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Photo: Ryan Scherb

Amanda Gookin Discusses Forward Music Project

Classical music is not generally associated with political activism, but that’s what Amanda Gookin hopes to change with her Forward Music Project at the Dupont Underground. The project presented by National Sawdust Projects is a part of Kennedy Center’s ongoing DIRECT CURRENT programming celebrating contemporary music. Removing the stuffy connotations of classical music, Forward Music Project seeks to make the genre more accessible and use it as a force for good. Commissioning works from all-female composers, Gookin incorporates music, storytelling, chanting, staging effects and projection art to create a stimulating and immersive experience.

On Tap: Can you tell me about the Forward Music Project and how it came to be?
Amanda Gookin: At the end 2015, I started to incubate the idea of commissioning work by women for solo cello. Women are very sorely underrepresented in classical and contemporary programs, and I just wanted to do my part in helping to contribute [a] new repertoire that could get out there and be performed more often. I also started to ask myself the question of involving identity politics in music and why we don’t use classical music as a platform more often to speak out about human issues, social justice and political issues. I always felt that in music programing, we were conservative and not really taking those kinds of risks. So, as somebody who is very dedicated to social justice and women’s issues and gender issues, and those who might not fall into the binary, I wanted to give a platform for women to not only write music, but also to use it as an opportunity to share their personal story or to highlight an issue they thought was important to them.

OT: What can people expect to see at your performance at the Dupont Underground?
AG: At the Dupont Underground, I will be performing the first iteration of Forward Music Project. It’s a commission project that is ongoing. In the first year, I commissioned seven works and along with that is projection art created by Katy Tucker, who is my collaborator. I will be performing those seven pieces that were in the original show that premiered at National Sawdust in March 2017.

OT: Forward Music Project aims to use classical music as a means of political activism. What kinds of issues do you focus on on?
AG: I think the project is really centered around issues of women and girls, although it is expanding to those who engage with femininity. I would say the pieces, in one form or another, tackle issues of women or girls. Some of the women wrote stories that are very personal to them about their family heritage or being assaulted. Others shared stories that they did not relate to directly, but felt were very important to bring to the table such as sex trafficking and child marriage.

OT: In your TEDx Talk, you mentioned a lack of diversity and a sense of elitism that is present in classical music. Do you think that is changing?
AG: It’s slowly changing. I think the rate at which things are charging is very slow for where we would want to be at this point. A very low percentage of American orchestras are comprised of black and latino musicians. If we consider conductors, an even smaller percentage are people of color or women. So, it is still true that there is a very low representation of diversity in our orchestras. In my TEDx Talk, I was referring to your typical classical music audience. When you conjure an image like that, to me, I conjure an image that is primarily white and privileged. If you go to a great hall, the tickets in the front row are extremely expensive, and just by shear cost, it already signifies that only a certain type of person can sit in these rows.

OT: Your style is far from traditional. You chant, play cello, and incorporate digital elements into your performance. How did discover your unique approach?
AG: I think that was an organic process. I’d always been interested in the avante garde, and I’d always been interested in pushing boundaries. I grew up in a pretty conservative environment, and I was always considered the subversive one, even though I was wearing pearls, khaki and such. There was something edgy that needed to come out. As I started my professional career, I was lost in terms of what I wanted to do. I got into the Mannes School of Music, which is a really great conservatory in New York City. When you graduate from a conservatory, you feel like you have three tracks: you can be an orchestral musician, a teacher or a soloist. I felt like I was destined to do something really different and so I started to experiment a little bit. I saw an ad that was looking for a female violinist or a string player to compose and perform music for an all-female Romeo and Juliet production. So I responded to the ad and met with the director and they hired me. I had to figure out how to write music and how to improvise. That led to writing music for even more plays, and I just kept going. I had to create modern sounds and I was getting experimental with objects to create sounds and other percussion instruments so it wasn’t just me with the cello. I had a tambourine at my foot, a symbol next to me, I had bells, I had bottles that I would scrape.

OT: Have you ever received backlash from classical music purists about your style?
AG: Oh yeah, for sure. I really haven’t received any backlash about my style per se because there’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of contemporary music. I’ve seen some performances that are even way beyond what I’m doing. I think from a musical standpoint I haven’t received much backlash. I have mostly received backlash about content. Some people have pushed back against classical music or any sort of performance music art classical instrument being political – that we should just perform music for music’s sake, which I think is beautiful too. I don’t always perform music that is heavy handed in social justice, but when I’m very outspoken about it, that’s when some people start to get uncomfortable.

OT: What do you want your audience to take away from this project?
AG: Well, everyone is different and I feel like this conjures a wide range of emotional responses. It depends on how the person is entering into the performance. If it’s somebody who identifies with some of the content of the pieces, I hope that it’s a hand that reaches out and says, “I hear you and I’m here for you. You’re heard and understood. This is a safe space.” If it’s somebody who is super into feminist ideology, I hope they would feel even more empowered to go forward and do more good work. For somebody who may be skeptical, I would hope that they would at least have an open mind and hear the music and maybe begin to think about things they hadn’t considered before. I feel a lot of my project is about planting seeds. While I do receive a lot of great feedback in the moment, I do hope that it has a longer-lasting effect on the listeners.

