Grammy-nominated PUBLIQuartet visits Sewanee

PUBLIQuartet takes a bow in Guerry Auditorium. Photo by Erin Elliot (C’21).

By Erin Elliot
Staff Writer

Guerry Auditorium was honored by a visit from PUBLIQuartet, a renowned contemporary string ensemble who had flown directly here from the 2020 Grammys after a nomination for their 2019 album, Freedom and Faith.

While at Sewanee, PUBLIQuartet interacted closely with Sewanee’s student musicians, hosting an improvisation workshop with the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra and meeting privately with Dr. Jason Rosenberg’s Composition and Orchestration class. Their performance in Guerry Auditorium on January 29 included a number of diverse arrangements, from Dvorak’s “American” to Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts.”

Currently, the New-York-City-based PUBLIQuartet consists of four members:  Jannina Norpoth (violin), Curtis Stewart (violin), Nick Revel (viola), and Hamilton Berry (cello). Stewart and Revel met during their time attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, about two decades ago.  

“We were playing in a band there and doing improvisation and stuff.  And then we moved to New York,” Stewart recalled. “I’m from New York, and we moved back to the area. And we met two other musicians on random, horrible gigs in New York. And we were supposed to do outreach at a school in Harlem, teaching strings, and that ended up falling through—but we loved each other so much that we just kept going. [Then] we got Jannina—we knew Jannina very well from various gigs in the city, and we knew she was an awesome arranger, improviser, violinist. And then Hamilton joined about six months ago, and we’ve known Hamilton also from the New York scene… just a very strong new music improvising scene there.”

According to Stewart, the group came up with their unique PUBLIQuartet name while in a car on their way to a retirement home. “We had no idea what our name was going to be,” he said.  “We toyed around with so many extremely inappropriate names.”

“When we first started,” added Revel, “we were playing classical music like Shostakovich and Beethoven and stuff.  But we knew we wanted to play some more modern music, and we started playing that in coffee shops and clubs. This was a really weird mashup, young people who don’t know classical music finding this stuff that was kind of hard to listen to, but they ended up loving it.” Revel explained that because the goal of the band was to bring quartet music to this new public, the group decided on ‘PUBLIQuartet.’ “And capitals? That was kind of on a whim.  I think we were in the car, like, ‘What if they were all capital?!’”

When asked whether there was a favorite piece in the January 29 repertoire, Stewart responded, “I liked the Great Danger [piece], where it went “buh buh Buh Buh BUH BUH BUH BUH.”

Jason Rosenberg, assistant professor and director of music theory and composition, also weighed in on the repertoire: “In the Voodoo Doll piece, I was really disappointed that I didn’t hear any Goo Goo dolls.”

“I was not,” responded Revel.

Collectively, PUBLIQuartet has decades of experience in improvisation, which allows the group to create new and exciting arrangements that incorporate new techniques into lasting pieces.  “I think we just embrace that improvisation is the beginning of a composition, and composition is potentially open to change,” said Stewart. “So once it’s on that page, little things about it can change sometimes.”

Violinist Jannina Norpoth added, “When we’re coming up with these, one of us will take responsibility for the idea and the curation of it, but then we’ll come to the group with the idea or several ideas, and we’ll work with the group to create the arrangement.  So as we do that, we sort of take our own individual notes about what we’re doing; essentially, we each create our own part.”

Hamilton Berry was a later addition to the group, who—according to Stewart—“came into the first rehearsal knowing our entire improvised piece.  Like when we had our first rehearsal, he already knew it, and we didn’t have to teach him anything—which is crazy.”  

Berry attended the Sewanee Summer Music Festival himself about twenty years ago, and claims that the festival was what initially inspired his career as a professional musician. 

Hilary Ward, visiting assistant professor of music, was initially able to book PUBLIQuartet for the 2019 Summer Music Festival. “Jannina and I, we may have met last year very briefly,” Ward recalled. “So I was like, ‘oh, yeah, I met her at Sphinx,’ which is a conference that we go to—it’s actually next week, so I’m going to see her in like five days. So that was my initial contact, my initial introduction to the group. I had heard about it, and people were like, ‘Oh, she plays with PUBLIQuartet.’ And I started looking into it, and thought that this would be a good option for us.”  

Norpoth added, “And then [Ward] asked us to come back, which was even more awesome.  It’s really nice… we usually go to a place, and if we come back it’ll be like five years later and it’ll be a totally different audience.  Or, like, there will be totally different students. So it’s nice when you get to come back soon, and sort of get to be more in touch with the community. That’s what we’re trying to do—build a community with music—and so it’s nice to have those personal connections.”

PUBLIQuartet’s Guerry Auditorium performance was attended by approximately 150 members of the Sewanee community, and received heavy applause as well as a standing ovation. The quartet was also able to meet with Ketch Secor, visiting frontman of Old Crow Medicine Show, who excitedly discussed the idea of a future collaboration. “It’s nice,” Stewart commented, “this is the first time where somebody’s heard us and then they’re like—right in the moment—‘Let’s do something.’”