themselves a band, but their two violins, viola and cello sure could fool
you into thinking of them as a string quartet. They’re frequently compared
to the avant-garde Kronos Quartet, but their repertoire and distinctive
gestalt suggest otherwise. And they’re named Ethel, for which there is no
easy or rational explanation.
After several years of increasingly frequent solo gigs and a well-received
premiere CD on the Canteloupe label (aptly titled Ethel), Ethel launched a
full-scale US tour with Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson in spring 2005.
Although Ethel had a prior relationshoip with Jackson, and even played on
one of his recent albums, they first met Todd Rundgren in August 2004 when
all three shared an \ evening at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The
success of their joint encores sparked the tour.
In the interview that follows, conducted by phone in February 2005, Ethel
assumes the voices of violinist Mary Rowell and violinist Todd Reynolds. For
two months out of the year, Mary serves as concertmaster for Radio City
Music Hall’s hardly hip holiday show. She has also toured with Joe Jackson
and Sheryl Crow, and performed on several of Joe’s albums.
Todd is a longtime member of Steve Reich and Musicians and New York’s
anything but proper Bang on a Can. He’s toured with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road
Project and played the Dancing Fiddler in the Broadway revival of Annie Get
Your Gun. The herein unrepresented violist Ralph Farris and cellist Dorothy
Lawson have equally multi-dimensional bios, dated versions of which appear
Jason Victor Serinus: Having read a host of articles about you, I’ve
discovered that every interviewer seems to ask the same questions. I
therefore know not to ask you about the genesis of your name, not to ask if
you’re like the Kronos Quartet, and not to call you a string quartet.
Mary Rowell: So nice to have a different kind of interview.
JVS: Really. I want to ask you about something that came up at San
Francisco’s Other Minds Festival of New and Experimental Music last night.
Every performance was miked, even when mikes weren’t necessary. The sound
was hideous; something was very wrong. On a Michael Nyman piece, the voice
of the excellent soprano soloist Cheryl Keller had a horrible buzz in the
midrange. There was no top, no bottom, and no color to the rest of the
music. All the beauty of tone that a professional musician cultivates could
not be heard.
What control do you have over the sound systems you use when you go from
place to place performing?
Todd Reynolds: We have a pretty good amount of control. We have a great
sound artist who works with us. We consider him to be a part of the band.
Whether it’s him or someone else we sometimes hire, we take incredible steps
to make sure that we get what we need to make ourselves sound good and
insure that the audience has a great experience.
MR: We don’t trust that we can rely on any place to have a good sound system
or to have a good person to run it. Sometimes we’re lucky. But usually
you’re shooting in the dark if you chance it.
TR: Most of the time we have a rider in our contract that gives us some
control. We take a lot of care in how we sound. It’s part of the journey.
It’s called production value, and it’s part of any performance journey
MR: We bring our own pick-ups and some mikes.
TR: Also our own monitoring systems.
MR: We ask for a very high quality PA, and most of the time we get it. Once
in awhile we get to a place that thinks their system adequate compared to
what they saw in the rider, and we suffer a little bit.
TR: But most of the time our sound guy has advanced the show in such a way
that he’s very aware of what to expect.
JVS: Remind me which instruments you play.
MR: Violin and other violin.
TR: We don’t have a hierarchy in our feelings about how to play the music
that’s written for us.
MR: We’re set up a little differently than most quartets. The two violins
are in back, with the cello and viola in front. The viola sits where the
first violin usually sits. We didn’t want to project that there was an issue
of first and second violin. And you usually don’t get enough viola, so we
put him on the outside. It just was more comfortable.
TR: From an acoustic standpoint, we like a lot of bass in the music we play.
This set-up gets the bass upfront, hitting the audience’s ears just slightly
before the violins. The other thing we take under consideration is that Mary
and I are very tall. We feel comfortable sitting on stools that make us a
bit taller. So we’re best put in the back. The configuration also gives the
quartet a raked appearance, with us sitting on top.
JVS: But if all your instruments are amplified, how does putting the bass
farther front affect the sound?
TR: Amplification never takes the place of acoustic sound. Amplification is
there to reinforce or to create a color. If you’re in a hall where you can’t
hear the instruments and you amplify them, that’s a different story. But
wherever we go, we treat amplification as an extension of the sound, not a
replacement for the sound.
We aren’t an amplified band. We use amplification the same way a regular
quartet would use two violins, a viola and a cello. It’s part of the
Sometimes, in a small hall, we’ll still use amplification because we need it
for some of the pieces that we have recorded material for. But perhaps we’ll
bring it down to just two microphones. Then you’ll get a lot of acoustic
MR: We’ll still have pick-ups on the instruments, but they’ll have been
turned off at that point.
