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Can classical music really be inclusive? Composer Jessie Montgomery thinks so

Jessie Montgomery's new work <em>Hymn for Everyone</em> receives its world premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on April 28.
Jiyang Chen
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Courtesy of the artist
Jessie Montgomery's new work Hymn for Everyone receives its world premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on April 28.

Jessie Montgomery is having a moment. Several moments at once, actually.

In the past several years, the 40-year-old composer and violinist has rapidly become a poster child for the shifting classical music canon — an artist who aims to overcome an institutional dependence on old dead white men by leveling the field for women and composers of color. In the upcoming concert season, her works will be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she is currently the Mead Composer-in-Residence, appointed by Music Director Riccardo Muti.

On April 28, Muti leads the CSO in the world premiere of Montgomery's Hymn for Everyone, one of three new pieces she's writing for the orchestra during her tenure in Chicago.

Growing up with artistic parents in New York, Montgomery began writing little piano trios when she was around 11. She took lessons and continued composing throughout high school, and in her late teens began an association with the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based institution dedicated to supporting young Black and Latinx musicians. In 2008, while teaching at a summer music camp in Rhode Island, Montgomery realized life as a composer could be "a thing." A colleague walked in on her in the middle of composing and told her she had a "spark" in her eye for writing music.

Montgomery is in an exceptional position, not only as a composer whose works are suddenly skyrocketing in demand, but one who feels the responsibility to help lead as her field faces sharper questions of diversity and inclusion. While the brighter spotlight comes with pressure, she relishes the opportunity to help reframe American music and the institutions that present it.

From her apartment in New York City, Montgomery sat down for a video chat to talk about the canon and where classical music might be heading, as well as the role her own work plays in that journey.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Tom Huizenga, NPR Music: The New York Times published a profile of you in the fall of 2021. The headline was: "The Changing American Canon Sounds Like Jessie Montgomery." That sounds like a lot to live up to, frankly.

Jessie Montgomery: Yes, it sure does. I didn't write it! [Laughs] With something like that you just say, I'm so grateful for the recognition and for what it means for other composers coming down the pike. It is a hard thing to live up to, so to speak, but I wouldn't dare try. It's interesting because it kind of reframes — and strengthens — the idea that American classical music actually matters and is actually of interest to a greater audience. That's really special, and I'm really honored to participate in that legacy and that history.

But do you actually feel a change in the air in the past couple of years? Is the canon really shifting toward more women composers and composers of color?

We'll have to see. According to programs around the country, it does seem to be changing. It does seem that orchestras, chamber groups and opera companies are embracing composers that they wouldn't traditionally embrace: myself, and composers like Carlos Simon whose work has been programmed a ton. Shawn Okpebholo, another great colleague of mine in Chicago, he's getting a lot of play right now.

With any new kind of programming and endeavor, you take a leap of faith that the audiences are going to be into it. I find audiences show up because they want to experience live music, live theater, something that sparks their imagination and soothes their pain. That's how it functions, really, at the end of the day. There's so much weight on this word "canon" — something that's absolute and fixed. I think that's why I have a little bit of a reaction to that "changing canon" remark because it's evolving and I don't know if it will be fixed or not. But I think this moment is really great. It's exciting to see more different kinds of music being embraced and presented.

I think one of your pieces was performed over 100 times in 2021 alone?

Yes, that was Starburst — 114 times.

But let's hope this isn't just a moment. What will it take to make this shift last?

It's a commitment from organizations to partner with composers. And to decide, "Every year we will do Beethoven [Symphony] Seven, and we'll also do a Simon or a Montgomery or a [Caroline] Shaw." And those relationships are built carefully. I have some friends who are conductors and I am slowly building relationships with these larger organizations.

That's another thing about our industry; it is really about relationships and how we agree on what makes sense for programming. I see a lot of organizations, orchestras in particular, working with curatorial roles for composers to design programs. That's a really interesting way of setting some of the values and wishes for programming down the line.

