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FROM TARTINI TO TAOS: UMKC presents singular collaboration

Followers of contemporary classical music are accustomed to experiments in fusing Old World traditions with those of rock, jazz, folk, even hip-hop. These projects “click” only about ten percent of the time, at best, and when they do it’s often difficult to articulate exactly why.

Listening to the Innova Recording of The River, a 60-minute “composition” featuring Grammy Award-winning Taos Pueblo flutist-percussionist-singer Robert Mirabal and the string quartet ETHEL, I found myself confronted with a feeling not so much of tranquility as of connectedness. The beauty of the flutes (Robert plays a variety of instruments that he carves himself, from various types of wood), the vocal harmonies, the percussive rhythms, the ambient natural sounds, and the rich string sounds, all evoke the sense of an aural journey that has nothing to do with Native American politics or the current economic crises of classical music.

Robert Mirabal

The River is coming to UMKC Conservatory, to all four University of Missouri campuses in fact, and if you dare to attend all of them you will doubtless find each to be a different experience. (The White Recital Hall performance here is on February 23rd.) Wooden flutes change pitch according to climate, altitude and a number of other factors, and The River is freely composed to give the performers choices that can help accommodate these changes. Each result is different. (The recording, made three years ago, was simply one iteration of how it sounded at that time.)

“This is all about the experience of the now,” said Ralph Farris, a Juilliard-trained violist who is ETHEL’s artistic director. “Together as a community, as performers and audience alike, we are experiencing this moment: and this moment will never be again. In no way are we trying to make it sound like it did last Thursday. No way.”

ETHEL, which was founded in 1998 and performed Documerica this past October as part of Open Spaces KC, also includes violinists Kip Jones and Corin Lee and cellist/co-artistic director Dorothy Lawson. The River is at once a series of “stories” and a tribute to processes that happen daily in nature. In one movement, “Rana Run” (which Ralph composed), the strings create sounds of critters in the creek by playing on the wood-side of their bows, while a frog makes his way through the water. Along comes Robert, the “traveler,” with a beautiful flute solo that shuts up the other creatures, momentarily.

What makes this project unique is the idea of “concert as ceremony,” a natural outgrowth of Native American music-making. This was a familiar idea to Ralph but he didn’t realize it initially. Growing up playing weddings and such (while also learning complex concertos and sonatas for his conservatory teachers), he found himself cherishing the emotional impact of performing a simple tune such as “Danny Boy” at a funeral. “Those were moments of ‘ceremony,’ where I was bringing some solace to people. … I didn’t realize that I already had access to that. … Robert rekindled that for me.”

ETHEL / Photo by Matthew Murphy

Similarly, Robert said he found that he has benefitted as an artist by opening himself up to a wide variety of musical influences. “Much like the classical world, I was raised in a very strictly oriented, traditional form … where there are certain rhythms that you follow for traditional songs. … I had always been drawn to rock and roll, to world, music, to jazz, because I felt like what I was doing was limited. So from a very early age I wanted to incorporate my world, whether literally or collaboratively … into what would be avant-garde to an extent.”

Working with ETHEL and other world-class musicians has pushed Robert toward a perspective in which boundaries begin to dissolve. “It’s not classical, it’s not Native American: It doesn’t have to have a genre.” During ETHEL’s first collaborations with Robert (at such venues as the Brooklyn Academy of Music), the ensemble tried to maintain a sort of improvisatory ambience throughout: “We kept the pieces open,” Ralph said, “and they revealed themselves throughout the run of the performances.”

The River was seven years in the making, and it involved ETHEL paying multiple visits to New Mexico. “Each time we get together, our approach is to create a ceremony,” said Robert, a deeply insightful musician who maintains a steady presence in his Taos Pueblo. The work inhabits “an emotional space,” he added. “It took us this long to really receive, slowly receive, and be sensitive enough and patient enough, to know that what we’ve created is an evolutionary moment.”

Robert Mirabal / Photo by Larry Lamsa

Specifically, each of the pieces on the program carves out its own aesthetic, and although each piece was to some extent “composed” by one of the collaborators, all five members contributed to the final product. The original recording of The River was made “in Robert’s living room, with the real Pueblo River running in the back yard,” Ralph said, and many of the ambient sounds are from the dazzlingly beautiful lands of the Taos Pueblo, a dwindling 1,000-year-old community now numbering about 1,900 people.

“We are family first,” Ralph said of the collaboration, “and what we have built is an expression of that bond. … Just as Robert is a composer-performer, the members of ETHEL are composer-performers. … But we are striving to create musical expressions that are as complete as possible, in everything we do: our performance, our composition, our improvisation, our teaching. We are always working in every single direction to be fully ‘expressed’ musicians. Which really is just a means to the end of being fully expressed humans.”



 ETHEL+Robert Mirabal: The River takes place on February 23rd at White Hall on the UMKC campus. For more information, call 816-235-6222 or go to conservatory.umkc.edu. For more about ETHEL and their performances with Robert see www.ethelcentral.org. For more about Taos Pueblo go to www.taospueblo.com.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook or TwitterFront photo of Robert Mirabal and ETHEL is by Tim Black.  


Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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