TR: We have six possible channels for the quartet: four pick-up channels and
two mike channels. How we use them depends upon the piece, the venue, and
the program. It changes night-to-night and moment-to-moment.
JVS: This is certainly a philosophy I’ll encourage Other Minds to use in
Yerba Buena Center, where instruments can ordinarily be heard quite well
I’ve read a huge packet of interviews with you where people ask questions
and you respond. Rather than do that, I want to give you the opportunity to
tell me about your upcoming gig and tour with Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson.
What would you like people to know?
MR: Although Ethel is classically trained, we’re very interested in and have
been quite active professionally performing pop music. I’ve been on several
of Joe Jackson’s albums and worked with him since ’94. None of us has ever
worked with Todd Rundgren.
Bill Bragin from Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York has been a big
champion of ours. When he was putting together his Central Park show for the
Delacorte Theater, he proposed we share an evening with Joe and Todd. We
thought it an excellent idea. We started at 7, with each doing a solo set.
Ethel was very keen on wanting to do something with both of them. Our Todd
had contacted Todd Rundgren, and he suggested we do encores together.
Audience members, many of whom came for them, not us, loved what we did with
The exciting element of this is that we’re being presented as our own
artists rather than as a back-up group for those guys. It’s very important
not to be considered a great pick-up band that can do anything with anybody.
In just a few weeks, we’ll be playing for 50,000 people. The exposure for us
TR: We get to introduce our music to people who haven’t heard it before. But
we’re doing so in the context of music that has always inspired us. Mary has
played with Joe Jackson for ages, and we played on one of his discs as well.
The idea of playing tunes we love and they love with them is a hoot. We’re
playing music that inspires us.
Right now, the two tunes we’re doing (which would be great not to mention in
the article so they’ll be a surprise) are a Beatles tune and one of Todd’s
tunes for the encore set. I’m sure things will change on the road. But it’s
a real going back to our roots.
We have a lot of respect for those guys. It’s a really nice pairing. Being
together takes the classical world where we come from and still live in and
intersects it with the pop world in very profound and respectful ways on all
MR: Ethel needs that synthesis of classical and popular. We were just dying
as classical players, because we wanted to play rock ‘n roll too. This is a
perfect situation for us.
JVS: You were dying just doing classical?
MR: I shouldn’t say, “dying.” It was one element of what I wanted to do as
an artist seeking self-expression. But I needed to do everything: not just
classical, not just pop, but both.
JVS: I certainly know that as a performing whistler, I can do five gorgeous
Puccini arias, three moving Schubert lied, and two exquisite pieces by
Mozart, but everyone ends up smiling when I whistle “Blue Skies.” Maybe it’s
different for you…
MR: Not really…
JVS: What is limiting for you in classical music?
TR: It’s very hard to frame this as “what is limiting?” I’d rather go in the
other direction, and talk about what’s freeing.
Mary and I do jazz, pop, uptown, downtown, experimental… We’ve been playing
everybody for close to 20 years. It is a norm for us to look at music as
When you’re educated in the classical world, that’s all you see. Ain’t
nuthin’ wrong with that. It is by definition a limit or a boundary that goes
TR: But for our personal visions, which are shared with the other two
members of the quartet, there just wasn’t a limit with Ethel. It was
incredibly freeing to do everything we were doing.
Then, the goal becomes: how do you actually make something of your own which
really brings everything that you love out and has everything contained in
it. How do you create a vessel? That’s what Ethel is, was, and will be. It’s
a continuing vessel for the development of our personal voices, our
collective voice, so on and so forth.
It isn’t that classical music is limiting. It’s rather that, looking at all
of music as a whole is rather freeing. It gives great support to the
This is where the voice of all the great creative musicians of the world,
including people like the Beetles and Beethoven, came from: from digging
deep within their soul. That’s the unifying factor here. Transcending the
limitations, both in concept and in reality, produces what we do.
MR: Exactly. And if you want to use the word ‘limiting,’ it can be applied
in the same for any genre, be it jazz or bluegrass, if that’s all you do.
TR: And that’s fine. There are plenty of people out there who would love to
exercise their creative notions inside limits and boundaries. It’s actually
very helpful to have them.
We were people who liked to educate ourselves that way. We just opened it up
to include other things.
JVS: It’s interesting to hear how your hearts speak through so many
different kinds of music and your souls move in so many directions at a time
in history when there’s a Fundamentalist move to compartmentalize everything
MR: Exactly. Exactly. I’ve been craving what we’re doing for 20 years, and I
think Todd has too.
