Music for Music: Amanda Gookin

Amanda Gookin & the Forward Music Project

Part 2 of Classical:NEXT Series

By Dan Ursini © 2019

Cellist Amanda Gookin was disturbed because in the classical music culture, social issues are seen as appropriate content for a private chat among musicians, but not a public conversation, much less direct social action. This exacerbated a disconnect between the private and public lives of these musical artists. Envisioning the need for change, Gookin created the Forward Music Project

As its website states, Gookin commissions works “that explore a range of issues facing women today, from the LGBTQ+ to reproductive rights, sexual violence and empowerment… performed through the lens of solo cello, electronics, projection art by S Katy Tucker, and audio interludes from the composers.”

At Classical:NEXT she will perform the premiere of To Tell A Story by Paola Prestini. There is no full online recording yet, but you can find an excerpt here:

Taken together, the dozen or so works created through the Project extend several kinds of boundaries—from the expressive possibilities of the cello to the range of gifted composers working in serious music. Gookin stated, “I always cherish the world premiere performances because all their hard work comes to life, but the more I perform them, the more they become a part of me. It’s a beautiful process.”

Asked if she had wanted much input about the compositions as she commissioned them, Gookin said, “When I ask the composers to write for me, I explain the nature of the project and invite them to write about their own experiences, or issues that affect women and girls. It’s entirely up to them what they choose to write about.” 

Asked about discoveries made through this process, she said, “Some of the works are so personal to the composers that I have to get as close to them as possible to convey their story. It is a privilege to share their voices with audiences.” She continued, “Morgan Krauss’s piece, memories lie dormant: they are reviled before they are revealed challenged me immensely.”

“This piece was a way for Morgan to become public about her experiences of sexual assault, and I have a great responsibility to convey what this experience was like to an audience.” There can be many levels to harrowing human experiences, and this music conveys the fully layered truth of what happened to Krauss. With great power and clarity, she distills both the narrative and emotional contours of the episode. Gookin pointed out that it is “an unrelenting piece and does not let the listener go until the very end.” 

With this work and others, Gookin proves a marvelous interpreter. Technically quite accomplished, she is more than equal to the intense musical and emotional challenges they present. She displays a supple determination to illuminate all the deep personal truths shared by these composers. Gookin states: “These are not works that I can play without being fully committed every single time.”

As a cellist, she has a highly developed gift for making her instrument evoke the human voice. It propels a masterful and haunting work, Veiled for cello and electronics by the Iranian composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh.

Gookin told me that “Veiled is an example of a work that I do not identify with as a white American, but brings me great honor to share her message. Niloufar wrote this piece to defy the compulsory hijab and the ban on female solo singers in Iran.” Gookin  reflected: “I enjoy performing this work so much. It’s not only an absolutely stunning piece of music, Niloufar brings solidarity to women around the world.”

Describing how the Forward Music Project has changed her as a human being, she says, “I have been challenged to look inside myself and ask the hard questions about my own privilege and also recognize traumatic experiences that I have had as a woman….I have been vocal about women’s issues, racism, sexism in moments when I’ve felt empowered and moments where I’ve felt extremely vulnerable. Yes, it has been quite a journey and will continue to be…” 

Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at  Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: 

Amanda Gookin’s Website

Classical:NEXT Part 1 at EIL


Forward Music Project

Photo credits: Ryan Scherb & Jill Steinberg

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