"Music is my connection to the world," says violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery, and her oeuvre bears witness to the visceral truth of that claim. Her music, marked by a deeply personal compositional language that combines her classical training with vernacular and improvisatory styles, impresses for its narrative power—a quality for which the composer credits her family's storytelling tradition. Montgomery's mother is an actor and playwright who has created numerous theater pieces rooted in her family history, "So I've been witness to that all of my life," she says. "That ethos has found its way into my music." Montgomery's tone poem Records from a Vanishing City (2016), composed for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, recounts her childhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side during an artistically vibrant time. More broadly probing her African-American heritage is Five Slave Songs (2018), commissioned for soprano Julia Bullock by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sergeant McCauley similarly draws from Montgomery's personal history. Scored for wind quintet and string quartet, the work is inspired by the Great Migration, the movement of more than six million African-Americans over the early and mid-twentieth century from the rural south to urban centers across the United States. The work specifically tracks the journey of Montgomery's great-grandfather, the Sergeant McCauley after whom the work is titled: a buffalo soldier who migrated northward before ultimately returning south to Mississippi. Montgomery's reconstruction of his journey is based as much on research (military records documenting his travels, etc.) as on family lore, nurtured in conversation with her mother and aunt.
Like a sound map of Sergeant McCauley's travels, Montgomery's score makes use of African-American spirituals and work songs that would have been heard in the locales he likely passed. Sergeant McCauley's five movements allude to these songs, each representing a stop along the way. The first movement is based on "Just Now," a Methodist hymn thought to have originated in the northern seaboard slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina), which McCauley, a Virginian Methodist, may have known from his youth. The flute dreamily issues the tune over a quiet, whispered texture in the strings, before the full ensemble gradually joins in.
The second movement, "Makina," depicts McCauley's time in the military, working on the construction of the country's young railroad system and the building of the Panama Canal. Unpitched air noises and key clicks in the wind instruments and percussive effects on the strings conjure a bustling construction scene.
Following a reprise of the opening hymn tune, the fourth movement features "My Father, How Long?", a slave song whose words—"My father, how long, poor sinner suffer here? And it won't be long, poor sinner suffer here"—at once express a yearning for spiritual salvation and for freedom from the oppression of slavery.
The work's final movement, "Lay Dis Body Down," cites a funeral song said to originate from the region surrounding South Carolina, and represents Sergeant McCauley's final resting place. Montgomery sets the song as a slow, meditative procession.
Sergeant McCauley was commissioned for Imani Winds and the Catalyst Quartet by Music Accord and the Sphinx Organization.
—© 2019 Patrick Castillo