New York-based violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery looks confidently over her shoulder in the cover art for her debut album “Strum: Music for Strings.” Surrounded by the black and white rubble of a broken and buried city, she emerges with strength and poise, her chin held high and her hand on her hip—a golden light amidst the dust and debris.
In some ways, the image evokes the artwork of the Harlem Renaissance—the use of color, the stylized portraiture, the message of strength and, above all, hope.
For nearly two decades, Montgomery has been affiliated with the Sphinx Organization, a group which supports the accomplishments of young African-American, Latino, and minority string players. Since 2012 she has held a post as Composer-in-Residence with the Sphinx Virtuosi, a conductor-less string orchestra, and she has also been a two-time laureate in the annual Sphinx Competition.
“Strum” is the first album dedicated solely to Montgomery’s music, and marks her debut as a leading composer and performer. The album features performances by the Sphinx Virtuosi, PUBLIQuartet (of which Montgomery is a co-founder), and of course, the Catalyst Quartet—Montgomery’s own chamber music group.
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.
The first piece, “Starburst,” serves as a one-movement introduction to the colorful album, highlighting the dynamic energy and multilayered soundscapes to come. Premiered by the Sphinx Virtuosi, the piece is performed with grace, precision, and explosive verve.
What follows is a markedly more soulful and melancholy requiem titled “Source Code,” performed by the Catalyst Quartet. The one-movement work echoes with the rich musical history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, with many of its melodies and musical textures inspired by African–American artists of that era.
“I experimented by re-interpreting gestures, sentences, and musical syntax (the bare bones of rhythm and inflection) by choreographer Alvin Ailey, poets Langston Hughes and Rita Dove, and the great jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald into musical sentences and tone paintings,” Montgomery said of her inspiration for the piece. “Ultimately, this exercise of listening, re-imagining, and transcribing led me back to the black spiritual as a common musical source across all three genres.”
Ripe with poignancy, the piece tells a countless tales as its haunting melodies and slow glissandos ruminate through the gorgeous, blues-inspired harmonies.
Montgomery goes on to explore a wide range of musical textures in “Break Away,” a work comprised of five short movements with added improvisational elements. Written for the PUBLIQuartet in 2013, the piece moves from musical abstractions to songlike melodies, airy glissandos to jazz improvisations. Technically demanding and skillfully performed, the piece explores a vast terrain of musical textures in under 10 minutes and ends with a wildly dissonant bang.
Montgomery then breaks away from chamber music for “Rhapsody No. 1,” an unaccompanied violin solo which serves as the first in a series of six rhapsodies which she plans to write in tribute to the tradition of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas.
“In paying tribute to this archetypal tradition, I have chosen to elaborate by writing for a variety of solo voices across instrument families—violin, viola, flute, bassoon, and double bass—so that the final rhapsody in the cycle is a five part chamber work for all of the instruments in the collection,” she said of the cycle.
Here Montgomery showcases her passion and artistry as a soloist, balancing sensitivity and intimate expression with technical proficiency and fiery passion, crafting a compelling and unforgettable introduction to what’s sure to be a rapturous suite.
But in the case of this album, what follows is another type of rhapsody: Montgomery’s tribute to the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Scored for solo string quartet and string orchestra, Montgomery’s “Banner” begins as a simple variation on the theme of the U.S. national anthem, but quickly expands into an exploration of world anthems and patriotic songs, begging the question: “What does a 21st century anthem sound like in today’s multicultural environment?”
For Montgomery, a 21st century anthem pays tribute to all of America’s wide-ranging cultures, while also allowing space for the possibilities of new and ever-changing folk and popular idioms. She explores as many as she can in just under 10 minutes, drawing from both classical and folk traditions while also incorporating the high energy and rhythmic verve of marching bands, drumline choruses, multilayered fanfare, and more.
The album comes to a close with the title track, “Strum,” performed by the Catalyst Quartet. Strummed pizzicato lines serve as a texture motive across all four instruments, creating a rhythmic vitality which propels the piece forward from its nostalgic first moments all the way through to its ecstatic and dramatic ending. Layered rhythms and harmonic ostinati round out the piece’s warm, dancelike spirit, crafting a joyous and hopeful ending to Montgomery’s debut.
And while this album may just be the beginning for Montgomery, “Strum” certainly echoes with possibility.