ETHEL – Walking Tightropes, Bringing Healing, Keeping It Human, Staying Young!

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PROFILE: of celebrated contemporary classical music group ETHEL; and

INTERVIEW: with Dorothy Lawson and Ralph Farris (of ETHEL) and composer Robert Mirabal.

“We originally thought of calling ourselves ‘Hazardous Material,’” recollects violist Ralph Farris, one of the core four Juilliard-trained string players who formed the group in 1998. “But then we said, ‘Hey, wait! We’re not dangerous!’”

What they are is ETHEL – a remarkable, and protean, music-making group. They inspire enthusiastic description, but defy easy definition – or, at least, any attempted definition will have a short shelf-life: what ETHEL was yesterday isn’t what ETHEL will be tomorrow, given the group’s unflagging pursuit of new challenges, audiences, and genre frontiers.

Naming the Baby

It was another early member of the group who suggested “ETHEL” – and, no, it’s not an acronym (though the group likes to uppercase it, just for fun). Neither is it the name of anyone who is now or ever was in the group – not a friend, nor a relative. It was merely a whim, a passing fancy – and it stuck.

“We liked it because it just sounded friendly,” recalls another of the group’s founding members, cellist Dorothy Lawson.

“It was like naming someone’s baby,” says Farris.

And, after nearly a generation of music-making, ETHEL is still as vibrant, active, curious, and voracious of life as when it was a newborn, evincing no signs of jadedness or quotidian routine, strong as ever, constantly reinventing itself.

The Times They Were A-Changing

ETHEL, Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

ETHEL, Photo: Erin Patrice O’Brien

“We were members of a misbegotten generation,” jokes Lawson. “Up until then, young, classically-trained musicians were expected to do things a certain way, and exit into a predictable career path” – presumably as part of a chamber group or symphony or opera house orchestra. But such assumptions (and such career paths) were rapidly dissolving right about then, on the cusp of the millennium, along with many previously rigid demarcations between musical genres, categories and hierarchies, like classical, popular, mainstream, serious, “niche,” “ethnic,” jazz, rock, or kitsch.

“We had all this technology,” Lawson says of her and her fellow founders’ instrumental precocity, “but we didn’t want to do the same old things with it.” Indeed, violist Ralph Farris, who, along with Lawson, is one of ETHEL’s two co-artistic directors, doesn’t even like to admit to the taxonomy of a “string quartet” though the group’s constituency fits the pattern and definition of one – as laid down by Papa Haydn – precisely.

“We have more of a rock band mentality,” Farris says of himself and the rest of the group. (He and Lawson have been with the group since its inception; the other two current members are violinists Kip Jones and Corin Lee.)

“Originally,” remarks Lawson, “we formed to play and promote the music of composers we knew personally,” including Todd Reynolds (who was also one of the group’s founding violinists, along with Mary Rowell).

And since that founding, the extent and variety of the partnerships, collaborations and commissions that ETHEL has engendered are of staggering breadth and substance. ETHEL has performed with – and/or performed the music of – composers including Todd Rundgren, Julia Wolfe, John Zorn, Marcelo Zarvos, Pamela Z, Don Byron, and Missy Mazzoli, to name a few. ETHEL’s members also compose and perform their own music, plus engage in educational outreach and training programs, the cultivation of young artists, assorted cross-cultural musical “pollination” efforts, and experiments in improvisatory, aleatory, and on-the-spot electronic sampling techniques.

And this May, each member of the group will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Denison University.

“But above all else,” says Farris, “I think of ETHEL as a human interest story.”

Being Human

It’s a moving and apt intuition, since regarding ETHEL as just a music group—or its approach to art as just “collaborative” – is really mere facile shorthand.

ETHEL seems to be in a perpetual enterprise of ingathering – engaging an ever greater league of artists, designers, presenting organizations, and fellow composers; audiences of dazzlingly diverse demographics, and practitioners from an equally dazzling array of other fields. It’s a continual, profound, cherished and humane enlargement of community – the creation of “a circle of collaboration and growth and connectivity,” as Farris describes it. Audiences regularly attest to finding the ETHEL experience uniquely uplifting, restorative, even healing. ETHEL’s professional trademark may be its sterling musicianship; its greatest gift is its humanity.

Now, in the thick of a typically tireless and peripatetic 2017 touring season, ETHEL has already given performances of their acclaimed program “The River” in the western United States, and is looking ahead to performances across the country of other programs, including their celebration of contemporary women composers (Lawson among them) called “Blue Dress,” the group’s renowned ecology-conscious music-and-image collaboration with the EPA and the National Archives called “Documerica,”  a variety of family concerts, and the group’s commissioning initiative targeted at presenting fresh compositional voices from the New York City scene, called “HomeBaked.”

