At Window Rock (of the actual rock) is with ETHEL's Kip Jones, dear friend James Bilagody, Jesse and Fiona Sherman.
At Window Rock: ETHEL’s Kip Jones, dear friend James Bilagody, Jesse and Fiona Sherman.

For the past decade, the nationally acclaimed string quartet ETHEL has served as the Ensemble-in-Residence of the Grand Canyon Music Festival’s Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP). To date, ETHEL’s residency has impacted almost 18,000 students, premiered over 150 works by Native American children, and touched more than 15 schools throughout Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. For about three weeks, the quartet conducts intense, one-on-one tutorial sessions, readings and rehearsals to help student composers refine their works. They then showcase the children’s pieces at school performances, all culminating at the public performances at the Grand Canyon Music Festival, which are recorded and sometimes later aired on National Public Radio (NPR). In the post that follows, ETHEL founding member, artistic director and viola Ralph Farris reports on the quartet’s most recent residency.

by Ralph Farris

From late August through early September, NACAP students (ages 13-21) participate in composition intensives in schools across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, under the expert tutelage of superstar Native American composer Raven Chacon and his brilliant associates Trevor Reed, Blair Quamahongnewa and Mike Begay. Resident ensembles then visit these schools and workshop with the young composers on their new works, working out all the nitty-gritty details in service of the composers’ intentions. This new music is then performed at school assemblies – showcasing the young local talent, and celebrating these students’ work, right there, in their home communities. The resident ensembles then pick up and drive 100+ miles to the next school, and do it all again the next day.

After a fortnight of criss-crossing the Southwest, the resident ensembles ultimately arrive at Grand Canyon National Park, where the festival presents ALL of the new student pieces in a marathon concert. Each year there are some 30 pieces presented; the event is recorded and each student is provided a CD of their own work – for future study, for college applications, for sharing with grandmother…

Several of our NACAP students are now in music school; several of them are pursuing other career paths. All of them have been deeply moved – as has ETHEL – by their work with NACAP. Through this festival, these young people see themselves anew – they find their voices. And in turn, ETHEL has found new depth, new color, new joy – in ours.

NACAP itself has received numerous honors, including NewMusic USA’s New Music Educators Award, Arizona Governor’s Arts Award, and an Award from The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities(!). Our NACAP students have even been visited by John Lennon Educational Tour Bus.

What an amazing thing that happens each year in the Southwest! What a gift it has been for ETHEL to be a part of this extraordinary program!

ETHEL has enjoyed inspired collaborations with groups and soloists through our tenure with NACAP. In 2011, we were very pleased to welcome the Sphinx Organization’s powerhouse Catalyst Quartet as the NACAP Fellowship Quartet. This season, we were thrilled to work with trombone ensemble the Guidonian Hand, as well as ETHEL’s former (and founding) member, Mary Rowell. Under the auspices of this festival, ETHEL has toured the Southwest with Hawaiian slack-key guitar virtuoso Jeff Peterson, Bluegrass legend Dean Osborne, and Taos Pueblos’ master of Native American flute, Robert Mirabal.

We have also premiered so very many new works at the festival – hundreds of pieces from our NACAP students, as well as music from John King, Neil Rolnick, Hannis Brown, Steve Huber, and members of ETHEL, past and present.

ETHEL has performed the music of our NACAP students across the world – at the Tempe Historical Museum; on a convict settlement in Tasmania; in the Chicago Zoo; in a reclaimed Dutch sewage treatment plant; at a Russian communications museum. Our residency at NACAP has been featured in documentary film, “Strings on the Rez,” (Molly McBride, Director); on the air (Performance Today; Hopi Radio; a WNYC Radio Diary – Beth Fertig, Producer); in numerous print and online articles, and on mobile phones the world over (courtesy of Holland’s Ringtone Society).

Without a doubt, our 10th NACAP’s season highlights were our two celebratory touring performances – at the Heard Museum (Phoenix, AZ), where we premiered Raven Chacon’s “Double Weaving;” and at the Navajo Nation Museum (Window Rock, AZ) with Navajo Singer/Actor/Activist James Bilagody, where we showcased a celebration of 10 years’ work with the young people of Navajo Nation. To share the music of these amazing young Native American artists in these two extraordinary spaces was an incredible honor.

We are ever grateful to NACAP’s founders, Clare Hoffman and Robert Bonfiglio for inviting ETHEL to take part in this amazing work. To all our dear NACAP friends – The GCMF board, the Grand Canyon Village community, Rene West, the Pearce Family, Ranger Bob, Eve Watson, Tom Riggenbach and NavajoYES, Dan Crank, the Bilagody-Glasgow Family, Dean Neasham, Ben Taylor, all our fellow resident ensembles and composers, the amazing teachers in all of the NACAP schools, and most of all, to the NACAP STUDENTS – ETHEL is ever grateful. You are in our hearts – and our music – always.