Over the years, the drumbeat of “the future of Western art music” has been relentless. Will this or that piece be the defining blueprint for the next generation of “classical composers”? It’s a question that has, by now, become mere background noise. As if a composer of any stature would even dream of adopting a New Musical Aesthetic cooked up by somebody else.
The Music of the Future
For my money, the Music of the Future was never more than a marketing ploy. It’s a fad started by Wagner to promote operas in which, even if you could hear the singers, you’d be hard pressed to care what they were screaming about.
In today’s world, when the odds-on favorite for the end of civilization is one of several different types of preventable environmental disasters, I doubt anyone gives a Narn’s backside whether the “Tristan Chord” is tonal or atonal. At least for today, I’d venture to say we’re better off thinking about the Music of Right Now.
Squarely in that category, of music for right now, are the small body of works by Jessie Montgomery. A violinist who apparently now concentrates on composing, it’s not surprising that her first breakout compositions feature strings prominently. Even a cursory listen to “Banner,” for solo string quartet and string ensemble, reveals a composer oriented to living in the moment.
Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and the Joyce Foundation as a response to the 200th anniversary of our revolting national anthem, the work also reveals Montgomery’s sensitive ear for sonority. Not, mind you, the weirdness-for-its-own-sake that has plagued so much Zukunftsmusik.
Instead, her transformation of the anthem’s angular contours might remind you of how Beethoven handled Diabelli’s perky dance tune. Parenthetically, I’ve often thought that we owe the Diabelli Variations to Beethoven’s panicky realization: Some of his signature moves had been appropriated by a nobody!
From offbeat accents to those snarky little three-note turns, Diabelli’s waltz is no less cloned than a black-market, fake-Coach handbag. The composer of “Hammerklavier” was so rattled, it seems to me, that it took 32 astonishingly innovative variations before he could finally relax and say, “Who’s Beethoven now, Biatch?”
But I digress.
An intimate understanding of string sonority
At a simpler level, Montgomery deserves credit for making an unlikely ensemble work very hard for her. To me, on the face of it, composing for string quartet and string orchestra would seem as futile as sketching out a landscape painting in red crayon on a red background. I’d never attempt it.
Naturally, the solution involves an intimate understanding of string sonority. What many composers discover to their chagrin is that writing well for an instrument goes way beyond learning its range and a couple of special effects. You do kind of have to be able to perceive an instrument’s inherent character.
So it is with “Banner” and Montgomery’s other works. Hear them once and you will hear string instruments differently from then on. Again, not necessarily because of some trick maneuver, but because of the way every phrase seems to rest perfectly on each instrument.
Near as I can tell, part of the secret lies in her command of appropriate sound duration, ensemble blending and a fresh, relatively a-metric approach to rhythm, even when her background material appears to be a fragment of folksy pop music. Or is it popsy folk music? I’m out of my depth. In any case, the result is immediate communication without the saccharine overtones that accompany other attempts to bridge music of different cultures.
And yet, the music is so effortlessly “itself,” that it might easily be nothing more or less than the product of a fresh musical ear. Adding to that impression is an appealing humility. The music proceeds with what must be the absolute minimum of self-aggrandizement. There’s none of that “Look at me, I’m composing” self-consciousness that has afflicted so many talented souls in the last 120 years.
What is true of “Banner,” is also true of the more modest “Strum,” and “Source Code,” both for string quartet. Whether out of nostalgia or realism, I appreciate that Montgomery’s strings don’t try to invoke other instruments.
A harp, I’m told is a harp, a guitar a guitar, a cimbalom a cimbalom and a hurdy-gurdy a hurdy-gurdy. None of them are an Arabian oud, any more than they are a violin — and that’s as it should be. Sure, pizzicato or the occasional harmonic. Otherwise add a harp and a flute to your ensemble.
Because what Montgomery illustrates so clearly, is how much there is to say on a violin in its own language.
Of course, none of this would matter if the works didn’t hold together. A graduate of Juilliard and NYU, the composer has absorbed the standardized, Modernist templates that show up these days as reliably as your cousin’s vegetarian spouse at Thanksgiving dinner. To their credit, the templates function and Montgomery fleshes them out effortlessly.
Yet in the composer’s smaller works, this mechanical approach to form is the one deficit in an otherwise fresh sound. Like the film you’ve seen the trailer for too many times, you have no doubt what the outcome will be. And, true to conservatory style, motives develop stepwise, like an Ikea lamp table being snapped together piece by piece.
Ready to reveal the full range of her talent
Am I too harsh? Only in the sense that, based on her impeccable ear, this composer in her late 30s seems ready to break free and reveal the full range of her talent. A change of medium might be in order. Few composers can, like Chopin, develop their art within the scope of one medium. And even he was branching out into Cello music at the end.
But none of these complaints diminish what Montgomery has accomplished and what I believe is on her horizon. Unless, that is, the Future that so many musicians have craved burns up in a cinder of rabid, self-consuming nihilistic determinism. Let’s hope we live to see her flourish.
Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.