Music For Writers: A Quartet Named ETHEL And A Guitarist Named Kaki

Image: Ken Goodman
Image: Moraima Capellán Pichardo

‘A Freedom Of Sound And Spirit’

There’s only one question you can start with, when you interview the violist of a string quartet called ETHEL (yes, all caps).

Ralph Farris:  The name “ETHEL” comes from the film, Shakespeare in Love. The Bard was struggling to complete a play called, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Hilarity ensued.

Thank God we cleared that up.

Farris and his three ETHEL associates — violinists Kip Jones and Corin Lee, and cellist Dorothy Lawson — will be onstage at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, 23:30 GMT, on Saturday evening (March 21) at the Kaufman Center’s Merkin Concert Hall on West 67th in New York. And if you can’t be there with them, you might want to jump online with New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music, which will web-cast a live stream of the event (and then offer it for on-demand listening in its Ecstatic Music Festival series. Look for the stream here.

The Ecstatic, now in its fifth year, is a leading producer of contemporary-classical performances. Many of its performances, under Judd Greenstein’s highly effective artistic direction,  bring together such seemingly disparate outfits as a highly regarded new-music classical quartet like ETHEL and a notably adventurous guitar artist like Kaki King. Among the ETHEL ensemble’s most frequent collaborators, composer John King is with them on Saturday, as well, and several of the works on the evening’s lineup are his, including Hardwood and Huzam-Khan Younis (from Free Palestine).

And the second thing you have to ask an ETHEL member when you interview them is:

Thought Catalog: Ralph, why do you guys stand up when you play?

Ralph Farris
Ralph Farris

RF: There’s a freedom of sound and spirit that comes with standing while playing. We have been doing it for a good while now… It’s just more fun to fiddle on your feet. We even sometimes rehearse that way. Every once in a while we dream up a new scheme to design Dorothy some sort of cello harness, so she can stand as well. One of these days, Dorothy will be walkin’ and rockin’.

TC: But in this video of the rehearsal for Great Round Burn, you’re all sitting down, not just Dorothy-and-her-cello.

RF: That was actually for the benefit of framing the shot, as I recall. Kaki was seated, so we sat as well. But we were standing in spirit.

It’s worth noting that in Saturday evening’s Ecstatic Music Festival performance you’ll hear music composed by some of the ETHEL members.

  • Farris, in fact, our brave interviewee, wrote Sammich; More Muddy with Kaki King; and the strings (pretty terrific) on Great Round Burn, another collaboration with Kaki King.
  • Violinist Kip Jones wrote Kingfisher and Jay Red.
  • Cellist Lawson wrote Jesse Stomp — no word about whether she stands to compose.

And all this creative capability reminds me of another out-there quartet we’ve covered in #MusicForWriters, the JACK Quartet. I decide to give Farris a pass on this business of quartets naming themselves in all-caps — it’s Music For Writers, not Music By Writers, after all — and ask him instead:

TC: Does the ETHEL actively think of this work as fence-jumping across genres and styles? And what does the ETHEL think of the JACK? (Was I yelling?)

RF: We love the JACK! Brilliant group. What we think of ourselves is that we are making connections. Actively, and always. And once a connection or a collaboration is built, we’re family. One thing’s for certain — we never did set out to break any rules. We only ever wanted to have a great time making the music that we wanted to make, with the people we wanted to make it with. We’ll jump a fence if we have to!

TC: What sort of benefit do you get from such collaboration? Ostensibly, a quartet of your caliber has no need to go outside the old and new repertoires. And yet, when you and the quartet do cross these lines, the results are so rich. Is there any way to define the overall arc of a quartet’s career that’s so aligned with experimentation?

RF:  I wouldn’t say that we are experimenting, per se. What we are doing is really just following our hearts and ears — seeking commonalities between communities and traditions, building new works with brilliantly forward-thinking artists, and hopefully, bringing a little joy to the folks we have the honor to play for, and WITH.

TC: More caps, you see? We’re both yelling. So might your collaborator ever be the JACK? A double-quartet smack down. I think ETHEL could take those boys.

RF: Ha! Them boys got game!

