Avant-Chamber Group Ethel Explores American Music in the Heartland
Truck-Stop tour is a 40,000 mile journey of discovery
Ethel bills itself not as a string quartet, but as "America's favorite string band," and like a good alternative-rock band, this alt-classical group has hit the road, playing mostly small venues and hooking up with local musicians, including Native American apprentices at the Grand Canyon and a slack-key guitarist in Hawaii. It's all part of Ethel's ten-month community-outreach Truck-Stop project, and its members say the tour is a gas.
"It's been wonderful, joyful, and exciting," enthuses Ethel cellist Dorothy Lawson, who, like the group's other members, writes a fair amount of the music that Ethel plays at its regular concerts. The Truck-Stop project, though, isn't about Ethel doing its own thing. After a lot of planning, the group has spent up to 10 days at each of its stops rehearsing and jamming intensively with musicians from non-classical traditions, and collaborating on concerts that attract audiences who have probably never heard a string quartet before.
The project is an 11-stop exploration of American music, a journey on which Ethel expects to log more than 40,000 miles. Between breaks for rest and recovery and more conventional appearances during its 10th-anniversary season, the Truck-Stop tour finds Ethel lodging itself within a community for workshops with traditional and emerging artists at local schools, developing new works and performance practices with its collaborators, and wrapping it all up in each location with a concert that "salutes the common creative impulse that is formed in the celebration of community."
Collaborators include a drumline of underprivileged Chicago kids, Tejano conjunto musicians in Texas, shape-note singers in Kentucky, and ukulele and nose flute players in Hawaii. The Truck-Stop tour turned the ignition in January in New York City's Joe's Pub with a collaborative concert featuring Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. It finally pulls up October 14-18, in Brooklyn, where Ethel will be joined by Truck-Stop alumni artists for a special concert series as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.
"Collaborating with people from different cultures is one way that musicians can try to make a contribution to our human sustainability," Lawson says. "[There is] a critical imbalance that we're facing in our ecology and the social structures that we've built for ourselves. Music, as a human mode of communication, ties into parts of our brain that enable us to work more rapidly and more empathically through intuitive and immediate realization modes, rather than through strategic, scientific, or reductive modes of thinking. We're deliberately looking for cultures where people maintain a greater knowledge of and practice of connecting to nature and an inherent balance in things."
Violinist Cornelius Dufallo notes, "The connection to nature is not necessarily there in every collaboration we encounter. Kaotic Drumline in Chicago is a really urban situation. But one thing we do find in these collaborations is a reawakening of the feeling and the reality of music as an extremely important connecting tool for a community. In other words, it's the social side of music that is bringing people together."
Don't confuse this with those crossover efforts that only prove that certain classical musicians can't swing, and that certain pop singers can barely belt out putrid renditions of Puccini. "Those are situations where performers try to glue themselves to a style in an artificial way," Lawson says. "The difference is we're going into the community and spending some time there and learning new languages and new modes of communication."
"It's also mutual," Dufallo says. "The other artists are very curious about our way of doing things. It's not a one-way conversation. The music we come up with is very much our style as well. It's not like we step completely into someone else's shoes. The primary goal is the sharing."
Ethel's members—Lawson, Duffalo, violinist Mary Rowell, and violist Ralph Farris—had long been frustrated by the standard practice of breezing into a city, giving a concert, then immediately hopping a plane to the next destination. "You don't have time to experience the people or see the sights," Lawson says. "You've been to endless world capitals and beautiful places, but did you experience anything there?"
But at one particular beautiful place, Ethel's members had an experience that gave them the idea for the Truck-Stop project. One September, they were engaged to perform at the Grand Canyon Music Festival, held mostly in a small performance space on the canyon's South Rim. Thanks to the festival's established relationship with the locals, part of the visit involved a workshop with young musicians from the nearby Navajo and Hopi tribes. "We were able to really feel the beauty of the community and the welcome they were giving us and the willingness to participate in a cross-cultural relationship," Lawson recalls. "For most of us, it was a real light bulb."
The resulting bright idea: Truck Stop.
Through presenters the group had already worked with, Ethel got leads on interesting local artists around the country; one contact led to another, scouting trips ensued, CDs were exchanged, and before long Ethel had set up a total-immersion program through which the group would work intensively with a particular individual or ensemble at each stop, and bring in additional local artists along the way.
"The fact that the artists we've developed the collaborations with have been spotted by [Ethel] from New York City brings a new interest and a new prestige to the players that we're working with," Lawson says. "And the communities themselves might never have had the funds or considered importing a group for entertainment from New York City, yet, because for the most part we fund it ourselves [through grants], we go there and they're so excited. They get to experience something different, and so do we.
"It brings a lot of gratitude all the way around."
Every residency along the way has been different, but the group was especially pleased with its seven-day visit in February to Steelgrass Ranch on Hawaii's island of Kauai. Ethel's members spent much of their time working with Grammy Award-winning slack-key guitarist Jeff Peterson, and traditional artists from the region.
The first thing they did as they shook off their jet lag was participate in a community jam session. "It was a whole room of ukuleles and nose flutes," Lawson says. Then they started working and eventually recording with Peterson, who taught them the ins and outs of slack-key guitar playing and its special tuning. Dufallo says they discovered on their own instruments that "if you bring the top two strings down one whole step, the instrument rings and resonates in a way that's similar to Jeff's guitar, and it gives it a mellow island sound."
Almost every day brought some sort of outreach effort, too, including creating string accompaniments for songs performed by a children's chorus from an isolated, very traditional community. Ethel participated in a variety show that raised money for a professional hula troupe; the show's star attraction was 100-year-old ukulele player Bill Tapia, known locally as the Duke of the Uke. The trip culminated in a performance in a 120-seat church for an audience that Lawson describes as "maybe the most emotionally available group of people we've ever had a chance to walk into. They were kindred spirits."
Dufallo says that coming to aesthetic terms with styles unfamiliar to them "always has an element of shock at first," but the Ethel members begin by already having pinpointed a handful of tunes—Ethel's and the locals'—that would most easily accommodate collaboration. Then, Lawson says, "as we get more familiar with each other's sound and we get more comfortable with the little turns of phrase, we're more adventuresome in choosing pieces and creating pieces."
Says Dufallo, "Generating music that way, working with a musical imagination we haven't explored yet, is for me one of the most exciting things."
Lawson adds, "There's a moment where you realize how many elements of expression you can communicate to each other or that are already synonymous. Then you get into the things that are unique or different, and find the linkups to understand the spirit of those things. We end up with a kind of art that does bring musical expressions together, but also respects the differences. We're not trying to homogenize things into any one style."
As a result, the musicians quickly build a sense of mutual trust. "We're thinking that each of these relationships is a real friendship that we will keep coming back to," Lawson says. "We are now thinking of how to better serve this growing community that we're at the hub of, how to keep people in touch with us and each other, how to enable them to begin new work, possibly make more rapid and more effective contact with presenters who already know about us. It's like a tree, a growing thing we need to tend. It's part of being authentic to the relationships we're proposing. They're not momentary relationships; they're things we care about, and we'd like them to grow and flourish."
This doesn't mean that Ethel will abandon the many concert-hall composers they've worked with over the past ten years, or those they're bound to meet in the coming decade. But they say the Truck-Stop project will inevitably color everything they do from now on.
"It shapes the way we hear music and the way we interpret music," Dufallo says.
Lawson adds, "And the collaborators we grew up with in New York City are intrigued by the slight spin they now hear in our work, this other world coming back with us. They're working with it, and they find it refreshing."