Believing that music is a unifying force, ETHEL has joined forces with musicians across genres and regions and built a family of artists along the way.
Music Credits: "The Bue Room III" from the cd Ethel, composed by Phil Kline, performed by ETHEL. Label: Cantaloupe Music, 2011
"Chant" composed by ETHEL and Jeff Peterson. Performed live at the Billings Gazette's Studio by ETHEL and Robert Mirabal.
"Yeah... I Hit Like a Girl" from the cd Oshtali: Music for String Quartet. composed by Amanda Shackleford. Performed by ETHEL. Label: Azica, 2010.
"Swaying of the Trees," from Documerica. Composed by Ulysses Owen Jr. Performed by ETHEL at 2013 BAM Next Wave Festival.
"Great Round Burn" from the cd Glow. Composed by Kaki King. Performed by Kaki King and ETHEL. Label: Velour Recordings - Frontline, 2012.
"Lighthouse" from the cd, ETHEL Light, composed by Cornelius Dufallo, performed by ETHEL. Label: Canteloupe Music, 2006.
Jo Reed: That is the new-music string quartet, ETHEL playing" The Blue Room 3 ". it's from their cd called Ethel. and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the national Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
The music group ETHEL is hard to identify. In terms of its composition, it's a traditional string quartet: 2 violins, a viola, and a cello. But its approach to music is anything but traditional. Early on, its classically trained members decided to play contemporary music and so it initiated a series of innovative collaborations with an extraordinary range of international artists including David Byrne, Bang on a Can, Todd Rundgren, Robert Mirabal, and Vijay Iyer.
Motivated by a belief in the unifying power of music, ETHEL aims for a creative experience that celebrates community. In fact, their Truck Stop project led to collaborations with regional musicians across the country.
Always enthusiastic and apparently tireless, over the past four years alone, ETHEL has premiered over 55 new works by 20th- and 21st-century composers.
Begun in 1998, ETHEL is comprised of founding members Ralph Farris and Dorothy Lawson, and more recently Kip Jones and Tema Watstein.
As busy as they are, Ralph Ferris and Dorothy Lawson made time to speak with me the day of ETHEL's performance with guitarist Kaki King. My first question to them was how ETHEL became ETHEL.
Dorothy Lawson: It was actually a natural on flow from the kind of work that all of us were doing in New York City about seventeen years ago in a very, very rich and challenging and varied cultural environment where we were all pursuing our own tastes. And the New York City of that time had a very, very vivid variety of commercial music, Broadway styles, classical opportunities, chamber music, all kinds of things that we could flow easily between. And -- it sort of self-navigated for a very long time. And our skill sets were the revered Julliard School. So, we could pretty much do anything, adapt to any style. And our tastes were more contemporary, more of our own time. So, all of us had generated very long and profitable relationships with composers, colleagues, and people of our own generation. So, we came together around a couple of opportunities generated by those relationships and realized that we were in the middle of a really powerful new upsurge of creative energy in music of our time that we were kind of the perfect vehicle for. And the composers were extremely excited about it. We were extremely jazzed. And it was just a small turn of perspective to say, well rather than waiting for them to offer us the work, why don’t we brand ourselves as a string quartet and invite them.
Jo Reed: So, you would invite composers to compose for you. You would commission work.
Dorothy Lawson: Yes and then of course it becomes a whole-- a business prospect where you have to start thinking about how the money is going to work, how, you know you’re going to afford that from the composers, how you’re going to put on your own presentations. But the relationships were there. And it wasn’t much more than just a shift of business identity, rather than being the artists for hire, to turn into the presenters ourselves.
Jo Reed: Can you talk about the experience of playing the way you play?
Dorothy Lawson: Well, one of the great fruits of it has been extraordinary joy. I mean I think that’s, of course, the blessing of being an artist doing your own thing is feeling that identification, that thrill of personal expression. With our work, because we have grown more and more towards community engagement, towards collaboration, towards a joyful embracing of music as a social art, we’ve made better friends and wider connections and been challenged to open ourselves wider than we would have ever dreamed possible out of our schooling. And I think, well certainly for me, that’s been a tremendous source of joy and love and satisfaction.
