ETHEL, acclaimed as America’s premier postclassical string quartet, will be giving a great show at Le Poisson Rouge tomorrow night. The concert is part of the Meet the Composer’s 3 CITY DASH FESTIVAL, and it features music from composers from San Francisco. Below is an email Q+A with Ralph Farris, ETHEL’s magnificent violist.
S21 Q + A w/ ETHEL:
ETHEL focuses on the repertoire of the the past four decades. While all of that music is classified as “contemporary,” it is extremely diverse compositionally. Is there any particularly style you prefer personally or as a group and enjoy working on?
We do love tunes that groove! If there is some infectious rhythmic element in a piece, it’s probably going to spark something with us.
We particularly enjoy working in person with composers. Having the experience of being together with a composer as the music comes to life is very special.
And of course, we are always thrilled to present the work of young composers!
Despite the extreme variety in contemporary classical music, do you have one sort of goal you hope to communicate generally with all the music you play?
Music is a language, a profound connector of cultures and ideas.
With our work, we aim to link people together in a shared experience, to inspire and celebrate our common humanity.
Along that line, when you receive a new work by a composer, likely something you’ve never heard or seen before, do you approach each piece differently, or with a sort of rehearsal routine?
We endeavor to learn as much as we can about a composer before we read their work, in an effort to open our ears, minds and hearts.
On the nuts-and-bolts side, we prefer to receive both a score and parts. And a MIDI file or recording is always helpful.
As to rehearsal routine, there are some tried-and-true techniques that we advocate:
• If there’s a measure that is giving us trouble, we’ll put an imaginary repeat sign around it and loop it until the physical feel of it is locked.
• Slow practice is invaluable, of course, but we also spend good amounts of time at medium speed, galvanizing ensemble and overall feel.
• Once a piece is almost feeling solid, but just needs a little push, we may turn ourselves away from each other for a run or two, in an effort to feel each others’ lines and intentions. Pretty tough exercise, but it has helped us greatly.
Do you approach pieces primarily with a sort of ETHEL quartet style? The group is notoriously charismatic– how do you translate that into an extremely minimalistic piece, for instance?
LOL. We are four people having a great time making music together. I would hope that this translates through any music that we approach.
There is an increasing amount of technology being used in new music and also in combination with instruments themselves. This can range from performing with an electronic track, or utilizing amplification or live electronic enhancements. Do you feel it is crucial for the modern contemporary player to be at ease with all of this technology?
Yes, yes, yes! Today’s musicians have so many tools at their disposal, and composers will forever embrace new techniques and technologies in their work. It is our great joy to keep an ear to the ground and an eye to the present AND to the future.
In a venue like LPR, where your next show will be on April 11, the strings are almost always amplified. How do you feel about this?
For ETHEL, the choice to amplify is not a question of volume, it is a choice of timbre. The colors available to us in an amplified context inspire a certain energy that is organic to our presentation. We can drop to a whisper or we can scream. Additionally, a great amount of our work is with pre-recorded track, and an amplified sound makes for a much better blend.
You will be premiering Dohee Lee’s HonBiBaekSan (The Ritual of White Mountain). What was it like working on this particular piece? What was the most challenging aspect?
This is a deeply personal, spiritual piece. Dohee Lee has welcomed us into her world through her writings and imagery (she has sent us several drawings as inspiration). I am experiencing the piece as a profound meditation.
Working on a brand new piece with a composer can be a very collaborative process. How do you work on new pieces primarily as a quartet and form your own ETHEL interpretation while still taking into account the input of the composer?
It is always a dialogue with our composers. We celebrate exploring the sound and spirit of a new piece as the music comes alive. Sometimes composers will have very particular ideas that they are asking us to embrace; sometimes they want us to explore for a new sound or approach, sometimes a brand new color enters the room and inspires us all. In every case, it is a vibrant interaction — between us, the composer, and the piece.
Also on the program are pieces by Terry Riley, Hafez Modirzadeh, and Pamela Z. How do these pieces complement each other and why did you choose to program them together?
This show is a part of Meet the Composer’s 3 CITY DASH FESTIVAL, and it features music from composers from San Francisco. These composers are connected geographically, but they are also very dear to us for their unique voices and colors — Terry Riley for his brilliant modular minimalism, Pamela Z for her sweet expressions and wittiness, Hafez Modirzade for his mind-bending theories and awesome grooves.
Is there anything in particular you hope your audience at this concert will “listen for” particularly? What experience are you hoping the audience will have?
Fun, baby! Come have a groovy time at MTC’s celebration of San Francisco!
If you can’t catch the show at LPR tomorrow night, be sure to check out ETHEL at Merkin Hall on May 23rd as part of the Tribeca Music Festival.