Photos by Ryan Scherb
Photos by Ryan Scherb

PUBLIQuartet’s Amanda Gookin Shares Her Thoughts On Equality In Classical Music

Sponsored by Washington Performing Arts, PUBLIQuartet from New York City is bringing their one-of-a-kind string improv style to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Saturday, Feb. 24. Their newest program, Freedom & Faith, features arrangements by Jessie Montgomery, Meredith Monk and Jihyun Kim, as well as the world premiere of “Get Into The Now” by Jessica Meyer and co-commissioned by Washington Performing Arts.

On Tap spoke with cellist Amanda Gookin about female representation in classical music, the importance of music education and PUBLIQuartet’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016.

On Tap: Can you tell me a little bit about what your audience can expect from the performance in DC?
Amanda Gookin:
Our program is called Freedom & Faith and we are exploring the idea of creativity, inspiration and artistic freedom. The program features compositions all by women and many of them are living. We called it Freedom & Faith because I’m interested in exploring the freedom of women artists especially in composition because they are still sorely underrepresented in classical programming and the idea, not necessarily of religious faith, but more of a confidence in oneself and the faith that an artist has in them to create.

OT: Since your program is very focused on uplifting female composers, I would love to hear your experience as a female professional musician and what you think the industry can do to work towards equal representation.
AG: Essentially, I think it’s always just to ask yourself the tough questions if you’re a performing musician or you’re running a conservatory and accepting students. What are your demographics? Who am I empowering? Who am I encouraging to write, create and perform music? It seems like it shouldn’t be that difficult, but I guess because major orchestras and presenters are still programming music by primarily white males, and many of them are long gone. There’s a lot of work to be done. In classical music, people may be afraid of stepping outside of what we call “the greats” or “the masters,” which in and of itself is a pretty oppressive term because the gender associated with the term “master” is usually male dominated. There are not a lot of people that we call “masters” or “greats” in the canon that are women. In fact, I really can’t think of any.

OT: Do the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have anything to do with creating an all-female composers program?
AG: #MeToo came about well after we had created this program. The program is layered; there’s the curiosity of understanding the female experience of these composers in addition to understanding where art comes from in general. My favorite quote is the Nina Simone quote, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” I do think it is our duty to do what we can to help the community grow and create a better future. If there are women in the #MeToo movement who have struggled, I hope that programs like this can offer a sense of comfort and solidarity, but at the end of the day, it’s about everybody coming together and celebrating the art and the music of these women and lifting each other up for a brighter future.

OT: When did you start playing cello? When did you realize you wanted to become a professional musician?
AG: I started playing cello when I was nine in public school, and around age 10 I started taking private lessons. It was the first thing that I really latched on to, so as I continued taking private lessons, I really had a great relationship with my private teacher and she was very encouraging. Probably when I was in middle school to early high school I decided that music was going to be my path and all activities after that were focused on music performance.

Photo by Ryan Scherb

OT: Support for the arts in public schools is becoming a little bit of an issue with arts programs being cut across the country. Why is it important for music or other forms of creative expression to be available for students?
AG: Just on the baseline, there has been quite a bit of research on the benefits of music education. It is proven that music education is imperative for a child’s development. As somebody who has studied music and also teaches, there are so many facets that it’s not just learning how to have fun and play some notes. You learn really good listening skills, how to play with other people and respect. On a mentally developmental level it’s really important, but it’s important on a social level as well because you have to learn how to communicate through another language and it can really bring people together in a way that many other areas of study can’t.

OT: With your background of teaching music in New York public schools and leading courses in career development and artistic programming, how do you help PUBLIQuartet bring music education to kids and people in general?
AG: We do a lot of education and outreach. Primarily, we bring improvisation workshops to these schools where students have the opportunity to create music on the spot. When students first learn, they’re so on the page and especially with string musicians in classical music, there’s a real fear of improvisation because there’s this oppressive need to play everything correctly. We try to encourage kids to see that they can be musical beyond the page, and they all have the ability to create and compose. With our audiences, we’re really focused on educating them on the importance of supporting living composers.

OT: Speaking of improv, I watched PUBLIQuartet’s performance hosted by The Late Show during the last presidential debate. What was that like? Did you get to meet Stephen Colbert?
AG: That was a definite highlight, it’s one for the books. It was really nerve racking because there were over a million viewers tuning in and there was a lot of pressure around the final debate. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen, everything is on the spot. We were on our toes the entire 90 minutes, and it just flew by. And yeah, we did get to meet him. A total dream come true.

OT: You said part of your mission is to bring improvisation to the classical quartet world, so what are the other parts of PUBLIQuartet’s mission?
AG: Honestly, I think any arts organization’s mission is always evolving because people change, times are changing and I think it’s important to always keep your thumb on the pulse of society and how music evolves as time goes on. But the quartet’s mission in general is to support the work of living composers, to expand the traditional model of the string quartet and to create pathways for younger musicians that are up and coming. We are always evolving in terms of what music we’re programming. Connecting with composers and audiences on a deep, humanistic level is always really important to us.

OT: How would you describe PUBLIQuartet’s sound and style?
AG: We do have a strong base of traditional quartet training, but we try not to think about our instrument as a box. Playing viola, violin and cello, there are limits, but we try to figure out how to overcome those limitations. So if we’re trying to emulate an electronic sound or something that you could only create with a computer, we have to figure out a technique to get it as close as possible. A lot of times, those techniques are far away from how we’ve been traditionally trained. We’re really into percussion, so we add rhythm a lot. Nick, our violist, is really good at chopping, which is this technique where you scratch the bow really close to the bridge. We really like to make the sound of what a record stop would be, or a record moving backwards. All in all, we come at it from a sound perspective. We have a sound that we want to achieve and we just have to figure out how to surmount our instruments.

Check out PUBLIQuartet’s performance on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue: 600 I St. NW, DC; (202) 408-3100; www.sixthandi.org

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Amanda Weisbrod

Amanda is currently a senior at Ohio University, and will graduate with a bachelor's degree in journalism, news and information in December 2018. She has written for multiple professional publications including Cincinnati Magazine, CityBeat and Athens Messenger. Amanda loves to play the saxophone, watch cult classic movies, and hang out with her handsome cat, Darko.