Check out Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project at Dupont Underground on March 29 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available here. Learn more about Forward Music Project here.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Cir NW, DC; 202-846-1474; www.dupontunderground.org

Photo: Sergei Narinsky

Roman Rabinovich Returns to the Kennedy Center

“Musicians are like gypsies, always on the road,” concert pianist Roman Rabinovich writes me. As we chat, he’s on his way to Germany to play a recital of composer Joseph Haydn‘s music. This Saturday, he’s going to play at the Kennedy Center. His upcoming program will also include Haydn, as well as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frédéric Chopin and an original composition.

Rabinovich was born in Uzbekistan but grew up in Israel and later studied at Julliard. Lately he’s become known for his “Haydn Marathon” performances, but he has also referred to legendary concert pianist Sir András Schiff as his “musical guru.” He is also an accomplished visual artist who often illustrates his own programs.

Rabinovich has played the Kennedy Center before, but at the time he played the Millennium Stage for the free concert series. Presented by Washington Performing Arts, he returns to the Kennedy Center, this time to play the Terrace Theater. It’s obvious the 24-year old is ascending and in our correspondence I ask him about what the life of a concert pianist is like, his other work as an artist and how he balances his life as a concert pianist with composition.

“It’s not an easy life,” he says, “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

On Tap: I know from talking with other classical musicians that you spend a lot of time flying, so how do you pass the time? Gianandrea Noseda of the NSO told me he likes to read his scores, but I understand that you sketch. Do you find yourself sketching or reading scores more while you fly?
Roman Rabinovich: I usually get a lot of work done on the plane. I either compose, or draw or read. Sometimes it is important to just sleep, especially if I have to play shortly after I land.

OT: How do you balance all the travel time with your practice schedule? which I understand to be rigorous for pianists.
RR: I have to be disciplined about devoting a few hours every day to practicing no matter what. I always ask to block four to six hours before concerts so I get to know the piano and the acoustics of the hall as much as I can. I also do a lot of mental practicing without the piano.

OT: What does a typical practice day look like?
RR: Usually the first thing I do after I wake up in the morning is go to the piano and improvise for a few minutes, to let the creative juices out. After that, I practice my repertoire for a few hours. Pianists usually have to prepare a lot of repertoire so one has to compartmentalize: two hours for recital for this week, one hour for concerto for next week, another two hours for chamber music for next month and new repertoire for next year. Then it is important to get outside and take a walk at some point before the sunset.

OT: How do you balance practice with composing?
RR: I always compose in my head – when I walk or wait in line at the airport; it never stops. Sometimes it can be quite annoying, because I don’t have any control over it, and it just keeps going. Sometimes it’s difficult to fall asleep. Writing it down is the final step.

OT: Who are composers you would situate in the same sonic-space as your own compositions?
RR: I’m not sure I can answer this question objectively. I can tell you who my musical heroes are: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Rachmaninov, Bartok, Ligeti, Kurtag, Keith Jarrett, Zakir Hussain and Radiohead. The musical material, however, has to come from the heart, essentially from the subconscious.

OT: Tell me about your piece “Memory Box.”
RR: “Memory Box” is a suite of six contrasting miniatures. I wanted to explore the world of dreams and fantasies. The seed for the piece was a series of paintings I did with the same title. The inspirations for the movements span from Stefan Zweig to ancient ruins.

OT: Tell me about the Kennedy Center concert program otherwise. What are you most looking forward to playing and why?
RR: Choosing a recital program is one of the the most thrilling and challenging tasks. It is like a visit card. One can get a sense of who the artist is before they play anything, just by looking at the choice of their program. For my Kennedy Center debut I chose pieces I particularly love. I’m starting the program with a rarely played sonata by Haydn, a composer who I adore, and whose music I’ve been extensively exploring in the last two years. I’ll continue with my piece “Memory Box,” followed by my favorite Rachmaninoff piece, “Variations on a Theme by Corelli.” It is a late piece that Rachmaninov wrote after he left Russia and one feels a tremendous sense of nostalgia and longing in it. It is extremely tender and bitter and full of beauty. I will conclude the program with Chopin’s Four Ballades in the second half.

OT: How does your drawing figure into your day? How do you balance it with everything else?
RR: I’ve always loved drawing. Ever since I was a little kid I could spend many hours with a notebook and a markers, completely consumed by shapes and colors. I felt that I was creating my own emotional world, which I was in control of. I was always fascinated by the physicality of paints, canvases and brushes. And by the fact that it was permanent, as opposed to music which is so transient. You play a note, and it’s gone.

OT: Who are some inspirations for your art?
RR: Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Titian, Hogarth, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, Hockney, Richter, Kiefer.

OT: Do you sell your art? Where do you hope it will go?
RR: I’ve sold some paintings over the years. I’d like to find a synthesis between visual art and music. In trying to achieve this I recently made a short animation, (together with Adam McRae), about my imaginary encounters with Joseph Haydn which features one of his sonatas.

OT: What else do you have coming up? Are you preparing to add some new pieces to your repertoire? Are you working on any new compositions?
RR: I’m about to play the complete Haydn Sonatas at the Bath Festival in the UK in May. It will be 45 sonatas in 10 concerts over a two-week period. Besides this I’m constantly working on new repertoire. Piano repertoire is immense and I have broad interests, so it keeps me busy. For next season I’m preparing Schubert’s C minor Sonata, Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata,” Bach’s Partitas and Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety,” among other pieces. As to my own music, I’m currently writing a violin sonata.

For more on Rabinovich check out his website or his YouTube channel. The concert is Saturday, March 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $45. For tickets visit www.washingtonperformingarts.org

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org