Renowned new music ensemble ETHEL has been undergoing a changing of the guard. After the recent departure of violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Jennifer Choi, the violin chairs are being filled by two newcomers, Tema Watstein and Kip Jones, and these two, along with founding members Ralph Farris and Dorothy Lawson (This version of the group has taken to the moniker ETHEL 3.0), will be not only touring and playing some notable shows coming up (including a show at the Park Armory that Kip and Tema will be discussing with me among other things) but also making some new recordings.
CM: First of all, welcome to the band! Can you guys talk about what it has been like to step into ETHEL and to work with Ralph and Dorothy for the first time?
Tema: Stepping into ETHEL has been entirely thrilling! What an unbelievable opportunity for a recent graduate; I couldn’t feel luckier. When I initially auditioned, I was extremely nervous. My only prior contact with ETHEL had actually been with Dorothy several years ago, at which point I interviewed her for Sequenza 21. That said, Ralph and Dorothy put me at ease immediately and took me in like family. They are warm and hilarious and I couldn’t have felt more at home.
Kip: ETHEL’s rep rocks hard, and performing with them has been a blast! Both Ralph and Dorothy are great to work with; they have high standards but respect the limits of the possible. I can’t wait until we’re diving into material that’s new for all four of us. I’m sworn to secrecy, but there are some amazing pieces in the works!
CM: Is there anything new you two have been bringing to the group?
Kip: I bring to the table a strong comfortability in grammatical improvisation, as well as a composition background. ETHEL is a group of professional outsiders and unique voices; it’s nice to be chosen and recognized for mine.
Tema: I hope that there will be a number of things I’m able to bring to the group over time! I’ve commissioned a lot of music from friends and colleagues and hope I’ll be able to forge connections between some of these talented young composers and ETHEL. That said, I’m still finding my footing–there’s so much to take in!
CM: Has the dynamic of this ensemble been daunting at all for either of you, and how does this compare to other ensembles either of you have played in?
Tema: The prospect of the job was a bit daunting, but the dynamic itself has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m sure Ralph would giggle if he saw this, but the overall vibe is much more relaxed and easygoing than most ensembles I’ve played with regularly. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor! The group really works to foster an environment that welcomes any and all creativity, risks included and encouraged!
Kip: Preparing for the first shows has been daunting, mostly because our schedules have been quadrametrically opposed coming into the summer. I was actually backpacking in Mongolia when I found out that I’d gotten the gig! It’s tough to compare it with anything I’ve done in the past, as my experience has been primarily in jazz and world music groups, which by necessity function rather differently in regards to program selection and rehearsal.
CM: Is it too soon to ask if there are immediate plans to make a recording with this new lineup?
Tema: We’ve already done a little bit of recording with Kaki King, but I sure hope there will be an album with ETHEL 3.0 in the near future!
Kip: It is too soon to ask, but I’m looking forward to shaping a recording project as a quartet. We’re all writers; I have a firm belief that if we can carve out the time and commit the energy, we could write some of the most slamming ‘post-classical’ string quartet material out there, because the workshop is right here.
CM: Have you guys had a chance to work with Todd Rundgren yet?
Kip: To be honest, I didn’t know anything about Todd Rundgren before joining ETHEL, but I’ve been listening to some of his (many) albums. Touring with him could be a great experience–he seems to be a really adventurous musician, mastering 55-minute LPs and telling folks to crank their stereos, recording Nearly Human live in the studio, no edits or overdubs. It also seems like he’s reticent to settle into what audiences expect of him, which is admirable.
Tema: I have not yet met Todd, but am really pumped to meet him. I have never been “on the road,” so I’m sure it’ll be a whirlwind experience with such a renowned dude!
CM: Can you guys talk about the concerts at the Park Armory in NY coming up later this year called Ethel’s Documerica?
Tema: It’s a multimedia program inspired by these gorgeous photos that were taken by American photographers back in 1972 as part of Project Documerica created by the EPA. They sent brilliant photographers across America to document environmental issues and their impact on society. This year marks the 30th anniversary of this landmark. So, ETHEL is saluting it by creating a multimedia program featuring new music, video projections, photos, etc. ETHEL has commissioned four composers who will create music that responds to these photos/images of America’s landscapes. They’ll be drawing from indigenous American musical forms–blues, jazz, Native American, bluegrass, and old-time string band–each will also incorporate his/her particular contemporary stamp, filtering these genres through a 21st century lens. We’re fortunate enough to be invited back to the Armory to showcase this work in progress!
Kip: As a Minnesotan, I’m looking forward to working with Mary Ellen Childs! ‘Dream House’ is such a great suite of pieces, I’m excited to hear what she writes for Documerica. Also, Deborah Johnson has done some truly amazing environmental lighting design, and I can only imagine that what she’s cooking up will be inspiring.
ETHEL (ethelcentral.org) (Official website)