ETHEL ~ On Documerica and Related Things

ETHEL are L-R: Ralph Farris, viola; Tema Watstein, violin; Kip Jones, violin; Dorothy Lawson, cello; Photo courtesy of Stephanie Berger 9101612096_c9f4147912_k

The great NY ensemble ETHEL had a few minutes to sit down and chat about the current tour and their stage project Documerica, which will be presented this coming October 2nd through the 5th at BAM (Click here for info).

CM:  I’ve interviewed some of the former members of ETHEL separately, and also Kip and Tema separately last year when you guys just joined. What has it been like these days for the group? You’ve been together 16 years?

Dorothy: We’re getting into our 16th season, I think, yes!

Ralph: But it feels like 17! [laughs]

Dorothy: Tema and I were just observing how it really feels like we’ve got our groove on, like, we’re a band again, it’s so wonderful! It takes time to learn each other, and with so many energies and experiences gone into the band last year. We did great! It was a lot of work, and the new members absorbed a huge amount of Ethel literature in one year. But here, we’re actually in the process of working on programs that we have never played before with materials that we’re all learning fresh, and the working aesthetic is really great. There’s plenty of authority and energy all around the band, it’s just really cool.

CM: Is it really hard when there’s a change-over in the lineup? There were several other people in this group as well just in the last couple of years. Is that difficult just to start over again and have people learn a whole new repertoire?

Tema: I think it’s been a really interesting year for me and Kip, only in the past couple of months we’ve sort of settled into a comfortable place.

Kip: I’d say maybe this year–when we stop getting hit by a bus every year…
[all laugh]

Ralph: We were going through some changes, and it happens to everybody, we had to keep the group rolling and still do the shows and present the record we were supposed to be presenting. Dorothy and I were working really really hard to make sure that Ethel retained its integrity as we were going through our search. It was kind of fascinating that this allowed us to redefine the things that were important to us as we were moving forward. I found some things that were really cool about our 2 other founding members, Todd Reynolds and Mary Rowell–when it was just Dorothy and me alone for 2 seconds, and then going through our search, I realized that when we released things that Todd and Mary left us with, they were just these colors and spirits that they brought to us in their work, and then supplemented on the road by Neil Dufallo and Jen Choi as well. We were blessed with a whole repertoire of techniques from each of these folks.

ETHEL Performs Judd Greenstein’s “Octet 1979” at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall

CM: Please talk about Documerica.

Ralph: In 1972, the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency created a project called Documerica, where they commissioned 100 photographers to go all around the country shooting what they saw, shooting the country. So this is a massive, massive documentary about our country, the state of the environment, and the state of its people. So Ethel created “Ethel’s Documerica“, it commissioned 4 amazing composers and a projection artist (Deborah Johnson), and this project was born.

Dorothy: We linked it to our musical outreach by drawing in collaborators from all across the country to write the music with us.

Kip: We have composers James Kimo Williams, Ulysses Owens, Jr., Mary Ellen Childs and Jerod ‘Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, who have all taken 4 very disparate perspectives on the environment, on what it means to be an American composer, and presented them to us, and we will try to deliver them all through the same lens, through the visual presentation as well as through our performance as an ensemble. There will a shared sense of theme as well as place and identity. With any luck, that will focus itself through the ensemble and straight into the audience’s mind, which we’ll promptly blow.

ETHEL’s Documerica



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