Jessie Montgomery’s Strum

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector, Bard Music Festival

Violinist, educator, and composer Jessie Montgomery grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during a time of vibrant artistic experimentation and community activism in which her jazz musician father and theater-artist mother were engaged. Thus were sown the seeds of artistic eclecticism and commitment that have marked her performing, teaching, and composing career.

Although Montgomery was already composing while a high school student, her initial focus was as a classical violist. She studied at The Juilliard School, then at New York University to pursue a graduate degree in composition for film and multimedia, and is now a graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University. Montgomery has received grants and awards from the ASCAP Foundation, Chamber Music America, American Composers Orchestra, the Joyce Foundation, the Sorel Organization, among other organizations, and her music has been programmed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and a long list of other eminent ensembles. As a performer, she was a founding member of PUBLIQuartet and Providence Quartet, and is now in the Catalyst Quartet as well as playing with other groups such as the Silkroad Ensemble and Sphinx Virtuosi.

Strum, the piece we hear today, has evolved through several versions and instrumentations and has its roots in two of Montgomery’s professional associations: the Providence Quartet and the Sphinx Organization. She has been affiliated with the latter, which supports young African American and Latinx string players, for more than two decades. As Montgomery explains:

Strum is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006. It was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012 the piece underwent its final revision with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition. The string orchestra arrangement represents the 2012 final version.

“Originally conceived for the formation of a cello quintet, the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.”