Tag: identity

Jessie Montgomery: Reclaiming Creative Play & the Process of Anti-Racism

Jessie Montgomery

[Ed. Note: Although Julia Adolphe’s talk with New Music USA Amplifying Voices composer Jessie Montgomery was recorded eight months ago, in November 2020, it is still an extremely timely conversation which is why we wanted to share it again now on NewMusicBox – FJO]

Composer and Violinist Jessie Montgomery shares how she has shifted her creative process since the pandemic began to cultivate a sense of playful freedom and reconnect with her childhood love of diverse musical styles. We discuss how systemic racism has affected Jessie’s perception of her own musical identity, and her thoughts on her growing role within the classical music community to represent Black women. Jessie offers advice on how to pace oneself while participating in the ongoing process of Anti-Racism work so that we can continue to care for our own health and creative vitality.

What does it mean to be American?

This post was originally written for the Salastina Music Society, ahead of their premiere of Derrick Spiva Jr.’s American Mirror string quartet on October 7, 2017.

The text has been reworked with the assistance of Kim Nguyen Tran for NewMusicBox and reposted with permission, along with a video of the performance. The original post can be found here.

A few months ago, I was getting ready for an international trip. I had lots of preparing to do. For anyone who has traveled internationally, we all know that immunizations can be a huge part of the process, depending on which country you plan to visit. In this case, I am a classical composer who often integrates musical practices from around the world into my work, and I was going to Ghana—an amazing country in West Africa—to continue my studies in traditional Ghanaian music and culture.

Spiva in Ghana

Derrick Spiva Jr. (in grey hat) playing axatse (shaker) with an Ewe music ensemble in Anyako, Ghana, hometown of the Ladzekpo family. July 2017.

One of the most important immunizations required for entry into Ghana was the yellow fever shot. I had received all of my other immunizations, but this one was in short supply globally, so I had to go to one of only two places in Los Angeles that provided it. When I arrived at the clinic, I filled out all of my paperwork and waited to be called in.

The travel clinic was decorated with some lovely paintings and other pieces of art from around the world. How beautiful, I thought. When I was called in to receive my immunization, I couldn’t help but strike up a conversation with the nurse who was administering the shot. While looking at my American passport, she asked me where I was from.

“I was born in Santa Ana, California,” I told her. “But I grew up in the Central Valley and live in Los Angeles now.”

“Oh, wow!” she responded. “I thought you were from Bali or something.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. I asked her how in the world she had gathered that information.

“Well,” she said, “I thought I recognized your accent.”

I thought to myself, I know a few people from Bali who live in Los Angeles, and I absolutely love playing Balinese gamelan with them at UCLA on Tuesday nights!

Spiva after a gamelan performance

Derrick Spiva Jr. (right) and his wife Kim Nguyen Tran (left) with their Balinese gamelan gong kebyar teacher, I Nyoman Wenten (center), after a performance in 2016.

But I don’t have any linguistic roots in Bali. If anything, I would have a slight accent from the American South, seeing as my grandparents grew up in Tennessee and Texas. I’m not sure how I would even fake a Balinese accent while speaking English, without first doing some intensive research and rehearsal. Beyond that: what accent is considered the American accent, anyway? Aren’t there are multiple dialects of English throughout all 50 states? Needless to say, there was some identity confusion taking place.

As an American who is a descendant of slaves, I don’t have a complete picture of exactly who my ancestors are. But I am going to claim who I am, nonetheless. My American identity is shaping up to be the result of the absorption of many different coexisting cultures.

As an American who is a descendant of slaves, I don’t have a complete picture of exactly who my ancestors are. But I am going to claim who I am, nonetheless, as a member of my community, here in America, here in Los Angeles. Like many people living in this sprawling metropolis, my American identity is shaping up to be the result of the absorption of many different coexisting cultures.

