5 Questions to Amanda Gookin (cellist)

Cellist Amanda Gookin has traveled a long and winding road in developing her career as a musician and social activist. Her Forward Music Project, which uses music to encourage social change and empowerment for women and girls, will premiere seven new works by women composers at National Sawdust on March 1, 2017.

How did your Forward Music Project get started?

It sprung from an intense desire to use the cello as a platform to speak up and speak out against oppression. Two years ago, I was on a long car ride listening to public radio and heard an inspiring speech by (Seattle City Council rep) Kshama Sawant, arguing the need to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Not only was I listening to an important message, I was hearing the beauty, power, and strength in a woman’s voice. A lifelong feminist, I was overcome with the feeling that my musical career was drifting away from connecting with  society on a humanistic level. It brought to mind an inspiring fundraising campaign I had recently seen for Art and Abolition, a program that provides art therapy and safe housing for girls who are victims of sexual violence in Kenya. These are just two examples of women around the world who devote their lives everyday for the betterment of those who suffer. Inspired, moved, and empowered, it was on this day that the seed for the Forward Music Project was planted. 

Forward Music Project promo featuring cellist Amanda Gookin performing composer Jessica Meyer’s Swerve (video by S. Katy Tucker)

What will you be presenting at the National Sawdust concert?

The stars aligned for the premiere of the Forward Music Project, which will kick off the Spring Revolution Festival at National Sawdust on March 1, the first day of National Women’s month. The festival is centered around “two female attributes: empowerment and discourse.” My concert will feature seven new commissions for solo cello + electronics by Angélica Negrón, Morgan Krauss, Nathalie Joachim, Jessica Meyer, Allison Loggins-Hull, Leila Adu, and Amanda Feery, with voice recordings by the composers and projection design by S. Katy Tucker. At the start of the project, I had a very personal request for the women involved, to write a piece about their own story or a political issue that affects women and girls. They each wrote extremely powerful compositions inspired by issues ranging from sexual violence and child sex trafficking to reproductive rights and empowerment. These compositions are extremely visceral and require me to sing, chant, breathe, hiss, use a loop pedal, and play percussion with my feet. 100% of my artist proceeds will be donated to organizations doing inspiring work for women and girls locally and abroad: Planned Parenthood (USA), Art and Abolition (Kenya), Girls Inc. of NYC (USA), Black Women’s Blueprint (USA), and Basmeh & Zeitooneh (serving Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon). Following the concert, Paola Prestini will lead a Town Hall discussion with Elizabeth Cafferty of UN Women and me…I’m pinching myself!

How has your rather circuitous life path led to where you are today?

I have held many different types of jobs outside of music — as a veterinary technician, union manager, English teacher abroad, and coordinator of volunteer recruitment for a crisis hotline. All of these experiences fed the person I am today, without which I would not have gained the skills needed to problem solve, coordinate large groups of people, multi-task, listen, think outside the box, and have faith in myself. I have a personal motto: JUMP FIRST. SWIM LATER. I only gain the courage to accomplish my dreams by pushing myself into the deep end before I am ready. In addition to always seeking that “what’s next,” the last two years have been the most challenging years of my life. My mother and my stepfather passed away unexpectedly and my profound sense of loss was coupled with a feeling of being completely untethered. This floating feeling hurt, but it was also freeing. I felt a new sense of empowerment, that most of what I thought mattered did not, and that I owed it to myself, and those who made me who I am, to know and speak my truth.

Cellist Amanda Gookin performing composer Morgan Krauss’ memories lie dormant at Mt. Tremper Arts

Where does your work with PUBLIQuartet fit in the picture?

PUBLIQuartet is one of my greatest accomplishments. The four of us have been together for seven years now and we continue to grow, inspire and learn from each other every day. Each of us brings a unique voice to our ensemble which helped build our collective voice that thrives on improvisation, group composition, and new music performance. In 2011 we developed our program, MIND|THE|GAP, which takes music of disparate genres and smashes them together through group composition and improvisation such as, Thelonious Monk with Stravinsky and Charlie Parker with Debussy. This year, we created a raucous rendition of Dvorak’s “American” Quartet, feeding off of the American influences of jazz, African American spirituals, and rock-and-roll. In 2014, we launched PUBLIQ Access, a program very close to my heart, which highlights the work of emerging composers living within the U.S., regardless of genre and style. Since the program’s inception, PQA has received over 300 submissions and gained 12 new compositions. We perform at least one PQA composition on every concert, from a low-key house concert to Carnegie Hall, in an effort to spread their voices throughout the world. This year, PQA commissioned three composers who are on the forefront of creating new sounds for string quartet: Jessica Meyer, Steven Snowden, and Xian Wang. This summer PQ and the composers will go on a retreat together to collaborate on the writing process, and the three World Premiere performances will occur in the 2017/18 season.

You recently asked: “Why can’t classical musicians be outwardly political, too?” What’s your take?

I have become increasingly frustrated at this feeling that classical musicians should not push identity politics, that you never know who you may offend. It is a hard balance to maintain — respecting the entire community that supports your concerts while unabashedly sharing your truth. Today’s political climate is nothing new. I am horrified, but I am not surprised. To me, a reaction of surprise comes out of privilege, and these post-election days are bringing America’s demons front and center where they can no longer be ignored. There is no denying that I am a privileged citizen. It is my hope that being an ally, actively listening, speaking out for the marginalized in our country, and sharing my truth will challenge and encourage others, classical musicians included, to get charged up to do the same.  


Wednesday, March 1, 2017: Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project opens the Spring Revolution Festival at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, New York.

Friday, March 3: PUBLIQuartet — Modern Voices Then and Now, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.