Exactly a year ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing violinist/composer Cornelius Duffalo of ETHEL. The string quartet is a forerunner of the current movement interested in transforming how we experience classical music in the 21st century, questioning boundaries between tradition and technology, performer and audience. (See also my article here.)
Made up of traditionally trained, classical musicians, ETHEL has taken a post-classical personal approach to broadening the spectrum of their music making which the New Yorker calls “vital and brilliant.”
Their music represents a Pan-American exploration- reaching from Jazz and Native American influences, to New York’s contemporary responses to 9/11. Performing at alternative venues has also become part of ETHEL’s performance style, playing for younger audiences, who rather frequent pubs, than concert halls.
Their latest album Heavy (in answer to the previous Light) for the Innova-recordings label, recorded on April 24th at Joe’s Pub, feels like a celebration of the group’s longstanding and personal collaboration with composers of the contemporary New York music scene.
Dorothy Lawson, ETHEL’s cellist and founding member, describes the development of the group and shares her observation on the different aspects of this album. “We clearly have grown as a group; it is interesting for me to observe how different this album is compared to our first ones. The very first recording called Ethel we did after six years of performing together and we were still forming ourselves.
It was a document of the composers who helped us to get started as a group, like John King or Evan Zipporin. Four years later, Light was much more relaxed and lighthearted, more imbued with pop colors and rock. But this one now, Heavy, represents the post-classical world fully. It’s related to classical in its architectural way of designing music, in its generation through processes rather than stanzas. The classical mindset is about taking you on a journey or inquiry of some sort, taking the time for the problems and the solutions that the composer finds. The influences or composers we are pulling from do not convey traditional styles, or mainstream classical layers. We could call it a blend, which of course still does not really describe anything specific and we often did struggle with words to describe our personal style. But we clearly went through a transition – now people say this sounds like ETHEL. We are opening our platform to other cultures and it’s a process of true cultural exchange and a way to live with music in a special way.”
Some of the material on Heavy was performed by ETHEL beforehand, long before they were committed to the recording’s eighteen months long process. The recording includes works by Julia Wolfe, John Halle, John King, David Lang, Kenji Bunch, Marcelo Zarvos and Don Byron. The group’s longstanding member, violinist Mary Rowell, is featured on the release, but left ETHEL last year. She will make a guest appearance with ETHEL for John King’s No Nickel Blues featured on Heavy, at the release to be held at Joe’s pub.
But it is now violinist Jennifer Choi’s part, who has since become the newest ETHEL member, to perform all other works featured on the CD. “Being with ETHEL this past year, has been an eye opening experience for me,” says Choi, who describes herself as a big improviser and is immensely attracted to ETHEL’s multicultural approach to music, thereby supplying her with much added, creative stimulus. “It is new music to many people; the new album pays homage to New York City, but it’s not really limited to the New York experience. It is quite refreshing and people all over the United States can relate. And there is always a meaning behind our programs. As the newbie I was attracted to its American mix. For so many years we brought all the European composers over. Now there is a big wave of fresh, contemporary American music that should be interesting internationally, now.”
Supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Greenwall foundation, Heavy, according to ETHEL co-founder, violist Ralph Farris, serves as “homage to New York City, its people and its music.”