I’ve been mistaken as not being an American before, and I know this experience is shared by many others who live in our country. Sometimes it is as simple as a misunderstanding in an immunization clinic. At other times, it can be downright abusive, as it is used as a tactic to separate individuals from a group by using religion, race, sexual orientation, and/or gender to isolate them. It is a scenario that I have seen play out at every level of our society, including debates about the Americanness of a president of the United States. And not just with Barack Obama. John F. Kennedy’s loyalty to the United States was questioned because of his Catholic religion.

Incidents of judging Americanness in the court of public opinion continue to drive me to ask these questions:

What does it mean to be American?
Who am I, as an American?

Because I am a composer within the genre of classical music, I also ask:

What is American classical music?
Does classical music have something meaningful to say in this conversation about being American?

The answers to these questions seem to continuously morph and unfold over time, just as the social experiment that is our country seems to do the same. I decided to write a string quartet (titled American Mirror) that I hoped would shed light on the America that I have experienced.

Of course, after it was done I couldn’t help but also ask:

What have I gotten myself into, trying to tackle these questions in a string quartet !?!?

Despite what its reputation might be, classical music—especially contemporary classical—is amazingly open as a musical form. Classical music is one of the most flexible genres in its ability to accept a wide variety of sounds into its sonic world. Take a look at this list here. It’s incredible that all of these diverse pieces fall within the classical music genre.

Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli – Gloria

Kala Ramnath – Amrit (arr. Reena Esmail)

Penderecki – Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima

Alvin Lucier – I Am Sitting in a Room

Rhys Chatham – A Crimson Grail for 400 electric guitars

Juan Pablo Contreras – Mariachítlan

Classical music has an ability to open itself up to different sounds, instruments, cultures, genres, and perspectives. Despite this openness, sociological, economic, and historical factors have excluded large groups of people from participating fully in classical music. Women and people of color in particular have had difficulty finding a place in the classical music world.

Classical music has an ability to open itself up to different sounds, instruments, cultures, genres, and perspectives. Despite this openness, sociological, economic, and historical factors have excluded large groups of people from participating fully in classical music.

I have struggled to find my place in the classical music world at times, also. I have always been drawn to the porousness of classical music, it’s ability to accept limitless sounds and concepts into its sonic world. But in my classical music education, I did not always see this openness highlighted. I found myself being deeply drawn into other musical traditions that resonated with me in ways just as profound, yet different, from the ways that classical music resonated with me.

Some of the musical traditions that have most influenced my classical compositions are traditional Ghanaian music, Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical music, Eastern European folk music (particularly from Bulgaria), and American folk traditions (gospel, hymns, jazz, bluegrass). In order to engage with these different musical traditions in a meaningful way, I realized early on that I needed to continuously accept the humbling fact that there was so much I did not know.

When hearing live Ghanaian music for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the many layers of polyrhythms and timbres. It felt as if I was riding an avalanche of rhythms thundering with joy. It took months of listening, practicing, and performing for me to even begin to understand the complex structures and relationships between the instruments, vocal songs, and dancing of this tradition.

There is also a sense of welcoming in the music, a feeling that I (or anyone else) could be a part of that avalanche of joy, if we took the time to learn it. In traditional Ghanaian music, it is common for there to be a participatory and communal relationship between performers and audience. You are often expected to be a participant (clapping, singing, dancing), not just a spectator. As my teachers, from the Ladzekpo family, always tell their students: “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.”

I want the classical music community to experience this kind of access to music, where the audience feels that they are part of the music-making process. I also want the classical community to experience the beautiful close harmonies and melodic ornamentations of Bulgarian women’s choir singing; the rhythmic complexities of Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical music; and the profound stories of historical struggle and redemption that are present in the sounds of American folk traditions. My compositions strive to integrate these concepts and aesthetics into a cohesive and expressive musical language, in a classical music setting. I reach for the possibility that people in the audience, no matter what their background, might be able to hear themselves reflected somehow in the music—whether it be a reference to a folk tune from their homeland, a lullaby a parent sung to them as a child, or a rhythm that makes them want to get up and dance.

