For nearly 18 years, the New York City-based string quartet ETHEL has been exploding the boundaries of conventional quartet music by combining its classical training with rock ’n’ roll enthusiasm and musical traditions from around the world.
On Friday, ETHEL opens the Contemporary Arts Center’s 2015-16 performing arts season with a one-night-only performance of “Documerica,” a full-length program that pairs original music with projections of vintage photographs from across America.
“Documerica,” which ETHEL premiered in 2013, takes its name and inspiration from a 1972-77 documentary art project organized by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s Documerica aimed to “document subjects of environmental concern in America during the 1970s,” according to the National Archives website, where more than 15,000 images from the project have been digitized and uploaded.
Nearly 100 photographers from around the country shot subjects ranging from eroding rural farmland to urban factory pollution.
Inspired by the people and places portrayed in the Documerica images, the members of ETHEL collaborated with video artist Deborah Johnson and commissioned pieces of original music from four contemporary composers to create a multimedia performance piece that conjures an emotional journey across the American landscape.
“We thought it might be a great place to start to invite a next set of composers who we were interested in acquiring new pieces from to just look at (the Documerica collection) to see if it inspired them to respond in some way,” said Dorothy Lawson, ETHEL’s cellist.
“In fact, it became this amazing act of autobiography for each of them, and they wrote these beautiful compositions which evoke a tremendous amount of their own sense of what it means to be an American.”
Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. contributed a suite of gospel-tinged compositions meant to embody images from the South that depict the landscapes and community life of the Mississippi Delta.
Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a classical composer and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was drawn to photographs of the American Southwest — the deserts, canyons and sandstone formations — and created a piece rooted in Native American rhythms.
Mary Ellen Childs, a dancer-turned-composer, drew inspiration from more abstract, textural elements of the Documerica images, responding to lines, shapes and unusual angles.
Jazz musician and composer James Kimo Williams, a Vietnam War veteran and activist, gravitated toward bodies of water that recalled places of his past, including his adolescent years in Hawaii and his service in Southeast Asia.
The work of the four composers is tied together with original pieces from ETHEL members and aligned with Johnson’s projections of Documerica photographs to create a cohesive collection of sound and images that suggests a series of loose narratives but also allows audiences to reflect on their own ideas and experiences of American life.
“Documerica” sets the stage for the Contemporary Arts Center’s full season of genre-bending, multimedia performances, which includes the immersive art installation “How to Build a Forest”; Tennessee Williams’ obscure Christmas play “The Mutilated” (starring Mink Stole, known for her work with filmmaker John Waters); the 1919 silent film “The Grey Automobile” presented with a live score by Mexican fusion band Troker; the multimedia exploration of the civil rights movement “Soundtrack ’63”; and jazz violinist Regina Carter’s homage to rural folk music “Southern Comfort.”