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One of the things I find most interesting about other performer-composers is seeing their different approaches to writing for their own instrument. I’ve always been hesitant about writing for solo bassoon (other than a few bits of juvenilia, Rotational Games was the first solo piece I wrote for it), but many performer-composers write primarily or even exclusively for the instrument(s) they play. Jessie Montgomery falls more in the latter camp. Introduced to the violin at the age of four, her first compositions grew out of her improvisations, and most of her works are for string instruments in various combinations. She’s gradually been expanding her comfort zone — she recently earned a Master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University, and her second work for full orchestra will be premièred sometime next month.
New York City has always been home for Montgomery: She grew up in the East Village in Manhattan, attended Juilliard for her undergraduate degree in violin performance, and, post Master’s, is living back in the East Village, possibly in the same apartment her family lived in when she was a child (the wording in my source for this [New Music Box] is not totally clear). In addition to her early studies at the Third Street Music School, Montgomery has spent time playing with the Providence and Catalyst Quartets, and she has been nurtured by the Sphinx Organization, a group dedicated to addressing the underrepresentation of people of color in the classical music world. She’s also co-founded the PUBLIQuartet, and is just finishing up a term as the Composer-Educator for the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
The string quartet we’re featuring today, Source Code, originated in 2013 with a commission from the Isaiah Fund for New Initiatives for a work that conveyed “what it means to be an American”, and while the title might suggest an engagement with the United States as the scientific powerhouse that produced Silicon Valley, Montgomery is instead drawing from the tradition of spirituals, treating them as the source for the musical language of the piece. (Both of Montgomery’s parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and even her seemingly patriotic works often wrestle with the less-than-savory aspects of this country’s history.) The piece begins with an arresting unison that then spreads apart just enough for the first violin to have a melismatic solo that pushes the quartet into ever fuller harmony.
Glissandi — gradual changes of pitch that sound like sliding smoothly from one note to the next — abound, as do long held notes, with a result that sounds like a relaxed melting on a sunny summer afternoon. About two minutes in, the music cools, becoming darker, and the melody becomes more angular and agitated, building to a sharp dissonance and then an expectant silence. The melting music returns, but it is shot thru with more sadness now, it sits more heavily in the air, even as the glissandi abate somewhat. This texture gradually transforms into a luminous passage with impassioned, glowing lines soaring above a fluttering foundation, building almost imperceptibly to an expansive climax. But the slipperiness remains, and the music gradually warps away from this radiant warmth, the cello in particular disrupting the evenness of the texture.
Once the downward slide has begun, the music never regains the same intensity, but it’s hardly a collapse or rout. Instead, it’s a gentle easing off, an ebbing away into quiet repose. The held note from the beginning returns, and seems to draw the disparate strands of the work back into it, like a magnet issuing a call for order. There’s one last whisper of harmony, and then the four instruments come together again, to end the work in the unison with which it began.