My string quartet American Mirror is a sonic reflection of my community here in Los Angeles. The music reflects what I see, hear, and live with in my everyday life as an American in this beautiful City of Angels. Melodically, the piece draws from gospel, West African, North African, and Eastern European vocal techniques. Underneath these melodies, American Mirror uses Copland-esque open harmonies not only found in Appalachian folk music, but also many other folk musics from around the world. There is also some audience participation built into the piece in the form of humming a drone (perfect fifth) to support the musicians and keeping tala (Hindustani and Carnatic rhythmic cycles) in the traditional way by clapping and waving.

Finding a way for all of these musical traditions to exist together in a cohesive, integrated way has taken a lot of time and effort, through performing, researching, and trying to locate and understand the points of overlap that exist between the styles. I found that vocal lines, certain rhythmic cycles, and the embodiment of rhythm through movement were particularly important points of connection. It sometimes felt like playing that old video game Tetris, in which shapes have to be layered as efficiently as possible in a given amount of time. The most amazing thing to me is that there are so many wonderful interconnections between what at first seem to be very different musical cultures.

When you understand and empathize with someone (and maybe enjoy their music), it makes it awfully difficult to hate.

Writing American Mirror was very emotional for me at times. A slow section in the middle of Part II was especially difficult. The section begins with solo viola, playing a very vocal melody inspired by the humming of folk tunes, a phenomenon that occurs in many cultures across the globe. Gradually, the other instruments join the humming viola, with their own versions of the humming. When it comes down to it, when everything is taken from us (property, technological gadgets, finances), we still have our own voices. Without anything else, we can tell stories, mourn, express infinite things through just our voice. While I was writing this section, my thoughts were with members of our community who have not been able to feel the sense of belonging that we all yearn for. Many of us know what it is to feel like an outsider in our own communities.

One of the main purposes in writing American Mirror was to represent my identity musically, by weaving together my favorite moments of awesomeness in musical cultures that resonate strongly with me and sharing this with the classical music community. It’s important to understand that each of the individual musical practices that I have brought into the piece are amazing, uplifting, and transformative in their own right, and certainly don’t need my work to shine. But I hope my music can be a doorway for people to learn about musical cultures that they are not yet familiar with.

As I continue to find points of overlap between the musical cultures that I practice, it is becoming clear to me that music has the ability to serve as a model for how we can find points of common ground in our society at large. The shared experience of music can be a profound vehicle through which people come to understand one another, despite different backgrounds and perspectives. When you understand and empathize with someone (and maybe enjoy their music), it makes it awfully difficult to hate.

I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?

As regular readers may have noticed, we’ve had some passionate dialog about music and gender and careers and creativity over the past year. On Friday, composer Alex Temple picked up that thread here to offer “some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.” We asked Alex for permission (which was generously granted) to repost that piece on NewMusicBox and continue the conversation.–MS

In the last few months, there have been a number of highly circulated articles about women and contemporary classical music. There was Amy Beth Kirsten at NewMusicBox, arguing that the term “woman composer” is anachronistic; Kristin Kuster in the New York Times challenging that idea on the grounds that a composer’s success is never “all about the music”; Melissa Dunphy’s post about the need for women to be visible in a world where most composers are “white men of average build with brown hair and glasses”; and Ellen McSweeney, also at NewMusicBox, examining some possible reasons for women’s under-representation in the new music world.

Reading all these articles got me thinking about the role that gender plays in my own musical life. For those unaware, I’m transgender and genderqueer, and while I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as a “woman,” it’s a lot closer to the mark than “man.” So here are some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.

Defining My Terms

Before I get to the “composer” part, let’s talk about the “trans” part. There are about seven million different words that describe the various nuances of gender identity, and sorting them out can be pretty daunting, so I’ll start by explaining the terms I used in the previous paragraph.

