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Interview:  Introducing Ethel
 

August, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus


 

They call 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 on ethelcentral.com.

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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?

MR: [Laughs]

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 anywhere.

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 instrument.

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 sound.

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 without amplification.

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 them.

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 is huge.

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 sides.

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 being all-encompassing.

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 around things…

MR: Right…

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 personal voice.

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 into boxes.

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 folks.

JVS: I’m experiencing more and more classical CD signings after concerts in San Francisco. Thomas Quasthoff, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sophie von Otter…

MR: Really!

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.”

MR: [chuckles]

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?

MR: Absolutely.

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…

MR: …everything.

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 start.

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 way.

TR: Or because you’re a Democrat. But we do tend to do better in the Blue States.

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 it.

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.

MR: Exactly.

TR: I myself am not doing a Broadway show now. I did one, and that was it for me.

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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