Oh, and, when in New York City between gigs, ETHEL is also the regular in-house musical host at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Balcony Bar, where Friday and Saturday evenings boast the ongoing series “ETHEL and Friends.”

Blood Brother

Among the most fortuitous and abiding of ETHEL’s relationships is with internationally acclaimed Native American musician and composer Robert Mirabal. The central site of ETHEL’s and Mirabal’s collaboration is the ever-evolving program called “The River,” in which ETHEL’s classical virtuosity interacts with Mirabal’s unique cross-cultural sensibility to create moving and ecstatic experiences of music as ritual.

It was a pleasure to be in touch with ETHEL recently and converse with founding members Dorothy Lawson and Ralph Farris, as well as their veritable adopted brother and kindred spirit, Mirabal, in a rare moment of leisure during their swing through the West. The discussion ranged over music and art, life on the road, the fun the group has (including the pranks they play on each other), and even provided a preview of ETHEL’s ambitious upcoming project – a celebration, commissioned by the Ringling Museum of Sarasota, Florida, called “Circus: The Lives Behind the Big Top.”

Here is a generous sampler of the conversation.

The members of ETHEL with flutist Robert Mirabal. From left are Ralph Farris, Mirabal, Kip Jones, Dorothy Lawson, and Corin Lee, Photo: Timothy E. Black

The members of ETHEL with flutist Robert Mirabal. From left are Ralph Farris, Mirabal, Kip Jones, Dorothy Lawson, and Corin Lee, Photo: Timothy E. Black

Charles Geyer: Ralph, I’m intrigued by your characterization of ETHEL as “basically a human interest story….”

RALPH FARRIS: … Oh, yes, that is something that I hold to!

CG: Do you see ETHEL that way, too, Dorothy?

DOROTHY LAWSON: We are constantly interested in the humanity around us. We pay very close attention to the condition of our audiences, for example – to the energies that they are bringing in to us, what they need. One of the reasons that the presenters are so moved and eager to bring an event like [“The River”] is the conversation around healing. We do feel that humanity is more and more stressed, and that music is one of the ways – maybe one of the most direct and powerful ways – for us to actually address it.

RF: Add to that our bent for collaboration, and our deep interest in meeting new people and keeping relationships with dear old friends – the human aspect of making music and being artists together. That is in so many ways what drives us. It’s not just the music – that we get to play cool tunes! It’s actually the fact that we’re out here being humans interacting with other people. Case in point: our collaboration with Robert [Mirabal] has introduced to ETHEL this extraordinary dimension of ceremony in performance.

DL: Yes! And I would love Robert to run with that, actually – the idea of ceremony and how he has found it in our collaboration.

CG: How about that, Robert? Ralph here has previously told me how inspired he and the group have been by sharing and coming to understand your sense of everything as ceremony. I hope that doesn’t embarrass you!

ROBERT MIRABAL: [laughs]. Yeah, well…. When I was younger and performing, I was really somewhat reluctant to bring in parts of my culture. I wanted to be “normal” – whatever that meant at the time. I was out there with a rock band, doing my thing. But as years began to unfold for me, my commitment to my own culture became more apparent. I realized that I couldn’t deny what I felt onstage. And what I felt continuously – even from the very first time I was on stage – was a sense of spirituality. You can say you don’t believe in something, but music will move your soul. You don’t know where it’s coming from, but music can and does have the ability to transform people – and places and groups. And so I just started considering the stage a place of ceremony.

These guys [ETHEL] – they’re scientists with their instruments! That’s what you need to really encompass spirit onstage. Some people may think of it differently – “Oh, it’s just music” – but for me, it’s more than that.

CG: Do you all encounter audiences for whom that connection to spirituality has happened? Who say they just came for the music, but found something else, during, say, a performance of “The River”?

DL: Every single time, yes!  I just rode in the elevator with two people who I didn’t even know had come to the concert last night, and they were very eager for me to know that it was a very unexpectedly special experience for them.

CG: But lest this all sound too ultra-serious, I’m sure you all have fun doing what you do, too. Right?

RF: Oh, we’re laughing all the time, just being on the road together. Example: we did this amazing work with [composer]Augusta Read Thomas about DNA strands, and we played in front of biology students. One of the students raised his hand and said, “You know, the violins sounded very much like DNA to me, but when the cello came in, she sounded a lot more like protein.” So now we’re calling Dorothy “Protein.” The quartet is calling me “Brett” [following a car-rental name mix-up]. The violinists already call each other “Stan” – I don’t know why. So you put it all together – you’ve got Brett over there on the viola, you’ve got Protein on the cello…. We’re having a blast, calling each other these crazy, stupid names.

