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Meet American composer Jessie Montgomery

Composer Jessie Montgomery against a red background, wearing a dark blouse and a necklace

We spoke to Jessie Montgomery ahead of our performance of her work, Strum, about her process as a composer, the importance of art in the community and much more.

Read full programme notes here.

“… art is vital to community and can even sustain it. I’m always finding more ways to transmit those values through my work…” Jessie Montgomery

Strum combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music. What are the challenges of composing a cross-cultural work that straddles different traditions?

When I wrote Strum I was not thinking about cross-cultural mixing at all deliberately. I think as my work has developed, I’ve become increasingly aware of where my influences come from and I’ve become more conscious of how to apply them. As with any piece, I’m focusing on colour and alignment – what is the common denominator in the music I am influenced by? And I think about where the melodies and rhythms blend into each other in ways that are not immediate – sometimes the result is collage-like, and sometimes the lines are even more blurred.

Composer Jessie Montgomery smiling and holding a violin

Strum was originally composed for a smaller ensemble, and later adapted for a string orchestra. How do the two versions compare?

The string quartet version and the string orchestra version are identical musically, but the orchestral version features moments in which the quartet plays alone, in honour of the smaller ensemble version. The original version of the piece (which is not usually played) actually has a completely different ending and was written for cello quintet.

“Having access and exposure to a mix of cultures and artistry set up a feeling that anything is possible, and that there is a kind of harmony among the chaos.”

What is it like to listen to a programme that includes your own compositions? Are you ever surprised by the approach to your score?

I get really nervous during premieres. Usually if I’ve had a chance to rehearse the piece with players ahead of time it can ease that anxiety, but I still get excited and nervous, as if I’m performing myself! The music doesn’t usually sound different than I expect, except if there are performance errors or, usually in the case of larger-scale works for orchestra, sometimes certain orchestration choices may surprise me a tiny bit, but that means I need to edit!

Art, culture and politics are about an almost obsessive devotion to examination. When I think about the artists whose work I love and respect, most are evaluating the patterns and practices of themselves and the world around them. Their commitment is fierce and unforgiving. I’m just following their example.

You started composing very young, inspired by your violin teachers who encouraged improvisation. Can you describe your process as a composer?

Improvising has a lot to do with how I compose and think about ensemble playing. My process varies: when I do need to get ideas out quickly, I do a fair amount of playing on the violin to find which figures I want to use. But I also think in fragments, putting a motive or a colour idea down and then doing the harder work of composing and drawing out that original idea. Improvising is playful and composing is ‘work’, for me. Both are necessary to the integrity of the piece.

You grew up in New Yorks Lower East Side, at a time when it was known for its vibrant artistic scene and socially engaged culture. How does that atmosphere make its way into your music?

Having access and exposure to a mix of cultures and artistry set up a feeling that anything is possible, and that there is a kind of harmony among the chaos. The moments when the community would gather together made me realise how interconnected we all were, and how we relied on one another to keep the vibrancy of the people and the art alive. The biggest lesson was that art is vital to community and can even sustain it. I’m always finding more ways to transmit those values through my work.

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