ETHEL + Robert Mirabal Explore Worldwide Themes in “The River”

The deep history of the people who live in Taos Pueblo, dating back over a thousand years, far outstrips that of the string quartet. Yet when ETHEL and Robert Mirabal perform together, there is an understanding of cultural generosity, that in the melding of these sound worlds, progress is made not only to enhance our understandings of these musical traditions, but to build out a supporting structure of empathy and connectedness between what is familiar and what is new to our experience.

The New York City-based string quartet has collaborated with Native American musician/storyteller Mirabal, from Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, for nearly a decade. Together, they developed the works that became the album “The River” in 2016 and the basis for Saturday evening’s program in White Hall, part of the Conservatory Artist Series at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance.

ETHEL was in Kansas City this past October, having participated in the inaugural Open Spaces festival with their multi-media “Documerica” project.

“The River” takes a different tone, flowing between traditions from Mirabel’s heritage and the far reaches of the world. Presented without intermission, it was a 90-minute immersion into this experience, where vocals, flutes, and strings merged.

Mirabal is a multiple Grammy Award-winner, multi-instrumentalist and keeper of traditions, among many other roles: writer, actor, instrument maker, farmer, father. ETHEL includes Ralph Farris (co-artistic director/viola), Dorothy Lawson (co-artistic director, cello), Corin Lee (violin) and, on this concert, Tema Watstein (violin). Watstein is a former member of ETHEL, and she joined them this week while current member Kip Jones stayed at home to awaited the birth of his first child.

Jones was still present, however, in his compositional contributions to the program, including the concert opening “Jay-Red.” Mirabal’s “An Kha Na” followed, the strings droning while Mirabal sang this traditional song and performed ritualistic gestures that swirled. ETHEL sang, too, created richer and broader chords with each entrance.

It was then that the storytelling began, as Lawson introduced the evening as “partly celebration, partly meditation, partly ceremony.”

With “Tuvan Ride,” composed collaboratively, the ensemble set off on a series of works inspired by a wide range of influences, with its galloping rhythms on the viola and Mirabal on flutes and didgeridoo, which brought to mind the throat singing tradition of the nomadic people of Central Asia.

Next, they created a suite of sorts that carried a narrative from the source of the river all the way out to sea, connected a Georgian melody of “Tsintskaro” to the onamonapoetic journey of a frog, through the rushing, crushing, cleansing rapids and out to the deep calm of the ocean. “Rana Run,” by Farris, featured minuscule, brittle rhythms from the strings and woodland noises from Mirabal. Jones’ “Clean Dirge, Dirty Dirge” was a darker, robust contrast, the strings’ drone punctured by the thudding from Farris on a bass drum. The drone shifted to cello and the violins took up an imitative melody, Mirabal on vocal percussion, in a shifting ritual moment, based on the traditional Buddhist mantra “Gat’te,” sung in Sanskrit.

Throughout the performance, they’d each offer a bit of anecdotal significance to a selection. Mirabal’s storytelling, as he switched between English and Tiwa, created a cadence and depth of tone that made his entire performance musical, whether singing or speaking.

This was most evident in what was termed “Moment Mirabal,” when the string players left the stage and only Mirabal remained, his voice and his flutes. For this local Kansas City audience, he connected the history and experience of his people to the long-ago heritage of this region, when bison roamed freely from here to the mountains. He not only performed on a range of flutes, but he described the specific significance of the particular instruments, whether used in courtship (and playing two flutes at once) or naming ceremonies.

ETHEL came back on stage for “Wi-wa,” playing shakers and singing this traditional song that helps pass the Tiwa language to new generations, Farris and Lawson harmonizing. “Chant,” based on a traditional Hawaiian children’s tune, featured more improvisatory moments between the players as well as birdcalls on whistles, ocarina and flute by Mirabal.

TSOMA had an almost Celtic lilt to the rambunctious fiddling, Lee and Farris like dueling rock guitarists.

After that good-hearted flamboyance, they finished with an earnest chant of peace calls, all playing and singing. Mirabal brought the concert to a close with an extended silence, the audience able to pause and reflect.

Given the smallish crowd in White Hall, perhaps deterred by the day’s frigid rains, this performance counted as a missed opportunity for many, an opportunity to see rich collaboration and deep exploration, enriching the scope of Americana with these ancient traditions.

Reviewed Saturday February 23, 2019. ETHEL and Robert Mirabal, presented by UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, part of the Conservatory Artist Series.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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