You're the composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through the 2024 season, and part of your job is to program the Music Now contemporary music concerts. While the orchestra has had a solid track record of inviting women to be composers-in-residence, it hasn't always been so good at programming music by women. In the 2018-2019 season, the CSO presented music by 54 different composers, none of which were women. Same for the Philadelphia Orchestra that season. I can imagine you might see this as a problem.

I certainly did. At the CSO, I can speak to some of the work that Missy Mazzoli did while she was there — she was the previous composer-in-residence. She shared that fact with me, and it became her mission, as part of her curatorial role, to have way more women composers on her Music Now concerts. And that became a vehicle for the CSO to actually look at that number and get to know more women composers, bringing more women composers into the fold so that they can actually become more aware of who's out there and how to program these works and shift the scale.

The upcoming season at the CSO offers music by 53 different composers and six are women. It's getting marginally better. What kinds of things are getting in the way of a more level playing field for women composers in our high-profile symphony orchestras?

Programming is hard. It takes work to think through these things and to do the research to find the composers and music that you think will work for your audiences. A lot of it is trying to make sure the audience feels okay, and not surprising them with too much new stuff. There's a lot of that feeling within the presenting world, where they're sort of afraid to offend anyone with anything out of the ordinary.

It's quite possible that what presenters are afraid to offer is any brand-new music.

I think that's a big issue, actually. They know that programming 54 white male composers works, so why reinvent the wheel? And it's the same with Black composers and other minority composers. It's the field of classical music itself, and its history. It's shown its face, pretty overtly, and we're trying to adapt to a new world. It's exciting to be a part of it at this point.

Even organizations like the Sphinx Organization — that I've been a part of since 1999, and they've been a tremendous supporter of my career — that is committed to diversity in classical music, just this year had their first program of all Black and Latinx composers. There was always this need or belief that we had to have a "real" classical piece on there by an old traditional composer in order to legitimize the program. And I don't know whether that comes from the presenters' side, which I can easily imagine, or if it was a true desire within the institution. And so those are the difficult things that you realize, that the actual institution of classical music itself has had such a stronghold on how people perceive what is legit and what's worthy of being performed.

Photographed at Wabash and Jackson streets in downtown Chicago, Jessie Montgomery is the Meade Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through the 2023-24 season. The CSO plays the world premiere of Montgomery's <em>Hymn for Everyone</em> on April 28.
© Todd Rosenberg Photography / Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Photographed at Wabash and Jackson streets in downtown Chicago, Jessie Montgomery is the Meade Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through the 2023-24 season. The CSO plays the world premiere of Montgomery's Hymn for Everyone on April 28.

And now you're in this curatorial role with the CSO. I'm wondering if you're putting pressure on yourself, or have pressure from others, about what to program. That's got to be tricky, right?

Yes, I certainly have to consider some of the values that came before me — like, for example, Missy Mazzoli wanting to make sure that there's enough female representation. So I want to help carry that torch. I also want there to be more people of color performing, and their music being performed. And then I also have my own general music tastes that have nothing to do with any of those things. So I'm trying to find a happy balance — program a concert that I would want to go to. It's not easy to come up with a program that fits all the boxes. But luckily I have three seasons in which I hope to balance the scale as much as I can.

Are you still teaching? What are you telling your students about the so-called "canon?"

I find that students are really interested in this discussion and in programming pieces that are not traditionally part of the canon. I feel like they're seeking it out. And composers too, writing from a more personal place, like wanting to write about their experience as a Black person, for example, or their experience with trauma or things of that nature. They're very much connected to wanting to explore and feel like they're doing something new — something different from the previous generation. Whereas when I was growing up, I had zero thoughts like that. Zero. I was like, "I've got to practice my Wieniawski and I've got to practice my Brahms." I didn't know of any Black composers until I joined Sphinx, and I was 17 or 18 years old.