All of a sudden, when Ethel came together, there was a place for Ethel.
There was a need for breaking down categories. Human beings need to have an
incredible understanding and empathy for all different things, and find a
way to bridge the gaps. The time is right for is to exist.
TR: The other thing that makes the space available for Ethel to exist is
that what one of the ways we’re able to connect successfully with our
audiences +is that we have a certain quality of abandon within the band
itself and within the music itself. When we’re onstage, there is a joy
present that seems to transmit to the audience and create a real rewarding
experience for everybody at the same time.
That’s another thing that there’s an open space for. People want to see
people who are enjoying themselves and are impassioned – on fire – about
what they do. We hope that is what comes forth from us.
MR: Yeah. You can talk about Ethel all you want, but seeing Ethel perform is
really the thing.
TR: It comes off on the CD for sure. (We have to be careful how we say this,
but) we really love to be in contact with people from the stage and off the
stage. So far, we’ve been pretty happy that people like to stay afterwards
and talk with us and maybe buy a CD. Sometimes we sign it for them. Most
important, we go out to the lobby after every concert because we want to see
JVS: I’m experiencing more and more classical CD signings after concerts in
San Francisco. Thomas Quasthoff, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sophie von Otter…
JVS: Yes. You know, Anne Sophie is recording a disc of ABBA. She performed a
Christmas concert in San Francisco that really pushed the limits of the
classical recital. She sang a Bach piece where one of her instrumentalists
brushed a music stand with wire brushes. For her encore, she sang “Merry
Christmas Santa” as though she was a seductive 15-year old blond “girl.” She
was teasing us, bending her body and having a lot of fun.
A while back, Von Otter did an interview with the doomsaying English critic
Norman Lebrecht where she purportedly said something like, “You know, if in
the end I had to choose between giving my money to save classical music or
saving the whales, I think I’d save the whales.”
TR: We can make fun of the New Age community all we like. But you know what?
I think everybody just wants to reach out and touch somebody. We’re all
starved from having to do stuff right, and doing stuff right has led us down
the path to absolutely nowhere.
MR: Right. There’s no right and wrong; from an artistic standpoint. We’re
trying to ease people into that concept.
JVS: Of course, there is a right and wrong. If you’re supposed to play a C
and you play a C#…
MR: But then it’s all jazz, my friend. You make the wrong note right.
TR: Fantastic. That’s our world anyway.
MR: It’s really where we come from completely.
JVS: Have you had that happen to you in concert?
TR: We all have been programmed to think it’s about the notes.
Classical music is basically a re-creational art, not a creational art. When
you’re recreating something, most of the game is to do it accurately and
also with heart.
With us, we’re sort of coming from the other direction. We’re creating the
music with a strong voice. Others will come along and create it differently.
But the music we’re having written and creating has so much improvisation in
it that whenever people come along to re-create it, it will sound different
because it will be their voices inside a structure.
MR: It’s alive and it’s a personal statement.
JVS: Is there a lot of improvisation on your début CD?
TR: In the piece I wrote, every single note is written. But it’s written in
such a way that the band is a little bit like a rubber band making its way
through the piece with a unison feeling (if not in unison entirely). While I
wouldn’t call it improvised on any level, it’s loose enough and free enough
that the issues of notes, correctness, so on and so forth represent a
different quality of aesthetic.
JVS: Do you aim your music toward a certain audience?
MR: We want everybody to like us. We’re not going after certain crowds of
people to get them to like us more or less than others.
TR: In fact, our sexuality and politics…
MR: …have nothing to do with anything as far as we’re concerned.
TR: It’s something that we keep pretty close to the vest because, especially
in our first incarnation here, we want it to be very much about…
TR: Everything at once, rather than being too specific. We don’t write
things in our titles, or write about certain issues or anything like that
yet. I don’t know if we ever will. It’s important for us to grab the biggest
swath of human experience that we can.
Don’t even get me started on the Catholic Church or religious organizations
in general. I could get pretty vehement about my beliefs. Every time I see
[bigotry] flash across the screen, it pisses me off. From inside the
quartet, the way I choose to put myself forward from my corner is to create
as much love in the room as possible, hoping with hope against hope that
that is the answer on some level.
There’s only a certain amount of authority that you can break, there’s only
a certain amount of ignorance that you can heal. That’s where I prefer to
MR: In a way, it is New Age. All of these things that everybody gets upset
about and should get upset about are important. But Ethel doesn’t want you
to hear Ethel because it’s going to make you believe more this way or that
TR: Or because you’re a Democrat. But we do tend to do better in the Blue
JVS: I can believe it.
