ALBUM REVIEW: “Strum” by Jessie Montgomery

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.

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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 newmusic 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 AfricanAmerican 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.

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Photo credit: Jiyang Chen

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.


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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.

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Photo credit: Jiyang Chen

“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.

ALBUM REVIEW: “American Dreams”

by Maggie Molloy

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“I got piano lessons when I was 5 years old from the widow of the town doctor in a little farm town in Iowa,” said composer Ken Benshoof. “I would go there after school, she would give me bread with brown sugar and butter, and we would have a music lesson.”

And it was there, in America’s heartland, that Benshoof got his very early start to a career in music composition.

“It wasn’t very long before I felt that the pieces she was asking me to play were not very good, and that I probably could write better pieces,” he laughed. “So, I found a piece of paper and drew some lines on it and started putting notes. I’m sure whatever I wrote wasn’t any better than what I was playing, but the impulse to make the world better by writing a better piece stayed with me for my whole life.”

In many ways, that’s the dream—finding one’s passion, pursuing it with unbridled determination and dedication, creating a life for oneself, and maybe even making the world a better place along the way. In fact, some would even consider that to be the American Dream.

Benshoof is just one of four American composers featured on the Seattle-based Saint Helens String Quartet’s debut album, “American Dreams.” Comprised of violinists Stephen Bryant and Adrianna Hulscher, violist Michael Lieberman, and cellist Paige Stockley, the quartet is committed to exploring adventurous and uncharted musical territory.

The modern-day musical pioneers’ latest creative endeavor explores the beautiful and bold diversity of American music, mixing contemporary classical with elements of folk tunes, blues and jazz grooves, American spirituals, and more. The album was recorded and produced at Jack Straw Cultural Center, the Northwest’s only nonprofit multidisciplinary audio arts center.

“What we found attractive about [these composers] is that their music is warm, it’s approachable, it doesn’t turn you off,” cellist Paige Stockley said of the album. “It’s not hard to grasp. It helps audiences just immediately connect to the music because it’s heartfelt and it’s beautiful. One of the rules that I use when I’m choosing repertoire is ‘Is this music that I love? Is this music that I want to hear? Is this music that feeds my soul?’”

The album’s title track is Grammy Award-winning composer Peter Schickele’s five-movement String Quartet No. 1, “American Dreams.” The piece evokes images of rural America through an adventurous combination of jazz and Appalachian folk elements over waltzing basslines, rustic melodies, sustained harmonics, and energetic syncopations.

“This piece is so beautiful because it has birds at dawn, it has barn dances, it has Indian chants played by the viola,” Stockley said of the piece. “If you can picture American Midwest and the wheat fields at 4 o’clock in the morning and birds chirping and the distant, fading sound of a barn dance—that’s ‘American Dreams’ quartet.”

Ken Benshoof’s “Swing Low” is similarly nostalgic. Based on the historic spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the work is comprised of eight very short pieces, each about one minute in length. The work makes use of folk-like pentatonic melodies in both major and minor harmonic contexts, with the original melody peeking through in ever-changing shapes and structures. Benshoof uses a colorful palette of textures and timbral details to explore the deceptively buoyant tune’s dismal subject matter.

The work is followed by Janice Giteck’s somber and lyrical one-movement quartet, “Where Can One Live Safely, Then? In Surrender.” Based on a cantus firmus by Johannes Fux, the piece portrays a sense of calm yearning, making use of the Dorian mode in a meditation on the unraveling of Western culture.

Bern Herbolsheimer’s five-movement “Botanas” explores a very different perspective: the piece is based on the rich melodies, flavorful food, and exquisite culture of the Yucatán region of Mexico.

“I always have been interested in the similarities between food, cooking, eating, creating music, and consuming it with our ears,” Herbolsheimer said of his inspiration for the piece. “So I thought I would combine each movement with a traditional Mayan melody and the name of a traditional Mayan botana or appetizer.”

From spicy salsa to roasted squash seed humus to traditional tamales eaten on the Day of the Dead, each piece has its own lively and distinct flavor. And while each one may be just a little tidbit of flavorful timbres and textures, together the piece is an entire feast of dynamic colors and characters.