Ralph Farris: There’s a really exciting thing that happens with this ensemble, and it has through the years, that we’ve always been a group of four individuals coming from four different histories and trainings. And while we are deeply committed to the expression of the string quartet and holding to a bit of that tradition at least, at the same time, we’re really keen to see what these individual journeys of our members have brought to us. I would cite our colleague Mary Rowell, one of our founding members along with Dorothy and me, she really showed me how to open myself up as a string player to more contemporary colors and sounds. I had been a rock and roll fan for many, many years and thought that I had it all just at my disposable just because I had the energy. But Mary knew all the tricks of the trade after having played session after session with Madonna and Joe Jackson and who knows who else. And she actually knew specific things like how to treat your bow and how to actually keep time in your physical being as you’re playing. And we have that to this day. I mean Dorothy continues to teach us all in her extraordinary-- actually bow again. She’s got amazing bow technique and beautiful ways of practicing things. So, when we need to slow something down and figure out how to make it work, Dorothy’s the one to guide us through that. If ever anybody wants some sort of crazy manic experience in some sort of piece, they’re probably going to look to me. Tema, one of our new violinists, she comes straight off of the contemporary music scene right now. She was in the field when we ripped her out of it and dragged her into the group. She came fresh with all the bright new ideas that were happening right then and there. And of course, Kip the other fiddle player, he’s been a world traveler. He was-- he motorcycled across South America with a fiddle on his back, studied in India. So, he brings a whole sort of broad perspective of possibility and sound and expression. And ongoingly, the four of us are bringing these colors and ideas and practices to each other. And in that open eared in our approach to each other that very easily turns outward in our open eared listening for the rest of the world and its expression.
Jo Reed: That leads so wonderfully into my next question, which is exactly that, being open eared with people who have different approaches to music. You collaborate across the board with so many different kinds of people who play just such varied music. Rocking with Todd Rundgren, for example.
Dorothy Lawson: Absolutely. Rock with the best. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Talk about that experience.
Dorothy Lawson: Oh my gosh. You know as much as we really enjoyed delving into his body of work, and over the years that we’ve worked with him, he’s allowed us to help him select songs for our sets together, and we’ve done the adapting for the concerts, which I think totally surprised him how hard his own music can rock out with just a string quartet and him playing rhythm guitar. It’s been fabulous in that sense. I think one of the most illuminating aspects of working with him was the college outreach, the work that we did with him. He gave the most fascinating conversations about what it was like to be a front running rock musician generating new sounds really year after year and then turning into one of the most successful producers in recording. And he spoke about his own great fondness for the Beatles, for example, his study of their work, his affinity for their styles. Frankly, the Beatles have been one of our favorite artistic ensembles forever. So it continues to be one of our long friendships and most informative relationships.
Jo Reed: Can we talk about some other collaborations that you found particularly fruitful? I would think Robert Mirabal.
Dorothy Lawson: Yes.
Ralph Farris: All of our collaborators really, there’s something pretty special about the work with them. They end up becoming really good friends to us. And that’s a really special thing that you make music with these people and then you suddenly realize that they’re part of your family. Robert Mirabal is an extraordinary man. He’s at once a beautiful guiding spirit...
Dorothy Lawson: Kind of a shaman.
Ralph Farris: Yeah, a shaman. Yeah. And he’s an elder. He’s becoming an elder of the Taos Pueblo; there are only two thousand of his people left. And he will stand up on stage and he will speak of what it means to be this person. And he will play on one of his many gorgeous flutes that he’s made himself. (Music up) And he brings you into this space of ceremony which we all I guess knew that we were taking part in. But what Robert has done is brought this idea of utilitarian music to us as a totally real practice for us. We are present to ceremony when we are working with him. And indeed, we’re bringing that out to our greater experiences. At the same time with Robert, he is also at once that kokopelli character, that South Western character, the crazy flute player with the hair. And that’s Robert as well. He’s all of these things jumbled up into a very dear--
Dorothy Lawson: Which illuminates so much about the strictures that our culture placed on our concert experience for so long, which are melting away. The element of irreverence at the same time as the deepest possible ritual is actually present in a number of other cultures around the world who haven’t drawn that very, very hard line between art and pop. And it’s terrific. It’s very powerful. And it’s actually, we feel it so often. It’s what our audiences are hungering for.