When I say I’m “transgender,” I’m talking about two related but distinct ways in which there’s a mismatch between the gender I currently identify with and the gender I grew up inhabiting. The first has to do with my internal sense of what my body is supposed to look like—what the brilliant biologist, activist, and theorist Julia Serano calls “subconscious sex.” For example, I find the presence of hair on my face intensely alienating, as if there were something inexplicably wrong about its being there. (I’m currently in the very slow process of permanently removing it.) And when I see people and think, “I want to look like that,” those people are always female or androgynous—never male.

The second type of mismatch has more to do with social meanings than with physiology, and explaining it requires a bit of a digression. Let me start by saying that I find the way many people talk about gender to be overly reliant on stereotypes. It’s tempting to define the social aspects of gender in terms of particular kinds of clothing, particular tastes and hobbies, and particular ways of talking and moving. But that approach is too simplistic. It can’t account for, say, butch women who nonetheless identify as women. I think it makes more sense to describe gender as a lens through which all those things are given social meaning. If that doesn’t make sense, imagine walking into a bar and seeing a person with a flannel shirt, a buzz cut, a beer, a swagger, and a picture of their pet Rottweiler in their wallet. You don’t know how that person identifies, but interpreting them through a “male” lens produces a different social meaning than interpreting them through a “female” lens. The clothing, tastes, and behavioral affect haven’t changed, but they come across differently, in the same way that the same painting comes across differently if you think of it as being painted in the 20th century rather than if you think of it as being painted in the 16th.

So when I say that I identify as female(ish), I don’t mean that I think of my personality as an inherently or specifically female one; I’m not even sure that means anything. What I mean is that I feel comfortable, embodied, and sane when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “female,” whereas I feel alienated, disembodied, and panicky when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “male.” One produces meanings that make emotional sense, and the other doesn’t.

So why all the qualifiers—“female(ish),” “trans-female spectrum,” and so on? That’s why I describe myself as “genderqueer” as well as “transgender.” The word “genderqueer” means “not identifying solely or consistently as male or female,” and it includes people who identify as both at once, people who identify as one or the other at different times, people who identify as neither, and people who identify as a third gender. In my case, it doesn’t mean that I sometimes or partially think of myself as a guy. Rather, it means that the arbitrariness and constructedness of gender as a set of meanings imposed on human bodies is a part of my gut-level experience of myself and of the world. Or to put it less technically: I often feel like an anthropologist from Neptune sent to Earth to study the ways of humans—but I’d rather be a Neptunian disguised as a human female than a Neptunian disguised as a human male. At times I’ve also listed my gender on forms as “’80s” or “Daria.” These descriptions might sound inconsistent, but they’re all different ways of getting at the same idea: a kind of gender in which unreality is an essential component. Many trans women would be terribly insulted by the suggestion that they are in any sense “not real women,” but my reaction to that would be “yeah, that’s kinda true”—just not for the reason that transphobic people would think it’s true.

Women’s Music?

One of the issues that comes up a lot in discussions of gender and music is the question of whether men and women compose differently (with the implied question for me personally: is my music somehow “female”?) As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Life experience, social conditioning, and biology can all affect a composer’s music, but those things vary enormously among men as a group and among women as a group, and how people react to them artistically is idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Certainly I can think of plenty of pieces that fly in the face of gender stereotypes, and I’m sure you can, too. (First example that comes to mind: the violent, noisy music of Annie Gosfield.)

That said, I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender. In particular, it seems like nearly every composer-performer whose work depends on an intense, profound, almost mystical relationship with the artist’s own body is a woman; and nearly every composer who sees music as a purely abstract, formalist construction, free of emotional, social, psychological, or political meaning, is a man. Given how our society is put together, the existence of those correlations shouldn’t come as a surprise. But I don’t feel any connection with either of those points of view, and my own approach to music, which has to do with cultural history and the fuzzy boundary between humor and horror, doesn’t seem to be a particularly gendered one.

