Meet the Musicians: Amanda Gookin

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My name is Zach Manzi, and in addition to playing bass clarinet with Nu Deco, I sit down and talk with my fellow musicians about their lives––work, play, and everything in between. I have never been part of a group with people who do such varying things as musicians, and I’m thrilled to help you get to know them.

On one of the few sub-zero days in New York, I visited Brooklyn-based cellist Amanda Gookin at her apartment to talk about her life and work as a musician. While defrosting myself with tea and the warmth of Amanda’s perfect lap cat Squishy, we had a long overdue conversation about the adventurous path that led her to a career as an increasingly in-demand cellist and thought leader. Born in Boston and raised in Connecticut, Amanda performs across the country with two major projects that she discusses in this interview, in addition to ensembles including Nu Deco, which she joined in the 2017-18 season.

I was visiting New York for the weekend to represent my clarinet-percussion duo, Conduit, at the 2019 Chamber Music America (CMA) conference. Amanda was performing at the conference with her string quartet, PUBLIQuartet, in a showcase of premier chamber ensembles from all over the country. The group was receiving the CMA 2019 Visionary Award, an honor awarded to one chamber ensemble per year that has “led the field in creative thinking and innovation.” PUBLIQuartet is dedicated to presenting new works for string quartet, encompassing several initiatives that echo the mission of Nu Deco Ensemble—re-imagining older works and creating new ones. In 2013, PUBLIQuartet won the New Music/New Places title at the Concert Artists Guild’s Victor Elmaleh Competition, one of the most competitive chamber music competitions in the country, and had been represented by the Concert Artists Guild since.

In addition to her work as a chamber musician, Amanda started the Forward Music Project in 2016, in which she commissions “new works for solo cello by today’s most forward-thinking composers that encourage social change and empowerment for women and girls.” She discusses the project in the interview, but it’s worth mentioning that the first performance of this initiative took place in residence at National Sawdust, one of New York’s most groundbreaking venues for new music.

For me, Amanda is a major role model for what I hope to accomplish in my career as a musician, so I felt fortunate to spend an hour with her, with Squishy moving from lap to lap, to hear her story.

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Q: Amanda, thanks so much for meeting me after such a busy weekend at CMA. First question—when and how did you start playing cello?

A: I started playing the cello when I was in fourth grade. At my school, you could start playing strings in fourth grade or winds in fifth grade. Of course, I wanted to play the flute or the clarinet, what I thought girls were supposed to play! But my mom told me, no you’re starting lessons right away, so you’re playing a string instrument. I picked the cello mostly because the violin and viola looked very uncomfortable to play, and the bass was just inconceivable at that time. I really loved it, and I had an aptitude for it, and so my mom found a teacher for me and I studied with her until I went off to college.

Q: Were your parents musicians at all?

A: My mom was a great singer and she actually played clarinet growing up, but she was not encouraged to go into music. Her family would say, “that’s a nice hobby you have,” but she went to college for communications and never pursued it. I think she always wanted to—she was always the most supportive of me going into music out of anybody in my family. She understood how special it was.

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Q: After leaving for college, has New York always been your home?

A: I graduated with my bachelor’s from the Mannes School of Music in 2005, and I was unsure exactly what I wanted to do and felt very lost. So when I graduated, my parents asked me what I wanted as a graduation gift. At that time, my sister was in school in Bologna, Italy, so my parents got me a round trip ticket to Europe and I was supposed to be there for three weeks. I visited her in Italy, then a friend in Barcelona. I felt like a totally different person, like I found the meaning of life. So I extended my plane ticket until the very end of the summer and was traveling all around Italy and Spain—I stayed for three months. I actually got a job at an ESL summer camp at what would be equivalent to a YMCA for Italian kids. I just happened upon the job...well, my sister actually made a poster for me that said “English conversation with native speaker” and put it up in town—it’s a common thing to do for some extra cash. She also wrote “cute American girl” or something, I have no idea why, and people were texting her like “are you really cute?” The woman who runs this summer camp found the poster and called, and that’s how I got the job. I stayed in Torino for two weeks with a host family, and they made me the most amazing meals—fresh tarts every morning with fig jam made from figs in their backyard. After living through all of that, I thought, I don’t think I really want to stay in New York and just start freelancing right now. So I came back to the U.S. for my dog, my cello, and my suitcase, and I moved to Barcelona. And I just figured it out. I taught English and played gigs here and there, and I totally made enough to survive.

Q: So why did you decide to move back?

A: When I came back from Spain, it was originally because I was interested in getting a masters degree, and in Spain there was no equivalent to that. I started to look into the audition process, but after some time research decided I didn’t want to do it. Instead, I got back and started working part time at a dog boutique called Doggy Style. Yes, I would answer the phone like, “Hello, Doggy Style, how can I help you?” My boss was super chill, and a lot of really famous people would come into the store with their dogs. While I was working there, I started to get into holistic animal nutrition and care. Growing up, if I didn’t become a musician, I was going to be a veterinarian, so I felt like, maybe it’s possible to be a musician and a vet at the same time (*shakes her head* foreshadowing...it’s not!). After my job at Doggy Style, I got a job as a vet tech in the Lower East Side. I had zero experience, but my boss hired me because I was a musician. He was an amateur jazz trumpet player and said “musicians are very reliable; you’ll learn on the job.” I would wear scrubs and sneakers during the day, then go to gigs at night, and started to think about if I actually wanted to be a vet. But then I got more and more music opportunities, like writing and performing music for plays, and if you’re working in theater, three weeks out of your life disappear at a time. Even this small thing showed me it wasn’t possible to do everything. After two and a half years I gave up working as a vet tech and went fully into music. In 2009, I moved onto a day job co-managing a musician’s union and in 2010 I started PUBLIQuartet. That started to take off and became a big part of my life. I had other jobs too, like working as the coordinator of volunteer recruitment for a crisis hotline after I left the union, which was my last job until I went fully freelance.