Jo Reed: Well, with your Truck Stop project, that in some ways mined that field, didn’t it?
Dorothy Lawson: Absolutely, yes, thank you. That really was our explicit exploration of that. We speak of oh yes, playing in L.A. and then playing in Chicago, and then playing in Detroit or whatever, but realizing that in each of those settings, the only presence we played was at the concert hall and then back to the airport. And we said very often that we would enjoy getting to see, getting to experience, sharing music with people of the local community. So, truck stop was our way of expressing that originally. We’ve morphed that now into just an identity we express as Ethel plus, being our interest and ongoing efforts to connect with the local communities, with the local presenters, with people of all ages, with people of any culture. Well in many ways opening ourselves up to each of these possibilities as connecting elements.
Ralph Farris: It was a bit of a revelation for us to see that, in fact, the collaborative spirit was actually such a driving creative force for us. It’s not just the matter of bringing in another voice or being in another community. It’s actually the way we go about the work together.
Dorothy Lawson: And it’s also-- it’s not just about our own mastery. It’s about enabling beautiful experiences for others.
Ralph Farris: Right. Right. So many things in our expression are about liberating. We went about liberating our sound, liberating ourselves from the strictures of what it meant to be a string quartet. We’re called Ethel. We’re not-- we were always seeking a freedom of some sort. And here with Ethel plus right now, I feel quite at home saying that we would be free to go anyplace we chose to work with anyone that was resonating with us one way or the other. And I’m really thrilled that we have now found this new space to basically just say, hey we’re here. Come be with us. And let’s make some music together, or let’s listen to your poetry and see what happens, or let’s celebrate your hometown. It’s a wonderful space to be and to realize that your organization is at its heart all about that opening and that give and take.
Jo Reed: And I would think at certain points it can be a bit of a challenge because I know in Kentucky you worked with sacred harp singers.
Ralph Farris: Whoa, you did your research.
Jo Reed: Yeah if you could first explain what sacred harp or shape note singing is.
Ralph Farris: That is an amazing thing you brought up. This was truly a remarkable event. And I guess starting with what sacred harp is, sacred harp is a choral tradition that is, in fact, a spiritual practice. It is practiced generally in the Southeast of the states, but I think it goes up into New England a bit. And I think you’ll find practitioners across the country if not across the world. It comes down from Scottish hymn singing, and it is four part harmony with a specific notation. There are shapes on the stave [ph?] that show the folks which notes to sing. It basically does look like standard manuscript but with interesting shapes. And then the folks are sitting in a cross. The high, medium, and low voices are all sitting in a cross across from each other. And they are singing at full volume for hours. It is absolutely an amazing practice. They get themselves into this space. And one member of each group will lead a different hymn. They can have sacred harp meetings for weekends I think they will go. They will bring families and food and they sing and sing and sing. But this is a spiritual practice. This is not a concert practice. And this was actually I believe our second Truck Stop event.
Dorothy Lawson: I have to just say that the initial inspiration for that work with the Sacred Harp singers was from the local presenter, and that is one of the geniuses that we draw on so often is to open up the possibility of somebody who knows their own community so well to say, what would be the most interesting or valuable interaction we could bring? We don’t impose that on them. And that local presenter said we have this intense local practice, but we’ve never been able to attach them to a concert presentation because they regard the concert setting as antithetical to what they are celebrating in their music. But it is such interesting and vivid music we’d love to be able to bring them in for the wider experience.
Ralph Farris: And we weren’t quite clear if the folks were going to be comfortable coming and joining us, and somehow something clicked.
