New York-based cellist Amanda Gookin is injecting the often-abstract world of new music with human experiences. In commissioning female-identifying composers to write music for cello, voice, and electronics that reflects on the female experience, Gookin is carving out space for fresh narratives and providing a much needed dose of reality. Her “Forward Music Project,” which “confronts the audience with a visceral experience of music, light, and stories that explore a range of issues facing women today,” appeared in its second installment at National Sawdust on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 featuring five pieces for Gookin that melded her cello, her voice, and an assortment of pre-recorded sounds into one force. One might know Gookin as the cellist of PUBLIQuartet, in which she frequently performs the high wire act of singing and playing an instrument of non-fixed pitch. In Forward Music Project 2.0, she used this talent to full effect.
The night began with Alex Temple’s Tactile, a hypnotizing, ASMR-like exploration of “the erotics of everyday life.” As though reading from a list, Gookin guided the audience through descriptions of bodily sensations and interpersonal moments that, according to Temple, “might or might not be categorized as ‘sex.’” Gookin held our attention with near-imperceptible long tones on the cello and an indulgence in every syllable. Some descriptions, like “the luxurious softness of his fur” were obsessively repeated.
Belly, by Kamala Sankaram, dove deeper into the realm of the vulnerably personal. In this piece, Sankaram unpacks and explores the discomfort in her own skin that she experienced from an early age by excavating the aggressions, both micro- and macro-, that have entered her orbit from youth to adulthood. The result is a vast collage of not-so-easy listening, followed by feelings of empathy. Similar to Tactile, one line of text was repeated, imitating the broken-record sensation of an anxious or injured psyche: “Kind of invisible/Let’s see/Front and back/Nice rack/Belly.” Gookin swarmed around sickly intervals, reminiscent of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV, and lay into crunch tones that exploded into jabs and rebounded into shimmers. Structural references to the three medieval humors of blood (excitement), yellow bile (anger), and black bile (melancholy) gave the piece a visceral feel.
Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s Veiled is a beautiful performance piece that reacts against Iran’s “patriarchal effort to veil and hide women’s presence…the mandatory hijab/veil that is enforced on Iranian women…the law against female singers, who are not allowed to sing solo.” Nourbakhsh’s economy of means translated powerfully across cultural borders, creating a universality that was elegantly followed up by the specificity of what sounded like it may have been Iranian folk singing. Following Veiled, Gookin put down her cello and walked over to stage right to perform her own work, in this skin, where she stood behind two stage hands holding a screen of taut white fabric, pressing against this translucent cloth to illustrate a similar tension to that found in Nourbakhsh’s work.
Paola Prestini’s To Tell a Story for cello and electronics reacts to the Kavanaugh hearings, using text from Susan Sontag’s eponymous 1983 interview on the blurred line between story and fiction. “When we tell a story, we are facing in two directions,” says Sontag. With sound artist Sxip Shirey, Prestini seized this moment by cutting apart the sound file and sampling excerpts of the interview to create a mesmerizing soundscape that turns on Kavanaugh’s grating and manipulative behavior. Gookin’s voice, gently percussive bow, and shivering trills were layered to create a looped texture that hummed along endlessly, like a hamster on a wheel.
Shelley Washington’s Seething showcased Gookin’s deft rhythmic sensibility, combining wild runs with kick drum hits and dissonant jabs. As she burned through the work, sharp “anger” doodles layered on top of one another on the screen behind her. Gookin played with a ferocity that brought to life the “feelings of rage and anger that so many women suppress” on which the piece was based, and with a tireless energy that naturally brought Forward Music Project 2.0 to a triumphant close. Met with a thunder of applause from both the orchestra and the balcony, Gookin’s risk-taking was welcomed by an outpouring of support from a rich musical scene, which was a joy to see.