Music For Writers: A Quartet Named ETHEL And A Guitarist Named Kaki

Image: Moraima Capellán Pichardo
Image: Moraima Capellán Pichardo

Did You Say ETHEL?

There’s only one question you can start with, when you interview the violist of a string quartet called ETHEL (yes, all caps).

Ralph Farris:  The name “ETHEL” comes from the film, Shakespeare in Love. The Bard was struggling to complete a play called, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Hilarity ensued.

Thank God we cleared that up.

Farris and his three ETHEL associates — violinists Kip Jones and Corin Lee, and cellist Dorothy Lawson — will be onstage at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, 23:30 GMT, on Saturday evening (March 21) at the Kaufman Center’s Merkin Concert Hall on West 67th in New York. And if you can’t be there with them, you might want to jump online with New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music, which will web-cast a live stream of the event (and then offer it for on-demand listening in its Ecstatic Music Festival series. Look for the stream here.

The Ecstatic, now in its fifth year, is a leading producer of contemporary-classical performances. Many of its performances, under Judd Greenstein’s highly effective artistic direction,  bring together such seemingly disparate outfits as a highly regarded new-music classical quartet like ETHEL and a notably adventurous guitar artist like Kaki King. Among the ETHEL ensemble’s most frequent collaborators, composer John King is with them on Saturday, as well, and several of the works on the evening’s lineup are his, including Hardwood and Huzam-Khan Younis (from Free Palestine).

And the second thing you have to ask an ETHEL member when you interview them is:

Thought Catalog: Ralph, why do you guys stand up when you play?

Ralph Farris
Ralph Farris

RF: There’s a freedom of sound and spirit that comes with standing while playing. We have been doing it for a good while now… It’s just more fun to fiddle on your feet. We even sometimes rehearse that way. Every once in a while we dream up a new scheme to design Dorothy some sort of cello harness, so she can stand as well. One of these days, Dorothy will be walkin’ and rockin’.

TC: But in this video of the rehearsal for Great Round Burn, you’re all sitting down, not just Dorothy-and-her-cello.

RF: That was actually for the benefit of framing the shot, as I recall. Kaki was seated, so we sat as well. But we were standing in spirit.

It’s worth noting that in Saturday evening’s Ecstatic Music Festival performance you’ll hear music composed by some of the ETHEL members.

  • Farris, in fact, our brave interviewee, wrote Sammich; More Muddy with Kaki King; and the strings (pretty terrific) on Great Round Burn, another collaboration with Kaki King.
  • Violinist Kip Jones wrote Kingfisher and Jay Red.
  • Cellist Lawson wrote Jesse Stomp — no word about whether she stands to compose.

And all this creative capability reminds me of another out-there quartet we’ve covered in #MusicForWriters, the JACK Quartet. I decide to give Farris a pass on this business of quartets naming themselves in all-caps — it’s Music For Writers, not Music By Writers, after all — and ask him instead:

TC: Does the ETHEL actively think of this work as fence-jumping across genres and styles? And what does the ETHEL think of the JACK? (Was I yelling?)

RF: We love the JACK! Brilliant group. What we think of ourselves is that we are making connections. Actively, and always. And once a connection or a collaboration is built, we’re family. One thing’s for certain — we never did set out to break any rules. We only ever wanted to have a great time making the music that we wanted to make, with the people we wanted to make it with. We’ll jump a fence if we have to!

TC: What sort of benefit do you get from such collaboration? Ostensibly, a quartet of your caliber has no need to go outside the old and new repertoires. And yet, when you and the quartet do cross these lines, the results are so rich. Is there any way to define the overall arc of a quartet’s career that’s so aligned with experimentation?

RF:  I wouldn’t say that we are experimenting, per se. What we are doing is really just following our hearts and ears — seeking commonalities between communities and traditions, building new works with brilliantly forward-thinking artists, and hopefully, bringing a little joy to the folks we have the honor to play for, and WITH.

TC: More caps, you see? We’re both yelling. So might your collaborator ever be the JACK? A double-quartet smack down. I think ETHEL could take those boys.

RF: Ha! Them boys got game!

The quartet ETHEL , from left, is Kip Jones, violin; Corin Lee, violin;  Ralph Ferris, viola; Dorothy Lawson, cello. Kaki King is in the center. Image:  Ken Goodman
The quartet ETHEL , from left, is Ralph Farris, violin; Corin Lee, violin; Kip Jones, viola; Dorothy Lawson, cello. Kaki King is in the center. Image: Ken Goodman

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: A Quartet Named ETHEL And A Guitarist Named Kaki

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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