juilliard was all about playing the violin. But when Montgomery was not admitted to the composition class for non-majors, she found ways to continue her studies independently. During her post-graduation teaching job with Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island, she wrote little pieces for the students and her faculty quartet. Then Sebastian Ruth, the founder of MusicWorks, commissioned Strum. “He was the first person to reflect back to me that this was an important thing to do,” Montgomery recalls.

Composition gradually became the focus of Montgomery’s career, first through improvising with PUBLIQuartet, which she co-founded in 2010, and then as a member of the Catalyst Quartet, which performed and recorded her pieces. The Sphinx Organization, with which she had been associated since she was 17, commissioned Starburst, her earliest string orchestra piece. 

Her musical subject matter changed too. High school experience with Sphinx, which works to increase representation of Black and LatinX musicians in classical music, had opened Montgomery’s eyes to the Black presence in classical music, but it was not until later that she began to seriously associate her own Black identity with her music. Investigating that heritage in composition was first triggered by the commission that resulted in Source Code (2013). 

“The piece is inspired by the melodic inflections of Black spirituals because the guidelines of the commission were to write about what it means to you to be American. My strongest point of identification was my relationship to being Black in America. My mother’s work centered around race and identity; my being in the classical area was a way of separating from her. But as I had the opportunity to grow my work, I wanted to feel I was approaching it from an honest place.”

Now, Montgomery says, “I have leaned into it. Black music is an incredibly rich palate to explore, and I get to dive deep into my own history and grounding.” One recent example is Five Freedom Songs, a collaboration with soprano Julia Bullock, in which a group of spirituals becomes a searing expedition through the Black American experience. Montgomery also drew on spirituals and other vernacular pieces for an even more personal project: a portrait of her great-grandfather, a buffalo soldier (a member of an all-Black regiment in the U.S. military) who worked on the Panama Canal at the turn of the 20th century.

“I’ve been intrigued by him my whole life,” Montgomery says. “His journey reflects the progress of Black people in that time, who joined the military in order to free themselves.” Sergeant McCauley is a nonet for the Catalyst Quartet and Imani Winds; Montgomery is also exploring the subject as part of the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program. She had hoped her mother would write the libretto, but Robbie McCauley died in 2021. 

Not every piece has a political connection: “Sometimes I just want to write about trees and flowers,” Montgomery says. Caught by the Wind, for example, is about the effects of the atmosphere on a gnarled tree branch; visual cues are often inspiration for her. The musical ideas are the easy part, she says; it’s putting them into score format that’s difficult. 

About 75 percent of her time is spent writing but the violin remains part of her life. Though she left Catalyst Quartet at the beginning of 2020, she plays with bassist Eleonore Oppenheim (their improv duo is called big dog little dog), and always practices the violin for a while before she starts to write—“to keep my chops up.” 

Montgomery has been based in the Lower East Side apartment where she grew up. It’s now a co-op, and the neighborhood has changed radically, “consumed by the money monster of NYC.” She is relocating to Chicago for the second and third years of her CSO residency to escape the New York chaos. “I want to find more structure in my life and see how creativity can happen in a place of calm,” she says. “I never grew up with routines; that has been a journey for me as an adult.”

She feels it is essential now. “I’ve gotten to a point where I am grateful to have all this work but writing pieces on a deadline back-to-back, it’s easy to fall into compositional habits, to repeat things, to get stuck. My ambition is to find ways to break my own barriers, to keep experimenting, and not settle for answers.”

Heidi Waleson is opera critic of The Wall Street Journal and the author of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2018).