PUBLIQuartet is not a typical string quartet. Violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel, and cellist Amanda Gookin make up this unique ensemble dedicated to improvising, mashing up genres, and amplifying the voices of musicians and composers who don’t get as much mainstream attention.
“We were all playing a fairly horrible, disorganized opera gig deep in Long Island, and met each other backstage, commiserating in all the reasons this was not what we wanted,” Stewart says of PUBLIQuartet. Since that unfortunate gig, PUBLIQuartet has found themselves performing in much more auspicious venues, including a season-long residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the 2016/17 season, and an upcoming residency at the trendy National Sawdust in Brooklyn for 2018/19. Anyone who hasn’t blocked out the 2016 election may remember PUBLIQuartet from Late Night with Stephen Colbert, where they were invited to do a live improvisation alongside the second presidential debate.
Curtis Stewart answers some more questions about PUBLIQuartet’s ethos, their upcoming free concert at the National Gallery of Art this Sunday, and what happened when they first decided to mash up Debussy and Charlie Parker.
How does PUBLIQuartet see itself? What is the group’s mission distilled into a few words?
PQ sees ourselves as an improvising new music ensemble. We tap into the “long lost” tradition of improvising in classical music and aim to shine light on emerging, underrepresented voices in classical music. We all felt a need from classical music, something we wanted more of: to see more people like us and to find a visceral, immediate joy from using the power and precision of classical training to explore the unknown in extemporaneous moments.
You have a lot of projects and initiatives running concurrently, and the members of the quartet have solo projects on the side. How do you balance everything?
It’s tough! But it all seems to support itself. We get better at playing Ligeti when we improvise on the jagged rhythms of Thelonious Monk. We get better at hearing and playing over the changes of new jazz composers when we dig into the polytonality of John Corigliano. We each bring a strong background in classical, hip-hop, jazz, rock, electronics and experimental music, which enrich our voices and style of playing as a quartet. This is all iterated in our project “MIND THE GAP” which finds deeper connections in seemingly disparate genres of music. It is all a process, and sometimes we conflict, but we aim to work with trust in the goals of the group and with compromise and compassion when initially unsolvable-seeming things happen.
What do you all have coming up that you’re excited about?
We’re super excited about our studio recording “Freedom and Faith!” We just signed to a record label, got an amazing amount of financial and emotional support from our friends and fans and the general classical community, and finished recording in August. It’s tentatively slated for release in early spring 2019.
PQ does a lot of improvisation which isn’t necessarily a focus of traditional conservatory educations; when did you all realize that you wanted to take a less traditional path?
Jannina and I both have parents that are jazz/work/experimental improvisers that have traveled the world and been celebrated in America for their work. So that world feels like home. Nick has been a composer/improviser/electronics programmer for quite some time and Amanda was doing a lot of work in NYC early on, improvising and composing for cello and electronics in theater.
I remember when we did our first mashup of Charlie Parker and Claude Debussy, people seemed surprisingly excited about a concept we initially felt a little worried about presenting; were we “breaking the rules” too much? It was fun, scary and demanding for us to create and perform this music that could potentially be offensive to so many listeners’ close relationships with pieces of music they know and love. We take great care to tap into both the spirit and the musical intricacies of each piece we improvise around.
It is a special experience standing on stage with your close musical colleagues and not knowing exactly what will happen next, but trusting in each other’s artistry and our shared time to find something beautiful or exciting in that tense intersection of time between the four of us.
Can you describe the planned program for the October 28 concert in D.C.?
The program is a reaction to the work of English sculptor Rachel Whiteread, who explores the negative space of sculpture and activism in her work GHOST. We chose the music of female composers of the Renaissance, created for our Freedom and Faith program: women whose only mode of being heard was to defer to the rhetoric of “faith” and a talent bestowed from God, and not their perceived “lesser” female form, and male inability to acknowledge that natural strength. Luckily these voices still permeate our classical lens.
We are also playing a composition we wrote as a group called “OWN” that mixes Civil Rights songs from the suffragettes to work songs of prisoners on the railroad. This is paired with improvisations on the convergence of American folk, Native American folk, and African American work songs that inspired Dvorak’s “American Quartet.” Finally, we’re playing Andy Akiho’s eerie and visceral “LIgNEouS” suite for quartet and marimba, which essentially treats the quartet like a giant percussion instrument. All sorts of slaps and pops and chops and other techniques will highlight what our instruments can do outside of a traditional European classical sound.
We are very excited to be in Washington this weekend. We would love to chat with anyone who ends up coming. We are so interested in how these potentially new sounds are perceived and how they make various listeners feel.
PUBLIQuartet, with guest percussionist Ian Rosenbaum, performs Sunday, October 28, 2018 at 3:30pm at the National Gallery of Art in the West Garden Court. Free admission.