CG: In addition to which – Robert, I have heard it said that you are something of a prankster. Do you cop to that?

RM: Well, in my culture, if somebody likes you, they’ll tease you a lot. That’s the way it is. You want to make them laugh and you want to laugh with them. That’s tribal culture most everywhere in the world. And these guys are my family. So I used to take a lot of their stuff, and just have them look for it. Like after a show, an hour later Ralph is looking for his viola case.

RF: Or one shoe!

RM: Shoes – for a while it was just shoes.

CG: Well, well! And is turnabout fair play? Dorothy, Ralph? Does Robert get as good as he gives?

DL: Oh, Lord, no! He’s so much better than we are!

RF: I think he has the skills of his ancestor guiding him.

DL: We are rank amateurs compared to him.

CG: It’s interesting that you talk about teasing as important in your culture, Robert. Nowadays, mainstream culture tends to hyperventilate about anything that could be construed as “bullying.”

RM: Yes, in this country, we tend to think of teasing as something you don’t teach kids. You forget how to laugh! The way I grew up, traditionally, men and the women would make jokes with a cold, cold face. In this country, when I say something funny with a cold face, it’s “is he teasing? What is he doing?”

CG: So you’re master of “deadpan”!

RM: I had a girlfriend who had a Betty Boop tattoo that was fading – it was on her shoulder. It looked like Chucky, and it looked like Ralphie. So I started to call him Chucky.

CG: Oh, oh. Like the demonic killer doll from the movie?

RF: Exactly! For years, he called me “Chucky”! And he just would not stop! Then I figured out, “Oh, it’s because he loves me!”

CG: Dorothy and Ralph, you met Robert Mirabal through work ETHEL was already doing with other Native American music-makers. How did all that come about, given that the group had begun in, and is based in, New York City?

DL: Well, New York is full of wonderful things! A very close friend of mine and her husband were the founders of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, and they designed the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project [or “NACAP”], which goes out into the Navaho Nation and works among the high schools with the young teens who are creating music for themselves. Well, we were the resident artists – the performing element of the Project –for ten years. That was our first opportunity to work with Native American composers, and we learned so much doing it, we wanted to bring it back to our own culture, our own world.

We were invited by the Brooklyn Academy of Music to do a signature event in their hall, and we proposed building something where master artists from diverse cultures would join with us, learn from each other, and come up with original music together. The Academy loved this idea. And I took on finding a Native American collaborator – which is, of course, just an insanely large concept. But one of our presenting friends based in Albuquerque said, “Without any question, the first person you should call is Robert Mirabal.” And we did. And as it turned out he was one of the most effective and perfect collaborators, because he had so much experience already in communicating across cultures. It was a fabulous, crazy experience, and I’ve always felt that maybe the proof of its value was that these friendships have lasted. Robert has become one of our greatest teachers, friends, supporters, collaborators –

CG: And pranksters!

DL: Everything!

CG: So, Robert, when ETHEL approached you at that time, you already had a busy career, creating a lot of cross-cultural music, making recordings, winning awards. Tell me about your decision to make space for this relationship with ETHEL.

RM: I always knew that a string quartet was something I wanted to work with. I had done some different projects based on classical orchestration of my work, and I was confident enough to know that I could collaborate with just about anybody, but I never had the opportunity to create a relationship with a string quartet. I was totally excited.

CG: Since then, your ongoing collaboration together is centered around “The River.” I gather it’s a program that, just like a real river, is always changing and moving forward – is that right?

DL: Exactly!

RF: The river keeps rolling, man!

CG: It strikes me that you guys are like explorers, and your work is like an expedition – discovering cultures, bringing representations of them back with you, finding yourselves changed by it all?

RF: Yes. You can’t possibly do the work we do without having some takeaway that is going to make an impression upon the rest of your life. Every single time we pick up our instruments and make sound with someone new, there’s a transfer of sonority, of intention, of heart-connection that’s going to inform and inspire and carry us forward. It’s not just us – it’s a two-way street. And, actually, how we know that it’s right is when it is a two-way street. Because you know immediately.

Robert was stealing our shoes, but we knew immediately that this is a reciprocal engagement that’s going on here. He’s a mirror to us; we’re being a mirror to him. You can feel that immediately.

CG: And that hold true of the many other artists and musicians with whom you work?

RF: Oh, yes. These people are also our dear friends. There’s Dean Osborn – from the “bluegrass royalty” Osborn family. There’s the amazing Jeff Peterson – he is THE slack key guitarist! And La Reina, Eva Ybarra [dubbed the “Queen of the Accordion”]. Robert and I were onstage with Eva, and she’s singing “Why did you leave me?” And that sound, that vibe, that color, that pain that Eva brought – how can that not live with us forever?

