Admit it: the word “improvisation” invokes dimly lit jazz clubs, with a bunch of the players laying out for eight bars while a soloist freelances around a musical idea.
Hearing “improvisation” does not make you think of a string quartet, riffing on a composition by Schnittke or Dvorak, then finding its way back to the original sonata form.
PUBLIQuartet does that. The quartet—Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violins; Amanda Gookin, cello; and Nick Revel, viola—not only improvise, they study and practice improvisation, they teach improvisation, the rely on it. “Improvisation is like water in my body,” Stewart says, “it makes it all work.”
Improvisation isn’t the only thing that sets PQ apart from the many talented quartets in the chamber music universe. Initiatives like PUBLIQ Access, which has morphed from a call for scores to a full-blown commissioning program, bring new works into the PQ repertory. MIND|THE|GAP furthers the group’s exploration of diverse musical genres. Residencies at Banff, National Sawdust and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with debut appearances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, are balanced by appearances at Le Poisson Rouge and Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. In 2016, they brought their improv ideas to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, riffing improbably for 90 minutes along with the final presidential debate. Now that’s improv.
“In conservatory all these bricks get put into place,” Stewart says, working his way into an explanation. “Improv makes it all organic. We try to be like a convincing actor, playing these roles. We own the music, choosing these notes and not others. Improvisation helped me learn the harmonic language of jazz—all tritones, and flat nines. And my intonation is better.”
“Originally, it was not a part of our identity,” cellist Amanda Gookin says about improvisation. “We started like a lot of quartets: Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Shostakovich.
“But then we spent a summer at Banff, at the chamber music institute in 2012,” Gookin says. “We were there for a month, and we had a practice cabin. We reserved the evenings for creativity time. We brought a couple of beers, and each showed up with a pop tune or a jazz tune. We would play over it, create different parts, make our own arrangements.”
Gookin notes that the quartet differs from jazz improvisors, who traditionally have the ensemble lay out while one member takes the spotlight. “We are all improvising together, as a group,” Gookin says. “It varies on the arrangement. There is no treatise on it. We do whatever feels good, in the moment. We usually just build our improvisation into the structure.
“It’s about listening, and reacting,” Gookin says. “It really just comes from our music and art training. We talk about playing in space, all at once, or laying out for a bit. How are you adding to the ensemble? It really is just a tremendous amount of listening.”
Playing together as improvisors has grown into teaching others to be improvisors. The quartet has improv workshops, and coaches chamber music as well. Stewart teaches at the LaGuardia High School for Music and Art. Gookin has an appointment at SUNY Purchase and at Mannes. Revel teaches at his own NY String Studio. It’s more than outreach, it’s part of the quartet’s identity.
“There is so much fear around improvisation,” Stewart says. “But kids are not afraid of it at all. And middle school kids are even better at it. The more that gets ingrained in kids, the harder it gets.”
“I think of it as composing, in the moment,” Gookin says. “We follow the same rules as a composer who writes it down. When we teach, we have some exercises we give students. We work with rhythm—that’s the hardest. Then melody and harmony. Then you can layer it.
“After we have some rhythm and chord changes, we are just working in the confines of that structure. It limits the options, and it’s less scary when the players have a role.”
Improvisation informs PQ’s onstage presence, and energizes the educational pursuits. But commissioning, and continuing to play the works they discover through PUBLIQ Access, makes the quartet’s programs unique. PUBLIQ Access began in 2014, with the group requesting scores of any kind—a “genre-independent initiative,” they call it. They whittled down the entrants—there were more than 150 at first—and added the chosen works to their programs.
“There was no limitation on entries,” Gookin says. “We just wanted a recent piece, so we could understand the composer’s voice. Apart from that—jazz charts, electronic, using other sounds—it was all open.
“The main purpose of PUBLIQ Access wasn’t just to make an award of a performance,” she says. “We added the works to our regular repertoire. We were able to spread the word around about the pieces, and have them get a little bit of traction.
“We set it up as a showcase, at the DiMenna Center,” she says, referring to the intimate recording and rehearsal space in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. “All the composers attended, and we invited people like Mark Steinberg, and Nadia Sirota, and had an amazing discussion after.”
“That was one of the most wonderful and meaningful music evenings,” Steinberg, first violinist in the esteemed Brentano String Quartet, says of the first PUBLIQ Access event. “They gave really committed performances, and people were openly excited with the creativity of the group. They do it with such passion and joy—that’s a piece of their personalities.
“That was just the tip of the iceberg,” Steinberg says. “They are wonderful musicians, smart and incredibly curious. They’re the best possible ambassadors we could have.”
Steinberg not only sat in on that original panel, but has played a role in the maturation process of PQ.
“I think they first approached me with some things they were working on—some Haydn and Schnittke maybe,” he says. “They’ve come to me a number of times. We’ve done some work on a John Harbison piece, and some Britten. Of course it’s not really coaching at that level. We are all colleagues, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. And with the way they interact, I don’t think they have that many coaching needs. They just need a fifth member sometimes for a little distance.
“We all get into habits,” Steinberg says of quartets, “and we don’t even realize they’re habits. I can fulfill a role for them a little bit, inject a few more possibilities. I’m not different in kind from what they are. They don’t need it, but I’m here. I actually do think too much outside coaching can be bad for a young group like PUBLIQuartet. They have great instincts, and they also have faith in their own instincts.”
Even the circumstances around PQ’s formation sound different than most quartets. This was not the typical “a bunch of conservatory standouts deciding to play together” career path.
“We were four people who came together,” Stewart says. “We happened to play string instruments. But we are definitely four individuals. We all do different things, and when we meet our voices influence each other. We allow ourselves to bring in our own interests.
“We are looking at the quartet as a form,” he says, “and trying to change it. We’re never trying to break anything, we were just trying to be ourselves. This is the music we love. I guess we call it classical, but call it improv or jazz or electronics too.”
“We talk about what connects us to the music,” Stewart says. “We recomposed Dvorak’s entire American quartet. ‘What is American’ we called the piece. Dvorak took it from native music and Afro-American. What if we added things in? I wonder what Dvorak felt with all these little scraps—‘What is the American sound?’ And did he feel like he had the right? Maybe he was just allowing it to become his own voice.”
What the future could look like? Well, more of the same, and maybe a few more resources. “I don’t think we have the typical trajectory,” Gookin says. “For a typical quartet, the longterm goal might be to tour more, or to play in more high profile venues. For us, the last nine years we’ve been following where the wind takes us. We have had some stumbling blocks. Not every presenter will want to have our programs. We have to prove the legitimacy of what we’re doing.
“To boil it down, we’re going to continue to do what we want,” she says. “To do what makes us happy, and also fulfills our audience.”
“I think we could be persuaded to support these younger groups at a larger institution,” Stewart says about the future. “We want to continue helping emerging artists, with some type of school training, or improvisation type training. I would love to be in residence—we have been in residence for shorter times, like weeks. We are all avid teachers. The more chance we have to articulate the unknown, to build our programs and foster talent—that’s what I hope for.”
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com