Like most of their musical peers, the Invoke ensemble found its performance calendar cleared in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. And while it was devastating, the Austin-based, genre-blending string quartet suddenly had a blank slate to start from. The imposed pause gave the group the space they needed to refresh their repertoire and to imagine new goals. Instead of spending time learning music, they started to look deeper, asking why they’ve chosen to play the music they play.
Invoke’s unconventional instrumentation — violin, cello, banjo, and mandolin — has allowed them to break genre boundaries, infusing classical music with a folk flair. But for most of their career, they’ve still operated in the classical music industry, which has meant programming music for concerts two or three years in advance. That never-ending cycle has often left little leeway for finding, learning and performing new works.
“It felt like we could never escape from that same repertoire. And then you’re tired all the time, and then you’re not really feeling energized to make stuff or work on anything new,” says Zach Matteson, Invoke’s violinist, over a glass of iced coffee and a slice of pound cake in the backyard of Austin’s Sour Duck Market on a recent evening. Band members Geoff Manyin and Nick Montopoli came along, too — in fact, Matteson and Montopoli had a rehearsal just across the street later that night.
The place was full that evening: People of all ages, and their dogs, perched at Sour Duck’s rustic-chic picnic benches as peppy music streamed from distant speakers into the bustling yard. It was a stark contrast to Invoke’s pandemic recollections of performing in halls without an audience and playing in their bedrooms.
But the foursome’s empty calendar over the past year provided some positives. It helped them finally turn their attention towards writing new music, improvising and finding new composers to champion. The ensemble started presenting livestream concerts every Thursday, using microphones and recording equipment they had on hand. And though they brainstormed a variety of different ideas for the streams — reading a book while another artist improvises, for example — they ended up sticking with once-a-week solo performances.
Fortunately, Invoke received federal PPP loans and unemployment payment throughout the pandemic. They also had the capacity and privilege to figure out how to navigate the bureaucracy behind emergency relief aid. That financial assistance tt, alongside a newly formed Patreon account, allowed Invoke to continue its artistic work and drive its musical trajectory in new, broader directions.
When Black Lives Matter protests swept through the nation last year in the wake of the George Floyd killing, the event sparked Invoke’s push to present more diverse concert programs. As four white men, Invoke acknowledged it was past time to address their privileges and to include more women and people of color in their repertoire.
“We’re all men. We’re all from a similar kind of upbringing…that definitely leaves us with blind spots, both creatively and also socially,” says Nick Montopoli, Invoke’s banjo player. “So, we’re trying to discover new composers.”
Finding composers of color has meant plenty of work from the entire group.
“Because of the history of it all it actually is, by its nature, going to be difficult,” says Montopoli. “If it was easy to do, and simple to do, everybody would be doing it. But what’s easy and simple to do is to find another white guy to write a piece, or you don’t even have to find them, they find you.”
Now, searching for new composers has become a regular part of their practice. Last June, for example, the foursome presented a couple of livestream concerts where they passed the baton to other artists, highlighting people whose work they felt is far too unknown. And they committed to only commission composers of color for their American Postcards series, Invoke’s project to tell the stories of today’s America through new music written for their eclectic ensemble. In fact, they’ll soon be premiering Jonathan Bingham’s “The Lessons of History,” a new work that explores a wide range of past and present socio-political issues, as part of the series.
With reopening under way across the country, Invoke say they’ve returned to in-person concerts and touring, with performances slated at Colorado’s Steamboat Springs Summer Music Festival, among others. They’re planning to bring all the repertoire they’ve learned during the pandemic to the in-person stage.
But even as in-person concerts become a larger part of Invoke’s musical life, the ensemble isn’t going to stop livestreaming concerts, according to Geoff Manyin, Invoke’s cellist. The group has gotten into a rhythm with monthly livestreams, presenting one new work and multiple arrangements during each concert. At this point, Invoke has written a dozen new songs as a group and has learned about three dozen other pieces, and they’re hoping to turn them into a couple of albums. And their Patreon — a site they’d wanted to create for a while, but only had time to set up during the COVID-19 pandemic — has helped them find value in the work they put out online and to create a digital community around their music.
In fact, connecting through music has always been a guiding force for Invoke, on and offline.
“Maintaining that connection, which is very hand in hand with creating a good concert experience…has informed a lot of our decisions, even before the pandemic,” Manyin says. “It feels kind of nice to have done the right work and to be able to keep doing what we are doing.”
The ensemble discovered another upside to its pandemic pivot. Patreon and streams have allowed Invoke to amass a new group of fans in the digital world. And while the quartet is wary of becoming influencers pushing products, they’re excited to continue cultivating their audience on streaming outlets like Twitch.
“It’s really important to us to make a connection to our audiences,” Manyin says. “There’s a massive group of people that get a lot of their world interaction through Twitch, and I feel like whether or not we convert stream viewers to live show viewers, I don’t care.”
They’ve built a community online by doing cocktail-making videos and reaction videos as well as musical performances; Matteson is even planning to make hand-dyed tie-dye shirts for Patreon members.
“I think we really are loving this creative process, and the fruits of it,” he said. “It has the potential to reach more people and be more inclusive.”