Dorothy Lawson: Well no, it was having a conversation with them about their spirit, about the fact that what we were celebrating and what we were hoping they would consider bringing to the audience was their spirit, that by being present and performing with us they would be illuminating to a larger public the beauty and intensity of what they experience. And another concern they had was about the applause, was about this nature of congratulations or what they regarded as vanity, and what we were able to sort of detoxify for them was that applause is physical thank you from the audience. You don’t have to absorb it as vanity and self-congratulation. You can absolutely appreciate it’s warmth, it’s love flooding out from the audience, and when you bow from stage it doesn’t have to be in the spirit of oh, yes, of course, thank you to me. It’s thank you back. It’s the performers signal that they hear and they appreciate.
Ralph Farris: That is a gorgeous recollection, and I hadn’t managed to digest that. Thank you.
Jo Reed: For years you’ve also worked with young composers such as the Native American Composers Apprentice Project. I think it’s been ten years now?
Dorothy Lawson: Yes, exactly.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Dorothy Lawson: <laughs> Whoa. Yes, we’ve been going out to the Grand Canyon Music Festival for just ten years, where they run a program among the Navajo and Hopi people, visiting high school students during the first two or three weeks of their high school year performing for them music that they have written under the direction of a professional composer from a tribal background, but with our kind of classical western training. So what they’re learning is how to transcribe the music that they write pretty much daily in their own hearts and minds, but in a medium that we can read and reproduce for them. It’s the literate component that they are learning. Of course the flipside of that was that as performers we were learning how to hear and express their hearts through their music. We had to listen to the sounds they were hoping to make through our hands.
Jo Reed: And you created a CD with them called Oshtali.
Ralph Farris: Oshtali, yes
Joe Reed: And one of the songs is the very unusual, "I hit like a girl".
Ralph Farris: Oh, and doesn’t that start with-- I’ll back away from the microphone. Doesn’t that start with a kiai!
Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly.
Ralph Farris: Yeah so Oshtali was a project that we did with Chickasaw Nation under the beautiful leadership of a Chickasaw Nation composer in residence Jerod Impichacha Tate, there are a lot of interesting pieces in that recording. They run the gamut from sort of Shostakovich to film scoring color. You’ll definitely hear pentatonic expressions that you might equate with a more traditional Native American sound, or actually Jerod prefers the term American Indian, and it’s a really fascinating record and beautifully produced by Alan Bise. (Music Up)
Jo Reed: Do the students have a hand in the production of it as well?
Dorothy Lawson: Yes. They were at the board the whole time, giving us personal directions on what they were hoping to hear, and very good ones. They were sitting with the producer but the producer was really giving them voice. I’d say that was maybe one of the most successful, respectful collaborative recording settings we’ve ever sat through.
Ralph Farris: I recall that he would actually sit there and ask them questions, and they they would be brought into dialog with him in a beautiful way. He really was masterful with that.
Jo Reed: A recent project that you did was a multimedia concert called Documerica. I’d like you to explain what that is.
Dorothy Lawson: One of the ways that we seek to evoke integrity or continuity in an artistic venture is to take a common point of inspiration. Sometimes that’s giving title to a program. In this case it was taking a photo archive as a point of inspiration. The Environmental Protection Agency generated a gigantic photo archive back in the seventies that they called Documerica. It was I think a six year effort where they retained about-- what was it, seventy photographers or something to travel the country for years and document what they saw of the condition of the country’s environment, the condition of our societies, and it has always been pubic material. In this case, we had learned that they had digitized it so it was available online, and we thought it might be a moving and interesting place to draw inspiration so we invited four composers that we had already known for several years and worked with very successfully to join us in experiencing it, just taking samples of the photos online and write whatever came up to them, whatever their own experience was. And I’d have to say that as the music arrived, as it came to us, I think over the course of a couple of years, the pieces were so large and so personal and intense. (Music Up)
Dorothy Lawson: Each of them had actually written documents of a kind of an autobiographical nature, what it meant to them to be American, and they were so beautiful and heartfelt, and pretty ambitious. The program that we finally developed took them as sort of the cornerstones of an energetic journey that we then ourselves fleshed out as composers and became this program we call Documerica.
Jo Reed: Speaking of things being put out in the world, Kaki King and you.