ETHEL, Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

ETHEL, Photo: Erin Patrice O’Brien

CG: Finally, let’s talk about ETHEL’s exciting work-in-progress – “Circus: The Lives Behind the Big Top.”

DL: Sure! Multimedia is an essential element of the work we do now. We have been touring for several years with a program we developed based on images drawn from the EPA’s archives, called Documerica. It’s a cooperative event, a beautiful document of photographs being run behind us while we play a concert of this original music.

We wanted to take that [structure]to a next experience. “Circus” is based on the archives and photos and films and oral histories at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, which is our partner. We tell the human, emotive story behind the photographs, illuminating the lives of the people who performed.

CG: And dramatizing those live, too, I gather – using your imagination to get inside those lives. Ralph, tell me again about the piece you’re writing for “Circus.”

RF: Our director, Grant McDonald, gave us a whole lot of photos as leaping off points. There are so many fabulous performers – female, male, animals, clowns – everybody is amazing when they’re onstage. And then there’s the whole world of people behind the scenes – they call it the “backyard.”

DL: And they’re all multi-tasking! The performers are also the people who raise the tent and muck out the animal cages. It’s just incredible.

RF: My piece is called “White Apron” – the story of a daydream and the love-longing of a [circus food]vendor. He’s dealing with hot dogs and popcorn and such – and every once in a while he can sneak away from his cart to spy the gorgeous lady on the trapeze; then he lugs that dream of his as he returns to his hot dogs – though he was probably also, you know, a clown, and a dog trainer!

DL: The aesthetics of circus have infused just about every other kind of entertainment. The Metropolitan Opera has collaborated with Cirque du Soleil! The spectacle of circus – the unpredictability and risk and drama – every traditional and classical form of presentation has to address it in some way.

I’ve worked with the story of an absolutely amazing woman – the goddess of the air, the dreamboat who floated over the tent, spectacularly confident and able to perform without a net. As an elderly woman giving an oral history, she’s talking about instructing the next generation: how you encourage a young person for the very first time to let go! I wrote a very sweet, light, dreamy texture to go with it. I enjoy the combination of the sweetness, the ethereal quality, and, underlying it, the death-defying courage. It’s just the essence of circus.

CG: And the essence of live performance in general, wouldn’t you say? Haven’t you compared the excitement of an ETHEL performance to walking a tightrope?

DL: Yes! Thank you for remembering that connection.

CG: It’s rather touching, and ironic, that ETHEL’s been called on to celebrate the history of circus, when the actual Ringling Brothers Circus is now going defunct.

DL: Yes, and we were well on the road to creating this piece when that news came out. It was a big surprise to all of us.

RF: Though we should point out that our partner and commissioning agent – the Ringling Museum – is separate. And though the circus that we all know and love – Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey – is closing, the world of circus is not. I don’t think it’s ever been more alive! There are local circuses, community circuses, circus schools all over the country and all over the world. Just as with a lot of larger arts institutions – if they didn’t manage to make the swerve left when the world swerved left and instead banked right – a lot of smaller organizations are stepping into the void, and doing beautiful work. We’re working with some circus performers in New York City who are giving us great advice and showing us something about their lives. They were teaching us all how to balance our instruments on our chins!

CG: Wow!

DL: Vignette: my daughter attended an arts camp a couple of times where one of the big areas of instruction was circus. Every time parents were invited to watch displays of the work the kids were doing – making music, dancing, doing theater – the first event was always circus. Every parent was crying – so excited and so impressed – because we all wanted to do it ourselves!

CG: Of course! And, Robert, are you in on this circus project?

RM: If they want me on the project, I would love to do something on it!

CG: Well, how about that! Maybe we’ve just made news?

DL: Yes!

RM: I think it’s fantastic for young people to experience it.

CG: It used to be every kid’s dream –wasn’t it? – to run away with the circus?

RM: Well, that’s what I’m doing!

CG: And I envy all of you your exciting life on the road, and the rest of your fantastic tour. I can’t wait to see an ETHEL performance when you’re back East. Best of luck!

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ETHEL has upcoming performance dates at the Hosmer Theater at SUNY Potsdam (Potsdam, NY) on March 3; “Classics on Hudson” in Hudson, NY on March 5; and “HomeBaked Round III” at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, NY on March 8. Additional engagements during their current touring season extend through June 24 in Woodstock, NY. ETHEL’s complete information and performance calendar can be accessed at the group’s website, ethelcentral.org.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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