ETHEL’s Documerica: Composer Chat w/ Mary Ellen Childs (Arcs and Points and Lines, oh my!)

Greetings from Tema, currently in bucolic Vermont! ETHEL has a busy couple of months ahead. We’re heading back to the Grand Canyon Music Festival for a 9th (!) season of teaching and performing in Navajo Nation, working on our upcoming program, Grace, and also revving up for our Documerica shows at the BAM Next Wave Festival, Oct 2-5 — Buy your tickets now! We recently had the chance to workshop Documerica at Madison Theatre at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, Long Island, and it was a true pleasure to see all the cogs of the machine turning as the show came together. Music, image, lights, and even a few spectators. It certainly got us excited for the show. To BAM and beyond!

Here are a few instagrams from the workshop (Be sure to check us out on Instagram!):
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Over the next few months leading up to the BAM / ***WORLD*** premiere of Documerica, I’ll be posting an interview with each of our four commissioned composers. This month, we have the lovely Mary Ellen Childs, whose piece is a three movement work: Arts, Points, and Lines. Stay tuned for a recording of Points to be released on our upcoming Documerica EP.

TW: Your music often feels – to me – very spacious and atmospheric. Are you inspired a lot by vast spaces? What other composers have been the most significant influences on you in this regard?

MEC: I can be inspired by a philosophical idea, a sense of movement, a visual image. Sometimes I simply work with a descriptive phrase or a set of adjectives. I haven’t thought of my music as being particularly spacious and atmospheric, but I do look to create a distinct sound world with each piece. That means the sound itself is something I put a lot of attention toward and use as a powerful compositional tool rather than a by-production of available instrumentation. As far as influences of other music, the list is very long! In addition to music, I’m influenced by artists in other artforms, especially dance, but also the work of any creative thinker, including chefs, perfumers and scientists. A good deal of my music is paired with visual imagery or dance or staging or… the night sky. My thinking is, at it’s core, very interdisciplinary, even when I write a concert piece.

TW: You left some space open for solos and improvisation. Is this something you’ve always done? Does it make you nervous to relinquish compositional control in the middle of one of your works?

MEC: I had rarely – maybe never – incorporated improvisation into my music until about a dozen years ago when I was commissioned to write a new work for a group whose members were both terrific readers and amazing improvisors. I worked hard to figure out a way to add moments of improvisation into a mostly written-out score. This first time was extremely difficult for me! Then when I wrote the evening-length Dream House for ETHEL in 2004, it again made sense to include some improvisation because the ETHEL players are just so good at it – imaginative, spontaneous, musically astute. Now I’ve come to love including improvisation – for the right players – because it’s a compositional technique that can help me accomplish something that wouldn’t happen if every note is written out. After some time now, I’ve found a satisfying way to combine written out notes and improv so that I get exactly what I want by allowing space for the players to make a creative contribution, fresh with every playing.

TW: For Documerica, you were asked to write from a place of inspiration based on the photo-archive. Which photos influenced you the most, and were your associations more literal or abstract?

MEC: I loved the photos that were a bit abstract – a tall electrical tower with lines in geometric patterns, a bird silhouetted against the big red ball of the setting sun, an extreme close up of a puffy dandelion. I love the beauty of a real thing made to look abstract through the photographer’s eye. Music is abstract too, so these particular photos gave me an “in,” a place to connect musically where image and sound were coming from the same impulse.
Documerica - Crane

TW: You wrote a three movement set for us. Did you predetermine that you wanted to write three shorter movements or is this something that happens for you organically during the process? How would you describe the character of each movement?

MEC: From the beginning I thought I would write three or four movements. I wanted each movement to have a completely different flavor. As I wrote, I had the photographs I chose very loosely in mind, sort of sitting at the back of my brain below conscious thought. Because I was working with the abstractness of these photos, I kept thinking about geometric fragments – things like lines, dots and arcs. So in the end I titled the piece “Ephemeral Geometry” and the three movements are “Lines,” “Points,” and “Arcs.” I was pleased that designer Deborah Johnson picked up on

TW: There happens to be some singing in the last, rollicking movement of your piece, “Lines.” How did this come about?

MEC: Well, when I learned that Kip can play and sing at the same time, I knew I’d use it! In rehearsal with “Lines,” we realized other players were eager to sing as well, so added them in. The voices are so much fun, a nice surprise, and great way to create the absolutely densest texture at a moment of impact.

TW: Kip is (also) a Minnesota native. How did you end up in your current community and what do you love about it?

MEC: Would you believe I didn’t know Kip until I met him in NYC with ETHEL? I got to know the Twin Cities because I went to the University of Minnesota for 3 years, many years ago. I ended up back here after graduate school, though hadn’t planned to stay so long! But here I am decades later because it’s a great place to be an artist. The Twin Cities is chock full of arts of all kinds. Music, theater, dance, visual arts, big museums, small arts venues. There are parks and lakes all over the place and wonderful neighborhoods tucked here and there. The place is very livable and I have my own home with a big, sun-filled studio. I love everything about the place except the cold weather in the winter time, which can be really hard to endure. Unfortunately I’m not into winter sports.

TW: Rumor has it that you’ve got a few really strange instruments in your remarkable house. Would you mind describing them?

MEC: Ah, you’re talking about the pipe-cercycle, the string-cercycle and the xylo-cycle, musical instrument sculptures created by Minnesota artist Norman Anderson. Many of Norman’s sculptures are made from old musical instrument parts. They’re motorized, and move and make sound. I asked him to create some modular pieces that I could use with my percussion group CRASH. He came up with the idea to use discarded exercise bicycles as the foundation, so these pieces are human-powered. One is made with organ pipes, large and small; another with stringed instruments – ukulele, cello and strung wires – and one with xylophone bars. They all have bicycle bells and horns, so those add to the sonic palette.
With them, I’ve created work for CRASH to perform in a gallery setting and after the performance people of all ages want to hop on and try, which they’re certainly welcome to do. Same thing happens when people visit my studio. We’ve joked about making a CRASH workout video!

CRASH zbicycles_