Amanda Gookin is a cellist, a founding member of the acclaimed music group PUBLIQuartet, and, since 2015, the founder of the Forward Music Project, which commissions new multimedia works for solo cello by forward-thinking composers who encourage social change and feminine empowerment.
According to Gookin, The Forward Music Project “confronts the audience with a visceral experience of music, light, and stories that explore a range of issues, from the LGBTQ+ to reproductive rights, sexual violence, and body shaming.” These works are performed through the lens of solo cello, electronics, projection art by S. Katy Tucker, and audio interludes from the composers. In performance, Gookin sings, chants, fights, and breathes life into these new works.
We spoke to Gookin and her collaborators S. Katy Tucker (projections) and Allison Loggins-Hull (composer) about the Forward Music Project prior to their DC appearance at Dupont Underground as part of the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current Festival.
Nicole: What inspired you to found the Forward Music Project?
One day, in the fall of 2015, while listening to public radio, I heard a recording of a speech by Seattle City Council member and social activist, Kshama Sawant. It became clear to me that I have not heard the voices of women on the podium, or on the concert stage, enough. Kshama inspired me. She had guts and was creating change. I dreamt of a project that would allow me to share stories of femininity through music. What better way to spark a meditation on identity politics than in the safety of the cocooned concert experience.
This is my first solo project, all while diving deep into the realm of activism and social justice. I sought out critical feedback from a variety of people in and outside of the music industry. I wanted to better understand how to serve my own and surrounding communities. When I approached the composers to write for me, we first had a conversation about their lives and the project’s mission. Then, I invited them to join me in this larger conversation through music. My artistic collaborator and visual artist, S. Katy Tucker designs beautiful projection art for each Forward Music Project work, creating an immersive experience for the audience.
What are your goals in advocating for diverse voices in classical music?
Amanda: To create new works for cello by a variety of composers and engage audiences in thoughtful conversations around gender and overcoming the oppressively white representation in classical music, from the programming to the administration.
What is your collaboration process like with Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker? In chicken and egg terms: What comes first? The music? The projections?
S. Katy Tucker: Creating the video for Forward Music Project is a very collaborative effort with Amanda, but it only fully begins once the music has been written. In the early stages, Amanda and I discuss what sort of visual world the piece should live in – we spend a lot of time looking at artists/photographers we both are drawn to, particularly those dealing with issues surrounding women. Fortunately, we have similar tastes and this has become a unified visual driving force for us. Once the music is written, Amanda will make a rough recording of the pieces for me – and I spend many hours listening to each piece. It’s not just the music that is written, but really what Amanda brings to the pieces through her playing that helps me figure out the visual world. Occasionally, if a piece is really personal to a composer – we will bring them into the process – but what is so gratifying about my collaborations with Amanda is the freedom she gives me to just create. And when the inevitable artist’s block happens, she helps me parse through the ideas until we really tease out the visual essence of the work. At the end of the day, people come to the show for the music – so as a visual artist it is my goal to help elevate it and not overpower it.
What do you hope the future holds for classical music?
Amanda: That we continue to move furiously toward equitable programming and increase support of living composers.
You and the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current Festival share the goal of sharing classical music beyond traditional concert halls. Is this indicative of a larger national trend in this direction?
Amanda: Yes, I do see more and more concerts moving in this direction. Producing concerts in alternative venues provides a new experiential context for audiences. There are practical issues for this as well. These issues include such obstacles as high venue rental fees, ticket prices, strict union laws around electronic music and multimedia needs, no flexibility in staging or audience placement, and a narrow audience reach. If you want to widen your audience reach, you need to present concerts in a variety of spaces throughout your city.
What are some things that can be done to make music and the arts more egalitarian so women and girls have opportunities for leadership roles?
Amanda and Katy: Provide a safe space for girls, trans kids, and young POC. Program and provide opportunities for women, trans people, and POC. Listen.
You frequently speak about activism through music. Very briefly, how can music be a form of activism and political good?
Amanda: Creating a safe space for composers and audience members is very important to me. Because of the nature of this project, many of the composers share their personal stories, possibly putting themselves in a vulnerable position. It is a privilege for me to share their stories and I feel this honest dialogue creates mutual respect between composer, performer, and listener.
A project like this can evoke an infinite amount of feelings from the audience, depending on the listener’s entry point as they come into the concert space. In my concerts, I invite audience members to listen and explore their thoughts and feelings on a deeper level. I hope they leave the performance with an individualized experience – whether they enter as a skeptic and leave with curiosity, enter as a victim and find an ally, or enter as an ally and continue their activism with newfound hope.
Tell us about one of the compositions we will hear you perform at Dupont Underground. How did you approach this composition, how did you decide what elements other than cello to incorporate and what does it represent to you?
Allison Loggins-Hull (“Stolen” Composer): “Stolen” is a Sonatine of 3 short movements exploring the journey of a young girl who is sold into marriage. The first movement represents her stolen youth and the lamentation of saying goodbye to childhood. She is reflective of playtime, family memories, and former dreams. While she is remembering pleasantries, she is also recognizing they are things of the past. The second movement explores the anxiety and sense of urgency felt about being forced into womanhood. She is full of complex feelings ranging from fear, unpreparedness, resentment, and sadness. She also knows she has to bravely and quickly become an adult and sooner than later, a young parent. The third movement is her reluctant acceptance of and submission to an undesired life. She has assumed her new role but is deeply yearning for the childhood she barely had and to have ownership of herself. Despite this, she must tend to her adult responsibilities as a matter of life or death.
Today, one-third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15.
Katy: “Stolen” was a particularly challenging piece to create visuals for. It explores the journey of a young girl that is sold into marriage. Visually and musically the piece is structured similarly. The visuals begin with a projected fairytale – the kind of fantasy and innocence children should be able to experience – even if everyone’s fantasy is different. The second part, which musically is more aggressive, is about the robbing of that innocence – where girls are forced to grow up by being put into these situations against their will. I did a lot of research on this topic – while trying to figure how to effectively visually tell the story (particularly because the culture is not my own), and came across a video on youtube that had subtitled translations of an 11-year-old girl from Yemen, Nada Al-Ahdal. The projected text is her words describing how she ran away from her family, who were trying to marry her off. Meanwhile, as I project the English translations of her words, the storybook fantasy is being overtaken by swirls of aggressive red and black – literally overtaking and washing away the storybook fantasy. In the final movement, the cello slows down again – there is a feeling of hollowness and emptiness. Nada’s last few words are projected and the image starts to close in, ending with a final burst of light trying to spill out of the overtaking black void.
Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project played as a part of the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current Festival on March 29, 2019, at Dupont Underground – 19 Dupont Circle, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information on Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project, go online.