THERE ARE WELL-WORN PATHS IN THIS LIFE, TRAVELED BY OTHERS, STREWN WITH BREAD CRUMBS AND CLEARLY MARKED, BUT OCCASIONALLY SOMEONE WILL COME ALONG WHO RESISTS THE EASY ROAD AND SETS OUT TO FIND THEIR OWN WAY. SOMEONE WHO ALWAYS WANTS TO KNOW MORE, WHO ALWAYS WANTS TO KEEP CHANGING AND EXPLORING. SOMEONE WHO DESIRES TO LIVE AS MANY LIVES AS POSSIBLE.
A self-described awkward child, gap-toothed with big feet, Amanda Gookin first tasted grace with the cello. Never doubting her goal of becoming a professional cellist, she gave performances in her living room to imaginary packed concert hall audiences, visualizing a future in which her music would transcend the early adolescent and become transformative, demonstrating her true voice. It would be years, though, before she suspected she might have more than one voice, and more than one road to take.
Pivoting off a graduation gift of three weeks in Europe, and already beginning to question her musical career goals, Amanda extended her trip to three months, and then returned shortly to permanently reside in Barcelona, Spain. There, she developed her own after-school English learning curriculum, teaching children from ages 3-13. Putting her cello ambitions temporarily on hold, with her guidance the students would put on plays twice a year, building the sets and working together on writing the script, and performing songs entirely in English.
It was through this program that Amanda learned to trust her faith in a life she would build for herself, in her own way and with her own potential. Eventually returning to the cello, musical opportunities started coming her way and she focused her energies and talents on a freelance performing career. She won the “Most Musical Performance” award at the Podiums XII Chamber Music Competition with her duo partner, Alejandro Lidon, and spent a glorious two years in Spain before returning to the States and New York City in pursuit of a master’s degree and a richer performance life.
Once she settled in NYC, though, Amanda felt that familiar itch again, the idea that music might not be enough, or that perhaps she’d missed out on the possibility of living a life other than that of an artist. Her first job back was a part-time sales associate job in an upscale dog boutique, reviving an early interest in animal science. Inspired by her time in Europe, living independently and making her own way, she adopted a personal philosophy: Jump now, learn to swim later.
Applying for and landing a job as a veterinary technician, Amanda found herself at home in scrubs and sneakers, sitting in on her first day for a feline spay and fascinated by the experience. She immediately thought,:
“I have not done enough. I have not lived enough. I do not know anything. I need to know more.”
Even as she loved her work and actually considered going to veterinary school, Amanda kept her eyes open and spotted a gig as a solo cellist, accompanying an all-female performance of Romeo and Juliet. Expected to improvise and/or compose her own music, a new and daunting experience, Amanda once again jumped first, and she would go on to write music for five more plays and eventually begin composing for film.
And still there was more life to explore, more passions to indulge and, always, more work to be done. Amanda began volunteering at a crisis hotline and ultimately was offered a position as Coordinator of Volunteer Recruitment. If it seems like she was living many different lives, she was.
After two years back in NYC at this pace, Amanda traded in her scrubs for a job managing a folk musician’s union, Local 1000. She worked in a small office for two and a half years in the corner of the Local 802 building, learning about pension plans, health care, Emergency Relief Fund, and the good and bad of union organizing.
In the end of 2009, a friend approached Amanda with an opportunity to start a residency program in a NYC music school, where she could create her own ensemble and develop her own curriculum, which would involve working with living composers. Shortly before New Years 2010, Amanda called together the original members of PUBLIQuartet to meet in a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. Seven years later, PUBLIQuartet has become a string quartet in the forefront of the new music scene. They improvise, write their own music, commission new works, and work across genres from jazz to classical to electronic music. In 2013, they were named the New Music/New Places ensemble with Concert Artists Guild, winning the Sylvia Ann Hewlett Adventurous Artist Prize and subsequently the CMA/APAP Award for Adventurous Programming in 2015. In 2011 they developed their own program titled MIND|THE|GAP, which takes music from diverse genres and combines them through improvisation and group composition. Such mash-ups have included Debussy and Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Stravinsky, Webern and Haydn, and their own raucous rendition of Dvorak’s American Quartet.
In 2014, Amanda developed PUBLIQuartet’s emerging composers program, PUBLIQ Access. PQA supports the work of underrepresented composers and the creation of new sounds for the string quartet. After two years of running a call for scores initiative, producing two sold-out showcase concerts, and running fundraising campaigns, Amanda is proud that the success of the program has grown to now, in 2017, commissioning three up-and-coming composers who are significantly impacting the approach to writing for string quartet: Steven Snowden, Jessica Meyer, and Xian Wang. If it weren’t for the skills she learned as a vet tech, English teacher abroad, composer, volunteer, and recruitment coordinator, she would never have learned how to coordinate large groups of people, problem solve, multi-task, write grants, be organized, and have faith in herself.
New goals began to loom, including teaching at the college level and taking lessons to get back into solo repertoire and improve her technique. Finding the teacher of her dreams, Julia Lichten, Amanda went back to graduate school at Purchase College at the age of 31. It was there that she met new mentors who sparked her creativity, got her interested in administration, gave her the confidence to begin her first solo project, the Forward Music Project, and was offered a position as Professor of Topics in Career Development.
Graduate school gave Amanda ample time to think, and while by the fall of 2014 she’d become a full-time freelance musician and devoted to PUBLIQuartet, more paths loomed. Always an activist and a feminist, Amanda felt that her musical life was no longer connecting to this part of her. One day while in the car, Amanda heard a recording on public radio of Kshama Sawant giving a speech about the need to raise the minimum wage in America to fifteen dollars per hour. Amanda was taken by this speech. She thought:
“Why can’t classical musicians be outwardly political, too?”
Then, after witnessing a fundraising campaign for Art and Abolition, which is a summer camp full of dance, art, and music for girls who are victims of sexual violence in Kenya.
"I need to do more."
After participating in the IMPS program (Institute for Musicianship and Public Service) at Community Music Works in Rhode Island in the 2015 she met like-minded musicians who wanted to intersect their art with helping their community. She found her people. Amanda decided to start a commission project that was deeply rooted in social justice and women’s rights and commissioned seven composers to write solo pieces that touched on their own personal story or an issue that affects women and girls. The pieces she received range from sexual violence to empowerment, and she performed many of these works for the Dream Unfinished, the activist orchestra’s chamber music series.
She premiered the entire project on March 1, 2017 at National Sawdust with projection design by S. Katy Tucker. This premiere kicked off National Sawdust's "Spring Revolution" series
And while questions remained for Amanda, about her ability to influence, about her skills as a soloist, and particularly about her aggressive push to have her voice heard on any number of social and political issues, she continued doing what she always had. Jump first. Swim later.
At the same time, 2016 served notice to America that progress was threatened by familiar demons, and with the rage of the loss of her mother and an ominous future of continuous racism, sexism and bigotry, Amanda once again found her voice. This project is just the beginning of bridging her music and the need for progress within her community.
MUSICIAN. UNION LEADER. VETERINARY TECHNICIAN. ACTIVIST. INNOVATOR AND EDUCATOR. PASSIONATE ADVOCATE FOR THE LEAST AMONG US, AND FOR THE POWER OF MUSIC TO AFFECT CHANGE.
And whatever Amanda does in the future, wherever she goes and whenever she arrives, it will be on her terms and along her path, as it always has been. And roads? Where Amanda’s going, we don’t think she’ll need roads.