There's a much broader curiosity from the younger generation, for sure. There's great representation out there now for people to get to know and start incorporating these pieces, hopefully, into their repertoire. I have students coming up to me saying they're practicing my piece with their teacher. And it's such a good feeling to know that it's being taught. It makes me feel old.

I'm standing on the shoulders of, in particular, all the Black composers in America who didn't really get to have the kind of attention that I'm receiving right now. I'm very aware of that.

Because now you're the shoulders they can stand on. It comes full circle. Speaking of full circle, I'm wondering if you think at all about lineage, whose shoulders you feel like you're standing on at this point?

Lineage and legacy is all very important to me. And I'm standing on the shoulders of, in particular, all the Black composers in America who didn't really get to have the kind of attention that I'm receiving right now. I'm very aware of that. I'm very aware of how different this is in comparison to the experiences of a lot of Black composers in the early 20th century. I feel a responsibility, but also a joy. I feel excited about the opportunity and I hope that this moment becomes more of a model for how we move forward and who we celebrate and how we celebrate music in general.

I'm wondering if you feel like you are following in any tradition — an American tradition perhaps? I'm thinking of your music: of Coincident Dances, where the orchestra is a kind of DJ, playing multicultural sounds of New York, or Banner, which is a terrific stew of national anthems.

The fact that America is a multicultural society itself plays into the sort of multifaceted influences that go into American music. American composers have been doing this for centuries. I certainly follow in that tradition in many ways, but then a lot of my works will also follow a pretty rigid classical form. For example, the piece I just completed, called Rounds, for piano — that's a rondo. There are these formal classical traditional models that I also play around with. So it's really the combination of those influences where I'm finding a little sweet spot in my work.

In the Times piece you mentioned going for a sound that is "a culmination, like the smashing together of different styles and influences. I don't know that I've achieved that yet." When I read that, I wondered if you could still be searching for your composer's voice? And if so, how do you do that?

I think you just keep trying over and over. I am aware that I do feel like there's a particular sound that my music has now at this point, that there are modes in which I feel comfortable writing. I'm starting to notice certain patterns that come back from one piece to the next and that there's actually a consistency there.

For example, a piece like Coincident Dances is very much like, OK, here's the samba-ish section and here's the techno-ish section, here's the waltz section. And they are sort of stacked on top of each other and obvious in their own identities. But then I think what I'm really looking for is: What does the assemblage of all of those things sound like if you distill it down to one simple musical impulse or gesture? And that might be an impossible task, but that's, you know, that's the search.

I guess it's a sort of philosophical approach too. I believe there's a universality to music. People are drawn to music in ways that they might not even be drawn to the culture that the music stands for. And that's problematic. But still, there's something about music itself that brings people together, and I feel like it would be interesting to find a way for the music itself to also represent the commonality of multiple styles or influences.

Do you want to give away any secrets of how you write your music? A lot of times, especially at this point in your career, it all starts with a commission, right? But then where do you go for inspiration?

I had some great advice by [composer] Gabriela Lena Frank early on, where she said keep a scrapbook of all of your ideas and keep it like a treasure chest. And whenever a commission comes up, go into your treasure chest and pick out something that you think might work, and go from there.

Musical ideas, and ideas for gesture, come kind of randomly sometimes — even in the midst of writing another piece. I realize there's a section that I don't want to use in that piece anymore, but I'm going to save it and use it for something else. They're like little quilt patches, and so at this stage I have a fair amount of those patches to work with.

For inspiration, I go to museums. I get really excited by visual stimulus and so I like to go to the movies. I get inspired by just going to concerts and seeing the work that's being put in and the amount of layers and the work that goes into each performance.

Keeping a scrapbook is refreshingly old-fashioned. And it reminds me of the inspiration for this latest orchestral piece that you've written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra called Hymn for Everyone. You've mentioned that it came while you were out on a hike, which sounds so 19th century romantic, so like Beethoven out in the woods.