TR: That’s not real. It’s just a joke we say amongst ourselves. Artists tend
to be liberal, because we tend to concern ourselves with those sorts of
issues and think that way on the inside.
JVS: Of course, especially if your music is about breaking down boundaries.
What specific repertoire are you performing besides your encores?
MR: We’re going to do a 40-minute set of our music.
TR: We prefer to call it our greatest hits, which is ironic because we have
no hits at all. But it’s the music…
MR: …that put us on the map. John King’s “Shuffle” that’s on the CD is a
favorite of ours and audiences’ because of his ability to capture the blues
in a free form way.
TR: He has really captured the flavor of the Mississippi Delta, and that’s
what we love. We’ll most likely perform an arrangement of Mary’s, a tune of
mine, one of Ralph’s… these pieces are connected to everything from Lenny
Tristano to Finnish folk music. I’m not sure we’ll do my “Uh…it all happened
so fast” that’s on the record, but it is one of the tunes that we’ve often
done. We often do a tune by Marcelo Zarbos, who has written music for the
movies Kissing Jessica Stein and The Door in the Floor.
JVS: What’s the age of your audiences?
MR: Mixed. Little kids to old ladies.
TR: Completely whacked out, man. And old men…
JVS: Thank you, because I’m going to be 60.
MR: That’s not old.
JVS: Thank you [throwing kisses]. I’ll remember you in my will.
TR: Seriously, we were just at Eastman, and we played for everyone from 12
to 80. The people who are 80 are coming up to us and saying that they liked
MR: Really liked it.
JVS: Are all of you doing your other gigs as well? You Mary are the
Concertmaster at Radio City Music Hall Christmas shows.
MR: Yes. We’re not all yet making a living on Ethel. We’ve been growing
every year, and we’re relying on Ethel for a bigger part of our incomes. But
we still have to pay the bills. So I’m at Radio City for November and
December. Ralph is involved in the Lion King on Broadway, Dorothy is a
voracious freelancer who plays a lot in shows and teaches at the Mannes
School of Music pre-college as well as teaching privately and has two
children and a husband and Ethel.
JVS: Ethel is this entity that takes on a life of her/his own.
MR: Ethel is our mama.
TR: That’s sort of like it is, man.
JVS: It’s a bit like Maria Callas talking about Callas in the third person.
TR: I myself am not doing a Broadway show now. I did one, and that was it
JVS: Do you start feeling a little crazy going from Radio City Music Hall
Christmas shows night after night to Ethel gigs?
MR: After being there for many years, I am very grateful for a steady job
that’s only two months a year. I can buckle down and put away quite a bit of
money that leaves me the freedom to not have to do other freelance work. And
as Ethel has been growing, it has become more time-consuming to run it,
which I do a lot of. So I’m very grateful for the job.
But yet, it is mind numbing and physically exhausting. Every year you come
up with a new strategy for getting through as many of the 219 shows you can
play in two months to make as much money as possible.
Whatever I do, I’m concerned about the artistic element even if others
aren’t so concerned. I need to feel I’m contributing something in a positive
way. It’s exhausting. When it’s over, I’m relieved and try to go about my
business. Then I realize that I can’t speak correctly or function. You
thought you were fine…. It’s very funny. It takes about three to four weeks
to actually recover.
JVS: Do you ever have nightmares of Santa Claus crashing down on you?
MR: Not at all. You turn over 50 pages at a time and keep playing without
even thinking about it. Yet when I leave the place, I can’t remember how to
play any of it.
JVS: What would you like to say in summation?
TR: This is obviously a strange entity. When you see the word Ethel as a
name of a project, and you’re sort of told it’s music and you’re sort of
told it’s classical music and you’re sort of told it’s avant-garde and this
and that, it’s a weird thing to encounter.
All I would say is, it’s a fun time to be had by all. If you’re never been
to any sort of anything outside the realm of what you’re used to, it’s worth
it to get out and see something that you haven’t seen before. I guess our
promise is that if you come, you’ll have a great time listening to music
that you’ve never, ever heard before.
Having fresh ears for something is something we as Americans do not get the
privilege of doing very often. And having it live and in front of you is
absolutely worth the money.
MR: At the last concert we did at Eastman, a fellow came up to me and said,
“We came to this concert because we saw this group named Ethel playing, and
we didn’t know what it was. We had to come because of the name.”
JVS: I thank you both so much. It has really been wonderful.
- Jason Victor Serinus -
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