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Resonance: Amanda Cook and the Art of Conversation (December 2020)

Amanda Cook has been the Editor-in-Chief of I CARE IF YOU LISTEN since 2017 and is excited about expanding the possibilities for conversations about contemporary classical music. She began working at ICIYL in 2013 and has made it her professional home, a platform which continues to evolve as she creates empowering spaces for contemporary musicians and their audiences. Beginning in September 2020, ICIYL officially joined American Composers Forum, which allows both organizations to leverage their strengths and build on the joint initiatives they developed over the last year. Through this partnerships, ICIYL has access to resources to “center racial equity in everything we do,” says Cook.

Before joining ICIYL, Cook was a dedicated classical flutist and had been following a path of performance and scholarship in traditional academia. When she first encountered contemporary classical music, it was electrifying. “It happened by accident. When I was doing my Master’s degree, I had one of those assistantships where you had to play in every single ensemble that the school offered. One of those ensembles was the new music ensemble. I had played a couple of contemporary works as an undergrad, but this was my first exposure to more than just new band pieces, or the occasional flute work written by a flutist or something in that vein. And it was terrifying and beautiful and exciting all at the same time.”

It happens that the flute is the oldest instrument made by humans; the oldest extant flute was found in what is now southwestern Germany and is believed to be 35,000 years old. It was made from the bone of a griffon vulture and is a testament to the importance of instrument- and music-making to human experience since prehistoric times. The fact that one of our species’ oldest handmade instruments is from the bodies of birds, who were probably our first music teachers, is further proof that music is indivisible from our lives. Instruments from tens of thousands of years ago speak to the endurance of our ability to innovate in order to create beauty, pleasure, and expression out of whatever is available in our environment.

Contemporary music, because of its adjective, belongs to the present. But like ancient bone or wood or clay flutes, they have the potential to outlive their makers and bring their gifts to future generations. The living conversations about contemporary classical music that are being sought, welcomed, invited, cared for, and shared widely by skilled and passionate orchestrators like Amanda Cook are a gift to those of us living now, in this present, and are generously creating the future for those in forthcoming eras.

Amanda Cook

Amanda Cook

That energy of discovery has fueled Cook’s curiosity and openness. Her college experience in that first new music ensemble was revelatory as she gained the skills to meet contemporary music on equal footing. “I walked away from that experience feeling empowered because I had to learn how to read all this different notation and all these different scores. I had to learn things that technically exceeded the ability of any of the standard repertoire that I was playing. I walked away from that experience feeling like, there’s nothing you can put down in front of me that I won’t be able to eventually figure out and sort my way through. I might not be able to sight read it, but I’ll be able to figure it out. That was really exciting, that process of discovery and figuring something out and having to sit with something and decipher it. And I think that process [of learning] is what really got me hooked.”

The word listen is in the name of Cook’s organization, and yet as a force in music journalism, reading and writing words are fundamental to the mission. The realm of contemporary notation is part of the broader conversation. Cook’s own experience as a musician and scholar affords her the opportunity to appreciate, and share that respect for, invention and idiosyncrasies in scoring. “Experimentation just got to the point where it couldn’t be captured with standard notation. What’s really interesting to me about new music is that oftentimes composers end up coming up with their own notation systems and graphic scores. For each composer or each piece, it’s like learning a new language, and there’s something really beautiful about that.”

ICIYL fulfills an expanding niche that isn’t always front and center in other music forums. Cook talks about how there’s so much value in the lesser known performance spaces where work is happening that deserves focused attention. “A lot of classical music journalism is still Classical with a capital ‘C,’ covering the big institutions, and if they happen to program contemporary music, then contemporary music becomes part of the conversation. But they’re not going to those smaller indie venues where the real work is happening.”

Cook grew into her leadership role over time. She says the story of how founder Thomas Deneuville created ICIYL is incredible to her and she loves telling it. “The publication started as his personal blog. He was just writing about the albums he was listening to and the concerts he was going to in New York. People got excited about it and asked to start contributing, and it just very organically grew into what it is today. I started working on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN in 2013… as a contributing writer just doing occasional album reviews. A couple of years into doing that, I started taking on some editorial responsibilities. And then in 2017, I took over as Editor-in-Chief because [Thomas] didn’t have the volunteer time and bandwidth to dedicate to it anymore. So for the past three years, I’ve been the editor of the publication. When I started learning more about contemporary music, I felt like I found my people, and that was really a breath of fresh air.”

Amanda Cook

Amanda Cook

As an editor who curates writing and conversations about music, Cook has to be able to bridge those worlds of sonic and symbolic systems of meaning. Cook is proud of what she has to offer as an editor. “It makes me feel good that I can help other people. I can work with people to develop their voice and strengthen [their writing skills]. It’s very difficult to work with a team of people who are all coming from different perspectives and experiences and get everyone on the same page enough where there’s a general tone and style to the publication, but where everyone is also still retaining their unique voice. I love finding that balance with people. And I love helping people take what they’re hearing and then find the right words for it. I’d always rather work with someone who is a good listener, but maybe needs some help with the writing versus someone who might be a very skilled writer, but isn’t as curious or perceptive as a listener.”

As a white person and cultural worker in America, Cook has become acutely aware of the racial inequality plaguing our society. “There’s still, as you know, so much systemic discrimination in the arts. I think people are finally awakening to the reality that it’s as big of a problem as it is. But I also think at the same time, a lot of people, mostly the big institutions, are just paralyzed by how big [the problem] is, and they don’t know what to do next. So then they start putting out these ‘Black Lives Matter’ statements with no actions attached to them, and start calling every Black composer they can think of to ask for free advice. And that’s not the way to do it. So with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, we’re not only trying to provide a platform for artists to talk about their work, we are also trying to provide education and resources to the people who are engaging these musicians on how to do it responsibly. There’s a lot that needs to change about our systems, but I just hope that we can be a leader in those conversations. And I think that we’ve never shied away from naming things explicitly, honestly, and truthfully, and I hope that that transparency will help.”

Art tells us who we are, who we were, and even who we can be. These stories and narrative spaces, whether visual or sonic, play a central role in structuring our relationships and life possibilities. Art criticism and white-founded spaces for arts discourse must be part of the change to transform our society’s racist past and present into a socially just, vibrant, and fully inclusive society. It’s heartening to see more leaders making this charge central to their mission. Cook is responsible at ICIYL for having put “editorial policies in place that favor equitable programming and historically underrepresented and marginalized artists.” She emphasizes that that focus has continued to take shape over the years, and that now that ICIYL has partnered with American Composers Forum, ICIYL has “very transparently made racial equity their top priority for coverage.”

Resonance: voices of the community

Resonance is ACF’s artist feature series created to provide readers a chance to discover more about the people behind the music.

 

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is a program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. Editorial decisions are made at the sole discretion of the editor-in-chief. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.