The members of ETHEL, Ralph Farris (artistic director, viola), Dorothy Lawson (artistic director, cello), Kip Jones (violin), and Tema Watstein (violin), were up early yesterday—about 3 a.m.—to board a flight bound for Ohio.
When they arrived on campus, they got right to work performing at noon on the A-quad for students, faculty, and staff; checking out Swasey Chapel’s acoustics for their Vail performance set to take place the following evening (Sept. 27) at 8 p.m.; and meeting with members of the Denison orchestra for a master class. In the midst of it all, they managed to sit down with TheDEN to discuss the origins of the group’s name, the art of performance, and the correlation between music and community.
Where did the name ETHEL come from?
Ralph: It doesn’t mean anything!
Kip: No, come on! I thought we were looking through the records of Ellis Island and it turned out that between the years of 1905 and 1920 more women came through who were named Ethel than anything else.
Ralph: No. My cousin’s cousin’s best friend’s name was Ethel… Actually, when we founded the group, one thing that we were really jazzed about was that “ETHEL” was doing things. ETHEL was going to practice; ETHEL was an entity. I think with Grace, the program we’ll perform for Vail, we found ETHEL within the four of us. I think that’s one of the great opportunities that our name gives us.
Kip: ETHEL’s a nice lady.
Ralph: She is a nice lady.
So there is no big, grand story behind the name?
Dorothy: The idea was to avoid a name that would lead people into an association with a genre or style or ideology. We started long enough ago where groups were named after philosophers or composers. We knew that we needed to be more relaxed, and we wanted to have more fun with it.
What does your music do to bring people together?
Dorothy: We realized that we, just by our practice and our training and our identities, are deeply identified with a certain culture and time and worldview. And yet our tastes — our personal perspectives and interests — are much wider than that. Today people are way more exposed to, interested in, and conversant with different ideas and sounds from other places and cultures.
It was a coincidence when we started that the market for our classical training was diminishing. Presenters and promoters were very concerned about bringing audiences in. It was a really unique moment when they were willing — and needed to — look at music and art flourishing in a subculture. Prior to that time, people writing classical music with heavy rock influences — with pop or jazz or anything else — were disregarded. They were considered less important, less significant, less valid, less intellectual. Yet it was their language! It was the voice they needed to speak in.
We loved that blend already, and we became a skillful and polished ensemble ready to engage with those styles. For promoters, there was no science to it. It was really like throwing something at the wall and seeing if it stuck. They just said, “Well, they’re preforming music with more of a rock influence. Let’s see if it works. Let’s see if anyone comes to hear it.”
Ralph: We don’t consider ourselves to be any genre. You think “string quartet,” you think “classical” immediately. We are immediately in a box. I’m just a musician. I’m just doing what I do, and I’m doing it with great people. I love these guys. I love making music with them. I love writing music for them. I love the music that they write for us. And I love my life together with them. And, perhaps this is a bit too bold to say, but I feel like we play ETHEL music.
There is an awful lot of joy on stage. That’s a great thing to be apart of and it’s a wonderful thing to share. When you ask about community, there are opportunities for joy out there that maybe flood on by, and we’re grabbing ahold of them and just living in them for a little while, and we’re happy to be there.
Dorothy: We always look for ways to reach over age differences, ways to be relevant to people who are much older or younger; people across gulfs of language or cultural styles. It began with that gap between classical western music and popular western music. It seemed insurmountable to generations. For the last 100 years, people have been saying, you don’t pollute one with the other. But music is endlessly pliable. Music is such a great medium. It exists in every culture and is a natural human instinct. When you share vibrations and allow the path of responses to express themselves, no matter where you come from, you realize how much you share. It’s so much fun.
You say you play “ETHEL music.” How has the music evolved?
Ralph: We play music that we own. It is ours. We are standing up on stage and we know exactly what we are trying to express. It just feels like this is what we are supposed to be doing.
Tema: I think we specialize in maintaining our individuality as players, which is really striking in a string quartet. Because we definitely have a very vibrant collective sound. But I think we each bring something really different to the group. Most string quartets would not endeavor to do this because they are so focused on funneling down to one sound, and we are interested in funneling down to one exciting musical experience with four distinct characteristics.
Dorothy: I think there is a nice thing to observe about music and collaboration in music. You are involved in a human social behavior in collaborating to reach a common goal. The nice thing about music is that you can allow for differences. You don’t have to homogenize down to one decision — you can respect each others’ perspectives and still stand together and have an effective voice, a shared voice.
I think one of our central challenges as human beings is dealing with the weight of humanity and the need for diverse views and needs and convictions to somehow coexist. You don’t want to simply erase the differences. The differences are essential and beautiful. You would probably go crazy without them.
How do you create cohesion on the stage?
Kip: I think the nuts and bolts that Dorothy is describing are things that we work on all day, but the stage is a different thing. The stage is a place of ceremony. When we are on stage there is something different happening. Whoever we are is blown open as wide as we can blow it open, and other people are invited to take part in the things that make us who we are and make us do what we do.
Dorothy: It becomes about our opportunity with the audience. Sharing whatever the latest decisions have been made with a larger group of people. There is an expertise, mastery involved in being a good performer. It’s a beautiful opportunity.