Playing with pictures: Ethel string quartet presents 'Documerica'

  • Article by: DANNY SIGELMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2014 - 1:43 PM

Innovative string quartet Ethel mined a treasure trove of photos for “Documerica,” a multimedia piece it will perform Tuesday at Aria.

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The Park Avenue Armory present Ethel performing "Documerica" part of the Under Construction Series on December 2, 2012. The musicians: Ralph Farris -viola Dorothy Lawson -Cello Kip Jones -Violin Tema Watstein-Violin Credit: Stephanie Berger. All Rights Reserved.

Talking on the phone with violinist Kip Jones, of the string quartet Ethel, is a bit like listening to “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

The Duluth native’s enthusiasm and knowledge bubble over in conversation, reflecting a hardworking nature borne out by Ethel’s daunting performance schedule. Between rehearsals for two very different concerts in New York last weekend, Jones spoke vibrantly about the project that Ethel will present Tuesday at Aria in Minneapolis.

Simply put, Ethel’s aim was “to take history and make art with it,” said Jones.

“Documerica” is a dramatic juxtaposition of music and images inspired by a 1970s project by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which hired photographers to document the state of the nation’s environment, good and bad.

Ethel commissioned works from four modern composers, including fellow Minnesotan Mary Ellen Childs, to accompany multi-screen projections of these photos, which range from farms and forests to mines and junkyards.

Like the federal programs that documented the Great Depression, these images present a distinct representation of time and place. But “Documerica” will likely provoke reflection as much as a nostalgic vision of the past.

More than simply setting music to images, the group sought to create a new narrative — a cohesive piece about the United States in the 1970s, as well as an illustration of “how we ignore the environment by virtue of how we live our lives,” Jones said.

Clearly reveling in the process that Ethel embarked upon three years ago with the four composers and Brooklyn-based projection designer Deborah Johnson (aka Candystations) — who also has collaborated with Sufjan Stevens and Wilco — the violinist said he is proud of the end result.

“I’m really pleased how a single statement is made through a whole bunch of people,” said Jones. “Especially when you consider the variety of images and compositional styles, it’s wonderfully unified. The images or music alone don’t really work without the other.”

Ethel teamed up with Childs for her 2007 disc “Dream House.” When it came to picking composers for this project, Childs was a no-brainer, Jones said: “Whose idea of America do we want to hear? Whose voices are really unique and strong? Mary Ellen’s name was near the top of the list.”

The various visual themes provide opportunities to explore different genres of American music beyond neo-classical, including blues, jazz and even a remarkable passage of American Indian flavor via composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and composer/Vietnam veteran James Kimo Williams round out the diverse roster of composers.

Though Ethel doesn’t shy away from social commentary — “Documerica” is overt in reflecting environmental concerns — Jones insists the ensemble’s primary motivation is a sense of community.

“We want to involve as many people in every venture we go into. With ‘Documerica’ we are very deliberately not making a statement about Americans and ecology. We organized the images more by content. There’s big long strings of sunrises and others where all the images are flowers. That sort of thematic narrative is far more important than any political ideas.”

Tuesday’s concert will be the finale of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series. Jones — who splits his time between an apartment in New York and a home in St. Paul that he shares with his wife, Noelle — speaks gleefully of returning to the Twin Cities and a creative atmosphere that he claims is unlike that of anywhere else.

“It’s different than New York. There’s so many incredible artists and musicians, our percentage of brilliant people in the Twin Cities is sky high compared to anywhere else I’ve been. Every time I come home from a period of activity in New York I’m so happy to be around my family, happy to be around trees. I get so much inspiration from being outside. You’re not missing anything in the Twin Cities that you have to come to New York to see.”





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  • The goal was “to take history and make art,” said Kip Jones.

  • DOCUMERICA

    What: A multimedia work by the Ethel string quartet, featuring music by four American composers and multi-screen projections of 1970s environmental photos.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.

    Where: Aria, 105 N. 1st St., Mpls.

    Tickets: $25. 651-291-1144 or www.thespco.org

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