Trans/Genderqueer Music?

While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings. The discourse surrounding music tends to take certain value judgments for granted, although the value judgments vary with the musical style being discussed: complexity is better than simplicity, or emotional expression is better than cerebral formalism, or change is better than repetition, or raw authenticity is better than glitzy artifice, or whatever. But when I look at the world of music, I see an elaborate, sometimes gloriously absurd game, in which all of those rules are arbitrary conventions. Even though, objectively speaking, I’m an insider in the classical music world—I’ve been studying it formally since I was a kid, and I’ve been in academia for ten years—I always wind up feeling like an outsider, no matter what city or scene or university department I’m in. The fact that I’m a composer rather than some other kind of artist feels more like an accident of my personal history than something that was destined to happen. That’s why so much of my work looks at culture “from the outside,” to the extent that that’s possible—whether it’s commenting on mid-century love songs, faux world music, or TV sound logos.

The four songs of Behind the Wallpaper go one step further. In that piece, I tried to convey an outsider’s view not just of music, but of the experience of living in the world. I’ve written before about wanting to address trans issues in my work, and this set of songs is as explicit as I’ve gotten—especially “Unnatural,” which describes seeing people’s clothing and hairstyles as a set of social signifiers and concludes with the line “you make me feel like an unnatural woman,” and “This American Life,” which includes the image of someone in an uncomfortably tight dress being laughed at by a drunk person in a bar. Both songs can be interpreted in other ways—Connie Volk, who premiered the piece, clearly had no trouble relating to “Unnatural” despite not being trans herself, and one listener interpreted “This American Life” as being about a cisgender woman who feels uneasy about what she has to wear to work (the song also mentions a tedious part-time job). That’s fine with me; my hope is that anyone who’s ever felt alienated, for any reason, will be able to relate to the piece on some level. But I also wanted to create something that my fellow trans and/or genderqueer people in particular could listen to and say, “Yeah, I know what that’s like,” or maybe even, “You mean I’m not the only one who’s experienced that?” And it was important to me to make something that fills that role while at the same time being mysterious and subtle and strange, since, frankly, I find most trans art heavy-handed and way too fond of the word “fierce.” (Imogen Binnie’s novel Nevada is pretty fantastic, though. Go read that.)

Performance and Performativity (isn’t that a Jane Austen novel?)

In 2007 and 2008, I wrote a large-scale narrative piece called The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. It was the first thing I’d written for myself as a vocalist (mostly speaking, occasionally singing), and I performed it seven times in and around New York. At the time I thought of myself as a guy, albeit one with gender-bendy tendencies. In the video of me performing the piece at Roulette in 2008, I have a beard, and I deliberately use the low part of my vocal register; I was afraid at the time that my naturally high voice came across as un-adult.

I started describing myself as genderqueer, and began my ludicrously slow and still ongoing transition, right around when I left New York for Chicago in 2009. I didn’t perform Dumonde for a few years after that. The way I talked gradually shifted, along with the way I dressed, the way I carried myself, and the pronouns I preferred (for the record, I’m fine with either “she” or “they”). [Update, 10.22.15: since I wrote this article I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with being referred to using neutral pronouns, so it’s just “she” now.] Last fall I finally revived the piece, as part of a show with Grant Wallace Band at Gallery Cabaret. And when I did, I found that performing it was a totally different experience. Not only did I use a different part of my vocal register—that’s so automatic at this point that I don’t think I could sound the way I did in 2008 even if I wanted to—but the piece’s affect had changed. Dumonde in 2012 is less stentorian than Dumonde in 2008; it has more of a raised eyebrow and smile in it, influenced by Miranda July’s unsettling spoken-word albums from the ’90s (which, appropriately enough, were what got me interested in vocal performance in the first place, along with my old favorite Laurie Anderson). I also feel vastly more comfortable in my own body when I perform than I used to; or, to put it another way, I now feel like I have a body, rather than a thing that carries my mind around. (Despite what I said about composers who have intense relationships with their bodies above, I think this has more to do with coming out and transitioning than with anything female-specific; I know trans men who have described feeling the same way.)