The quartet ETHEL , from left, is Kip Jones, violin; Corin Lee, violin;  Ralph Ferris, viola; Dorothy Lawson, cello. Kaki King is in the center. Image:  Ken Goodman
The quartet ETHEL , from left, is Ralph Farris, violin; Corin Lee, violin; Kip Jones, viola; Dorothy Lawson, cello. Kaki King is in the center. Image: Ken Goodman

‘You Cannot Cut Off Your Oxygen’

TC: How much touring is ETHEL doing now, how much performance is it?

RF: We are on the road about 150+ days of the year, to include three to four weeks at Denison University (go Big Red!), where we are Ensemble-In-Residence. When we’re home in New York City, we’re playing on our series at the Metropolitan Museum’s Balcony Bar, and all around town as we can.

TC: And how is that working with the life?

RF: It’s hard, for sure. And as a band, we endeavor to keep downtime sacred (but I never quite manage to). Road life is tough — routines are sure hard to keep up. Just getting in a run, or a yoga class is a big challenge on the road. Especially when you are up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight. But our presenters generally go way out of their way to take care of us — to schedule a chiropractic adjustment, or an emergency dental visit, or a trip to the brilliant local tea shop, or whatever they can do to keep us at our best, they tend to want to do. And we are ever grateful. These folks are awesome, and they truly know what it takes for us to do what we do.

TC: Seriously, work-life balance. Is there any or does the contemporary classical scene carry its own sort of jagged rhythm of work, performance, rehearsal…in a way as contemporary and glitchy as the music’s consciousness can seem?

RF:  I may be the wrong guy to ask. Not sure I have the work-life balance thing sorted. But I sure am loving it — having a grand old time. I may not close the office as much as I should, but man, it’s a helluva ride!

TC: If you were a nice traditionalist quartet performing no newer than Debussy and getting into the tuxes and long dresses for the shows and cushy dressing rooms with flowers — actually I hope you get those anyway — would being ETHEL be any easier, more stable, less harrying? … or just lots less fun, more stodgy, and utterly boring?

RF: Yeah, we do work damn hard, but there is serious payoff. Once we’ve built a show, we get to tour it! And it’s new, every time. Those are our Debussy moments –but without the tuxes. And our dressing rooms are pretty sweet! I wouldn’t have it any other way. And any other way, it just wouldn’t be ETHEL, would it?

TC: We have this sort of new model of scrappy, busy performance by musicians like you folks who could be doing the chamber circuit but don’t. And these are the artists, often performing composers, who surround Q2 Music. What is this new development? Tech and everything else have conspired to make it possible and ETHEL is one of the leading lights of this whole development.

RF: Man, I love you! Thank you so much. I like to think that the whole reactionary deal that happened 100+ years ago, when “classical” music decided to elevate its practitioners and place them in ivory towers — that has finally been exposed as a thorough waste of time, and in fact a brilliant way to kill an entire art form. You cannot cut off your oxygen. What’s happening now is nothing new at all; musicians are re-finding their voices as improvisers, as composers, as cross-genre innovators, just like it used to be 200 years ago. That great mix of music — popular, concert, folk, etc., all informs and inspires the musician of today, as it should. You don’t have to be “just” a fiddle player any more. In fact, you ain’t goin’ very far today if that’s all you bring to the table.

TC: Lastly, talk a bit to me about working with Kaki. All the secrets. Okay, I’m joking. The real question here: How representative would you say is her willingness to experiment and collaborate from her side of the musical fence? Such collaborations the ETHEL does — Todd Rundgren, David Byrne, etc. — are fabulous. But how many pop-based artists are capable of this kind of jump to contemporary classical? How many are able to build on it and expand their own art as Kaki does?

RF: Kaki is awesome. She’s a brilliant collaborator, and a dear friend. She says we push her, but man — she pushes us! For my part, I’ve still got a foot stuck back in yesterday’s traditions (I ran screaming from that ivory tower scene), and working with Kaki always brings me back to purity of sound and intention. She just makes great music. We do enjoy crossing the divide and creating a welcoming space for collaborators from any genre, but the key is that the artist on the other side has to be willing to take the steps with us. Kaki – like David Byrne and Todd Rundgren – is always game for an adventure. These artists are leading the charge, and it’s a crazy inspiration. It’s all music, man. And it is, truly, all good.TC mark

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