Q: What prompted you to start PUBLIQuartet?

A: Originally a friend of mine, horn player Deryck Clarke, and I were trying to launch a residency at Harlem School for the Arts. I wanted to have a quartet-in-residence as part of it—working with composers and having kids write for chamber ensembles. Right at that time, the school went through some funding issues and so the project became infeasible. I met Nick (viola) and Curtis (violin) at a gig, and subsequently we read quartets together for fun, so I asked them if they would be interested in starting a quartet. Then Jessie Montgomery, one of the founding violinists, and I had heard of each other for years through a mutual friend in college, but had never met. One day, we were randomly substitute teaching together at a middle school on the Lower East Side. We were both like, “You’re that person I’ve heard about forever!” I’d never heard her play a note but knew she was a great violinist, so that day I asked her if she was interested in starting the quartet with us. So we all met at a Starbucks in January of 2010, and that was it. We started out playing pretty traditional repertoire, but after a year or so, we were at the Banff Centre in Canada and began to mess around with improvisation. We started re-working traditional repertoire because we found that we really enjoyed it—the four of us were pretty non-traditional in general, all with interests in composition or alternative music or improvisation. We ended up finding a way that the four of us could express ourselves. Two and a half years in, Jannina (violin) joined, and at that time we were still trying to have our feet in the traditional and non-traditional arenas because of a fear that we wouldn’t get booked if we didn’t have Beethoven on our program! And then, it was just watering down our mission. It’s very rare that a group is good at every single type of music, and I think it’s important to specialize. So, we let all of the traditional rep go and focused on contemporary music and improvisation. That was about four years ago and everything has improved since—the mission makes more sense to people.

Q: Where did the Forward Music Project originate?

A: In 2014, I went back to grad school, many years after undergrad. I was a fully-fledged adult! I was going up to SUNY-Purchase and had long drives, so I had a lot of time to think and reflect. Because I was back in school and focusing more on cello repertoire, I realized I didn’t want to solely play in a quartet. I wanted to explore other facets. I was listening to a lot of NPR, and I had done a lot of this other kinds of work—the crisis hotline, the union, and the vet. And I felt like so many parts of my life were about helping people or public service, but I didn’t really feel like there was a connection between my music work and real life, outside of music education. And of course I understood that women were severely underrepresented in programming, so I wanted to be able to continue helping raise awareness of —using music as a platform because that’s my life, the thing that’s closest to me. I asked seven women to write pieces for me based on personal stories of theirs or an issue they wanted to highlight. Some of them wrote pieces about things that don’t affect them personally, like child marriage, and then others wrote pieces that were very personal—a range of topics from their heritage to issues like sexual assault. It was an opportunity for me to understand other women and an opportunity for them to express their stories in a way that’s healing. This season I am premiering five new works as part of my artist residency at National Sawdust.

Q: How did you get involved with Nu Deco, and why do you make the effort with your busy schedule to come down?

A: My introduction to Nu Deco was an intimate one because the first concert I did was with Nucleus at the Sagamore during Art Basel. We were performing at the 2017 Sagamore Brunch, and everybody had to dress in white, on a super rainy muddy day! I also played at Barry University with the full Nu Deco Ensemble. I think it was the best way to enter because I could form solid friendships—that’s the first time I met other wonderful people in the string section like Chauncey (viola) and Michelle (violin). I made a lot of nice friends because I was able to hang out with a small group of people for the whole week. I have quite a few friends from New York that also come down and it’s like a big party! The second time I came down was to record the album last summer, and then I jumped on for this season as much as I can be there. I love getting to travel, getting to play other places, and meet new musicians. I do not encourage people to stay in New York forever, or if they do settle their roots here, they should really try to travel and perform with other people as much as they can. I was really excited because Nu Deco is a great opportunity in a really fun city—the first time I went down was December, so I was like Miami? I’ll be there! And the ensemble is so amazing and innovative - why wouldn’t I make the effort to play with them? It makes total sense and I’m thrilled to be a member of this musical family.

Q: You’re clearly really passionate about change. If you look at the big picture, what is your ideal vision for the future of your career and the classical music field as a whole?

A: I would just love for musicians to play the music they are really passionate about and not have to worry about anything else. I know there are other cities around the world, like Miami, where audiences are more open to hearing new sounds just for the sake of it or taking a chance on “risky” concerts. It would be great for us musicians to be able to create without fear. Also, I would love for the definition of classical and contemporary music to change. Programming-wise, I want to see a lot more equitability—we talk about it a lot in this field, but the changes are very slow. For example, we need to look back in history and perform more works from earlier decades and centuries by women and people of color, as well as continue to support the work of living composers. Identity is also important to me, like what working as a classical musician looks like, what a typical conservatory student is and how they’re accepted into schools. A friend of mine faced pretty traumatic judgments in a conservatory they went to and actually ended up leaving. They wrote music on the queer experience and felt very threatened because people there were aggressive and defensive toward that mission—“it’s too political.” I would love for all of that to continue to move toward a better future and allow more opportunities for all people. In terms of my career, I have a pretty clear vision. Essentially, I want to continue to perform, I want Forward Music Project to grow (that’s my biggest passion), and am interested in continuing my role as an administrator, where I can have an impact on the field to direct initiatives that contribute to all of this change we’ve been talking about.

Amanda will return to play with Nu Deco on April 18 at the Arsht Center. In the meantime, follow her on Facebook and her website to keep up with her busy performance schedule.

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