Forward Music Project 1.0 Creates Space for Diverse Identities and Artistic Expression

George Lewis leads his recent New York Times article-cum-playlist with some wise words from Muhal Richard Abrams: “We know that there are different types of Black life, and therefore we know that there are different kinds of Black music. Because Black music comes forth from Black life.” A parallel version of this observation undergirds Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project (FMP), a commissioning effort that “elevate[s] stories of feminine empowerment” through multimedia works for solo cello. Gookin has highlighted the creativity of over a dozen composers through three iterations of this project, and acts as steward to the stories each artist shares through their work. She’s now recorded the first installment of her commissions on Forward Music Project 1.0, released on the Bright Shiny Things label July 10, 2020.

Despite the freedom of method, the works on this first installment are stylistically similar. Each piece dwells within a comfortable tonal language and tends toward effusive lyricism or repetitive grooves. There’s a fairly traditional sense of programmatic narrative to the works, which matches perfectly Gookin’s call for pieces “about [the composer’s] own story or a political issue that affects women and girls.” The most impactful pieces, however, are those that generate an experiential nuance beyond their compositional language and provide space for deep engagement as a listener.

Amanda Gookin

Cellist Amanda Gookin (photo by Ryan Scherb)

Standing out for its deft navigation of overt storytelling and musical complexity is the third track: Angélica Negrón’s Las Desaparecidas. The title, translated as “the disappeared,” tells the story of abducted and trafficked young girls, particularly those from Juárez, Mexico. Flickering electronic textures seem to capture the individual and collective voices of the girls, swelling in and out of existence as a chorus surrounding the other sampled sounds. Gookin’s cello swerves through the tape, broadening the soundscape with a keen attention to shaping every moment of interaction. After moving through iterating pulses and hazy clouds of interference, the piece snaps together for a stunning, isolated, pounding close of percussive cello hits and relentless samples, swarming the listener with sounds of the disappeared.

This leveraging of multiple sonic layers is a common feature on the album. Amanda Feery’s Stray Sods achieves a similar degree of reflective space, balancing gently pulsating ambiences with a meandering cello line which weaves a somber reflection on the lack of abortion access in Ireland. In the same way Negrón’s work references without being explicit, Feery’s piece captures the transient invisibility of Irish women who had to travel to the UK for the procedure until abortion was legalized in their country in 2018.

More explicit are the references in Nathalie Joachim’s Dam Mwen Yo and Morgan KraussMemories Lie Dormant. Joachim pays tribute to the Haitian women in her life by blending recordings of herself and family members with an expressive cello line—neither the recordings nor the cello ever overtake the other, always blending cohesively. On the other hand, Krauss demands listener attention in Memories Lie Dormant with visceral textures which do not distinguish between the abrasive cello part and the labored, purposeful exhalations of Gookin. This reflection on surviving sexual assault is as demonstrative as it is unrelenting.

Nathalie Joachim--Photo by Josue Azor

Nathalie Joachim–Photo by Josue Azor

Gookin herself shines throughout the record, demonstrating the curatorial care with which she treats each commission. Allison Loggins-Hull’s Stolen reflects on the plight of underage girls sold into marriage in a melodic, three-movement sonatine; Gookin crafts each phrase with deep connection to the emotional weight of the narrative. Similarly, Leila Adu-Gilmore’s For Edna is marked by Gookin’s delicate singing. These moments serve as a kind of prayerful intonation on the capacity of women to love in the midst of adversity and violence, as the cello moves between intensely lyrical bursts and microtonal drones, with quick flurries of shadowy harmonics skittering in between. Gookin’s technique is on particular display in the final piece, Swerve by Jessica Meyer, a piece encapsulating the “conscious effort to get everything… in balance with all the feelings and responsibilities that are unique to women.” Here, the cello flies through frenetic, grooving looped sequences tied together with committed precision in a clear musical representation of the programmatic inspiration.

The power of Gookin’s project lies in its bringing together of diverse female composers to tell the stories of their individual identities. In that way, Gookin is staking a claim for those composers to exist as themselves, with all the influences and experiences that shape them as artists and individuals. This particular set of pieces undeniably tends toward a stylistic homogeneity by chance of grouping—that said, the nature of the project suggests that commissioning diverse identities and providing space for those identities begets a diversity of artistic expression. As the new music scene deals with its demons of white-supremacist patriarchy, Forward Music Project is exactly the kind of effort that can guide our community toward sincere personal connection by centering the earnest interests of female-identifying composers.