Dorothy Lawson: Exactly.
Jo Reed: The tour is called, “And Other Stories,” and I find that a very compelling title. Can you tell me where that came from?
Ralph Farris: Came straight from our dear friend Phil Kline. The second piece I guess he wrote for us is called the “Blue Room and Other Stories,” and we had intended to play a piece of Phil’s on this program, and Dorothy and I were chatting this over and we were thinking of titles. Titling is always-- is great fun for us, who would guess with a name like ETHEL, right? And it was the thought of “...And Other Stories,” that left so much open, so much place to explore, and we were brining Kaki, who is such a great storyteller with her playing and the way she is on stage, she's so compelling as a performer and it seemed like we were going to be having an evening of bringing people on various journeys. So it seemed the proper fit as a title, and I loved that it starts with the ellipses. (Music Up)
Jo Reed: Okay. I have to ask you this. You’re the house band for TEDxManhattan. What does that mean?
Dorothy Lawson: Being a house band is a riot. It’s fabulous. It’s both a personality moment and a chance to bring music into the way that people are experiencing the event. It genuinely creates atmosphere, and when-- we’ve also been the house band at the parent TED conference in California, which has now moved, but it was similarly very very welcome as the kind of emotional context into which these fabulous presenters would walk with their amazing ideas, and people looked forward to it, they look forward to the both the relief from these constantly challenging ideas, and the chance to open their hearts to more.
Ralph Farris: There is a joy in music making, and when you’ve had your mind blown for 18 minutes in a TED conference sometime it’s nice to have just a little bit of respite.
Dorothy Lawson: I think a lot of people-- it’s such an intelligent audience at those events, they-- and very informed and very highly highly educated. They would themselves say what an important moment it was for them to metabolize this stuff, not to be constantly pushed over an edge.
Ralph Farris: It’s like the shavasana moment in yoga.
Dorothy Lawson: Exactly. Yes.
Ralph Farris: You need to digest, and we give them three minutes to digest.
Dorothy Lawson: Three minutes, yes.
Jo Reed: I know we’re really close and running out of time, but ETHEL, where did the name come from?
Dorothy Lawson: Oh, gosh.
Ralph Farris: We-- I’ll get to the origin of the name in a moment, but just what the name means is what really jazzes me. Again, it’s back to the idea of liberation. We are free from any meaning. Our name means nothing, and-- except perhaps for great joy because you say ETHEL you sort of crack up. You’re having a good time when you say ETHEL.
Jo Reed: It’s a cozy name.
Ralph Farris: It is. And every once in a while I sit and I actually find myself saying, wait a second, I’m in a band called ETHEL, what? And I actually can’t even register that sometimes. But the origin of the name is quite charming. Back when we were started we were originally called Hazardous Materials, and that lasted for what, two weeks I guess, because that sounded very dangerous, and we were a friendly bunch.
Dorothy Lawson: Yeah, we were friendly, and we were too old.
Dorothy Lawson: Just couldn’t walk on stage every night looking edgy.
Ralph Farris: Right. We tried flight suits once for a concert.
Dorothy Lawson: That just looked bad on everyone.
Ralph Farris: <laughs> But we were having these meetings, incredible planning meetings and figuring out what do we want to do with the group in the long term, and part of the discussions came down to naming the group. Mary Rowell, one of our founding members, came in and she was cracking up at this film she’d just seen, “Shakespeare in Love,” where the bard had been commissioned to write a play, and he had writer’s block because he could not stand the title-- and Dorothy, what was that title?
Dorothy Lawson: Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Dorothy Lawson: Yes, and it was just that knowledge that Ethel alone in that title makes you smile.
Ralph Farris: <laughs>
Dorothy Lawson: Good enough, you know.
Jo Reed: Absolutely. Thank you so much for giving me your time. I know you’re performing tonight so I deeply appreciate it.
That is Dorothy Lawson and Ralph Ferris--they are the founding members of the new music string quartet ETHEL. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the national Endowment for the Arts. Next week, author Elizabeth McCracken.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. (Music Up)