But here’s the strange thing: not only do I feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde now than I did in 2008, but I also feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde than I do in everyday life. And this, once again, has to do with being genderqueer as well as trans. Since I often think of my gender as performative anyway, actually performing on a stage is incredibly freeing. It means I can give myself permission to make use of femme iconography without getting self-conscious and worrying about whether other people will see it as somehow “fake.” (Although of course, fake can be just as good…)

A Bit About Politics

The one thing I haven’t addressed in this post is the political aspect of working as a trans, more-or-less female-identified composer. There are certainly stories I could tell. In the past few years, I’ve started to experience the sexist microagressions that I’d previously only heard about, including uncomfortably intense compliments from older male colleagues, the assumption that I must be a singer, and questions like, “Did you do the electronics yourself?” (something I was never asked once when I presented as male). On the flip side, I’ve had a couple of professional experiences where my gender identity wasn’t taken seriously, including one that looked an awful lot like blatant discrimination. But the truth is, I haven’t been out for long enough to have a clear, big-picture view of this aspect of the social landscape. I don’t even necessarily know how people are perceiving me at any given time, especially given the slowness of my transition, the persistence of old versions of me in other people’s minds, and my androgynous name. So keep an eye out, and maybe I’ll have more to say about the political side of things in a year or two.


Alex Temple
Alex Temple’s music lies somewhere between surrealism and pop art, using iconic musical and textual materials to evoke clusters of associations while distorting and recombining them in order to create new meanings. In addition to collaborating with a variety of performers and ensembles, including Mellissa Hughes, Timothy Andres, the American Composers Orchestra, Fifth House Ensemble, and Spektral Quartet, Alex also does eerie electronic storytelling and plays synths and melodica for other composers. She’s currently living in Chicago, working on a DM at Northwestern University, and writing a podcast-opera about TV production company closing logos and the end of the world.

Invite a Bird Inside

Like David Smooke, I have to say I got a chuckle or three from the Portlandia sketch in which smiling hipsters emblazon everything in arms’ reach with the silhouette of a bird. And like David, the problem of stock compositional “moves” weighs on my mind: What are the consequences of returning to a much-drawn-from personal well of musical ideas (at any level, from concrete material or sounds to formal or experiential shapes)? The joke of the Portlandia bit, of course, is that (spoiler alert) when a real bird enters the store, it causes a panic among the affronted employees and results in much physical comedy. Not only do the chipper shopkeepers lean heavily on a played-out design, treating it as a colorful panacea for consumer fatigue; they also venerate the anthropogenically friendlied likeness of an animal whose sudden appearance in the flesh terrifies them. Thus, the image of the bird is instrumentalized, but the bird itself disrupts the comfortable routines of production.

This is the dialectic of putting a bird on it. Similarly, the drive to return to familiar tropes and contours can be viewed as a tendency with two poles, each with a positive and a negative valence: On the one hand, relying compulsively and uncritically on favorite compositional gestures (or, more accurately, the memory of these gestures) plasters the image of the bird across the surface of a piece in a way that is unfair to the spirit of the original gesture and to whatever imagined immanence we grant the piece at hand…but it lends to a charmless object, an inert or uncharacteristic chunk of music, a profile that constructs the identity of its author. On the other, contending with the real live bird by analyzing and problematizing the gesture (through deconstruction, oversaturation, etc., etc.) can put the brakes on the process of composition and rupture the fabric of the piece…or it can spark a very fruitful and thought-provoking confrontation with one’s aesthetic that could pay long-term creative dividends.

The challenge, it seems to me, is navigating the distinction between the safe, predictable practice of putting a bird on one’s music and the chaotic, possibly destructive practice of introducing a bird into one’s music. I strive for the latter but too often find myself, like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, content with the former.