The work is followed by Giteck’s “Ricercare (Dream Upon Arrival),” a slow and dreamy piece with lines of poetic counterpoint softly weaving in and out of each other.

Benshoof follows with his “Diversions” for violin and piano, performed by violinist Stephen Bryant and pianist Lisa Bergman. The six short movements include a variety of folk and blues elements which give each a warm, whimsical, and often playful character.

The final piece on the album is Benshoof’s “Remember,” a short, sweet, and hopelessly heartfelt piece inspired by the classic American folk song “Get along Home, Cindy.” (You know the one: “I wish I was an apple / Hangin’ on a tree / And every time my Cindy’d pass / She’d take a bite of me.”)

“The piece has a rich, romantic feel about it,” Benshoof said. “There’s a warmth in it and there is a little bit of ‘biting the apple’ and there’s a little bit of some third thing in there which I’m not going to try to describe.”

Perhaps that third thing might be wishing or wistfulness, melancholy longing or maybe even unrequited love—but whatever it is, it’s certainly nostalgic.

“‘American Dreams’  captures that early pioneer spirit,” Stockley said of the album, “The America that we wish we still had, or maybe we never even had it at all, but that feeling of hope and nostalgia, memory and warmth—and looking to a bright future.”

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Break of Reality’s “TEN”

by Maggie Stapleton

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Break of Reality is a quartet composed of 3 cellists and a percussionist who perform music ranging from Tool to Radiohead to Bach to their own original compositions inspired by rock, classical, folk, and pop music.

There are a lot of attempts at this genre cross-pollinization these days, but BoR REALLY does it well.  This music is genuine and it doesn’t try too hard.  Percussionist Ivan Trevino says, “Rock is as much in our blood as classical music. Our music is organic; we’re not doing it as a gimmick to play rock music on the cello. We want our instruments to be respected both in the classical and rock worlds.”  Success, I say!

“Ten,” their latest release (buy it here!), is the band’s proudest and most mature record to date.  All of the songs are original compositions by cellist Patrick Laird and/or Ivan Trevino and their sound has transitioned from “heavy metal cello band” to a more mellow, classically influenced sound, which comes across very authentically.  They also experimented with different microphones and recording techniques and invested in a lot of their own equipment with this album.  The result is well-balanced, nuanced, yet totally grooves.

I had the pleasure of talking to Ivan and Patrick about a few of the tracks and learned the following tidbits:

“Star” was written for Patrick Laird’s wife, Marnie, who makes a guest piano appearance on the track.

“Helix” is one of their favorite tunes to perform, with a winding cello riff that travels through all different types of time signatures, leaving one wondering if it’s in 7 or 4.  Can you figure it out?

“Six” is the only track on the album that Ivan Trevino wrote all on his own.  It was a originally a mallet sextet composed for the Eastman Percussion ensemble.  This arrangement is for three cellos, piano, 2 percussionists and features marimba, piano, glockenspiel, and drumset. It has a cinematic, mellow, indie rock flavor, “kind of like Bon Iver meets Steve Reich,” as Ivan puts it.

BoR independently releases all of their records.  Trevino recognizes that as a cello band with no singer, their sound doesn’t appeal to a pop music demographic.  Rather, they use their niche genre to be 100% in charge of the art.  They can take complete control of record sales, keep all of the income from record sales, and have all of the say in the sound and recording process.

Oh, and the sweet cover artwork?  It was done by Lauren Yandell, one of Ivan’s high school marching bandmates!

Keep an eye on BoR’s tour schedule and check them out live, if you get a chance.  Percussionist Ivan Trevino says Break of Reality’s shows have the energy of rock concerts; the music is memorized which helps communication and interaction with the audience and there are elements of improv.  The cellists have more articulate, aggressive, vertical types of bow strokes to get the “rock sound,” while playing with a drummer.  However, they always try to bring the unexpected and keep their classical roots at heart and keep the audience guessing what’s going to come next – rock or Bach.

Cheers to you, Break of Reality, for a fantastic new album!  We can’t wait to hear what’s next to come.