It was during the pandemic, so there was a lot of walking in the woods, trying to clear the mind. I have a friend who's a writer and they described the poem always coming in one gesture. It's the manifestation of an intuitive kind of realization, like an epiphany. And that's how this piece came, and it's the only time that's ever really happened.

I was also very influenced by all of the discussions and reactions to the George Floyd murder. There were a lot of groups who had put on performances of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and I had that song sort of resonating. When you hear Hymn for Everyone, the very first few gestures have a similarity to "Lift Every Voice and Sing." So I wonder if I was being inspired by that moment as well. There was a sense of catharsis, actually when I finished writing this tune, because it was surprising to me that it came out. I did feel a kind of evolution somehow from before I wrote it to actually having written it down. And it was a tool for my own reflection on what was going on.

Sounds like it's a piece that's trying to pull people together in a time when there are so many things getting in the way to divide us.

Exactly. And so I'll share that my mother passed away, sadly. She was a writer, and as we were going through her papers, I found that she had written a short prose style poem called "Poem for Everyone." And that was the moment, actually, when I decided to go back to the Hymn and turn it into an orchestra piece. Because I thought, yes, she taught me about how to think about the world, but it was sweet that I had, on my own, written this this hymn. Her poem was more political in nature and also kind of funny — poking fun at certain political mishaps and incongruous things that have been going on.

Thank you for sharing that. If it were me, I would tend to think of it as mom reaching out. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Thank you. I appreciate that.

Music by composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery will be heard at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and and the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras in the upcoming concert season.
Jiyang Chen / Courtesy of the artist
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Courtesy of the artist
Music by composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery will be heard at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and and the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras in the upcoming concert season.

Do you feel like you're taking your music down any new paths? Or could your music be taking you somewhere?

This is a hard question because I feel like right now I've found something that I feel comfortable with in terms of my approach to writing — how I write, when I actually sit down to write, the process of actually doing it, how much time I write and what times in the day. That's all starting to balance in a new way. But stylistically, I always talk about this one composer who I'm super inspired by — her name's Anna Meredith.

The English composer and performer?

Yes, she is super great. There's something about her, just her big-energy dynamism, that is so inspiring to me. And I feel like that's a thing that I need to sort of unlock with my writing.

You listen to other people's music and you say, "What's so attractive about that?" And I use my piece Coincident Dances as an example because there is a kind of restraint. Even though it's exploring different styles, I think the restraint part is what I want to start to break open a little bit. I don't know what that sounds like yet, but that's something I want to start to explore.

I'm thinking of one of your teachers, whose music to me is always so refreshingly bold, and that is Joan Tower.

I knew you were going to say Joan. Yes, 100%. She remains a total inspiration in that way. Also, not being afraid. We were talking about this idea of classical music having this strong hold on people's psyche, about how they're even thinking about not wanting to challenge the norm. There is something about that, that exists in my music, that I'm trying to, as I said, unlock or fight against.

Because, especially as a Black person, you sit down to write and you think, oh, these rhythms are going to be too, air quotes, "jazzy" — which is not even accurate — or too hyper-rhythmic. Or, maybe I shouldn't put these bends in — it's going to sound too Black or something. And that is unfortunately something that I have struggled with in my own thinking about my own music. I've had these conversations with close friends of mine, and it's a personal, hard thing to face, and realize I've been holding myself back because somehow there's an aspect of my identity that I'm afraid to let fully form in this context. Whereas in any other context, it's not an issue, you know, walking around my whole life as me.

Thanks for articulating that. That's kind of deep.

I think it's not uncommon, in conversation with other Black composers in particular. That thought does cross the mind some at some point.

Maybe, when you have time, you need to experiment in your music with just letting it rip, and see what happens.

Exactly. And I think that's where I'm at now, where I'm like, "OK, I can do this. I have the headspace to do it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.