Flash Review: PUBLIQuartet’s “What Is American” Album Release
By Vanessa Ague
Thursday, December 8, 2022
At the start of PUBLIQuartet’s performance, the GRAMMY-nominated ensemble swayed as they played airy tones with a sense of solemness, awash in hazy orange and pink light. Their hollowed-out sounds gradually turned into the lush, familiar melodies of Antonín Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet, filling the room with vivid meditations based on the quartet’s lively themes. Those contemplative first moments set the tone for the entire evening, creating a space for personal and collective reflection.
Friday’s concert celebrated the quartet’s recent album, WHAT IS AMERICAN, which features improvisations on the “American” quartet, compositions by artists including Vijay Iyer and Roscoe Mitchell, and improvisations on Negro spirituals. The album builds from the quartet’s previous work, like 2019’s Freedom and Faith, and from their MIND | THE | GAP program, which seeks to expand contemporary classical repertoire and play with new musical tools. It’s also a means of reflecting on the diverse range of voices that have shaped American music.
As PUBLIQuartet played, they asked us to think about what it means to be American, cultivating a contemplative atmosphere that permeated throughout the evening. They never provided us with a direct answer to the question, but that wasn’t the goal. Everyone in the room, seated at mostly full cabaret tables, listened with intent to the group’s impassioned performance, soaking in every sound. At the concert’s peaks, like the haunting rendition of Mitchells’ inquisitive “CARDS 11.11.20,” the group’s vision was at its most powerful; here, the room felt still, pulled by the drastic contours of the music. In those moments of stillness, we were in meditation, together—and that feeling held within it all that an answer could provide.
This article is a part of our Flash Review series, which is dedicated to capturing the specific embodied experience of a performance in National Sawdust's space. Live performance can often feel fleeting or ephemeral, but we hope these reviews allow you to return to that moment and enable you to listen deeper. What did you miss the first time around? How can you better appreciate the music through someone else's lens? More than anything, our Flash Reviews are an invitation to remember together. If you've ever been moved by a performance in our space, we hope you'll consider writing about it for us. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Vanessa Ague is a violinist and critic who writes for publications including the Wire, Pitchfork, and Bandcamp Daily. She is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.