People from all over the world admire the scope and achievement of the Western classical music canon. But cellist Dorothy Lawson said Western classical music can often seem condescending to those of other musical traditions. Lawson, co-artistic director of the string quartet ETHEL, is devoted to combatting that trend.
“We’ve worked very hard in various relationships over many years to overcome that, to detoxify that, to actually bare our own vulnerabilities to people from other places and learn from them,” Lawson said. “We want to use this beautiful equipment from the Western tradition to partner and dance with people who have their own perfectly authentic and deeply developed masteries — centuries and centuries of tradition — in other musical languages.”
ETHEL will be speaking many musical languages in its recital at 4 p.m. Monday, July 16, in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. The program, “Devoted,” features devotional music of a plethora of cultures, from South Asian Qawwali music to Native American Zuni chants.
ETHEL, formed in 1998, consists of cellist Lawson, violist Ralph Farris, and violinists Kip Jones and Corrin Lee. Each of the four began at prestigious music schools but would go on to have distinctly diverse artistic careers. Their cumulative resume includes Broadway shows, experimental folk music, Brazilian jazz and solo appearances in classical music’s hallowed venues.
In the group’s own words, ETHEL is a fusion of “uptown, conservatory musicianship with downtown genre-crossing,” making it difficult to tell whether ETHEL is a band or a string quartet. ETHEL’s exploratory spirit has led to collaborations with a menagerie of artists from around the world.
One of those collaborations was a 10-year partnership with the Native American Composer’s Apprenticeship Project. Each fall, the quartet worked with a group of high school students from the Navajo Nation, helping them to record and share their musical ideas with the larger world.
Lawson said ETHEL’s decade-long experience with those Navajo teenagers was transformational because it revealed a new way of relating to music.
“Music is an applied art among Native American communities,” Lawson said. “They don’t even really regard it as something for specialists, they regard it as a human birthright. Music is something that people do. They make songs when they need them, and then they share them with each other.”
By participating in that holistic approach to music-making, Lawson began to realize how intellectual Western classical music can be. She said she found herself wanting to go deeper — to search for a greater depth of emotion and spirituality in her own musical life.
The “Devoted” program, which will receive its first performance this afternoon, is a sampling of the many different ways cultures around the world engage music in worship. Lawson said she’s excited to premier “Devoted” at Chautauqua Institution because of the Institution’s reputation for exploring those themes.
“Devotion itself is such a beautiful human capacity,” she said. “We love to illuminate that, bring that into a concert environment and let the audience embrace it themselves.”