11 JulChatting With Jennifer Choi, ETHEL’s New Violinist
As Director of Public Programming for Lincoln Center and as the former
Director of Joe’s Pub, Bill Bragin has been applauding ETHEL’s work ever since
the group’s inception. In the midst of organizing Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors
Festival, Bill graciously set aside an afternoon to get to know the newest
member of ETHEL - violinist Jennifer Choi.
As Director of Public Programming for Lincoln Center and as the former
BB: One of the
hallmarks of your work is your ability to cross over from classical composed
music to improvisation. How were you introduced to these arts and how do you
see these modes of music relating to one another?
JC: While I was a
student at Oberlin, I played in the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble and at
the same time, I was playing in the Miró quartet, so even back then, I was
crossing genres. There were also ample opportunities to play new music with my
peers, and this was true during my graduate years at The Juilliard School too,
where I was a member of the FOCUS Festival. This is where John Zorn heard me
for the first time and invited me to premiere a couple of his chamber works at
the Library of Congress. After that, more doors were opened and I began to play
with the many great musicians involved in the “downtown” new music scene. That’s
when I joined a trio with composer/drummer Susie Ibarra and jazz pianist Craig
Taborn, and when my career as an improviser began. I then collaborated with the likes of Erik
Friedlander, Anthony Coleman, Elliott Sharp, Wadada Leo Smith and Ikue Mori.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t
quite let go of the classical route and was still entering competitions,
performing the standard violin concertos, and classical chamber music. Throughout
all that, it seemed like the two modes of music were helping each other out. The
downtown guys liked that I could read their music and had the technique to
improvise really hard, while the many free jazz and improv concerts I was
giving and getting out on stage in whatever form was helping me to open up my
classical playing, too.
BB: Let’s talk
about your parents. As you were veering toward downtown improvisation, how did
that effect your parents’ expectations?
JC: They respected
the fact that I was touring worldwide in new and improvised music, but I made
sure they also saw me come home and play concertos with orchestras, so that it was
a bit half-and-half. They did wonder why I was doing new music and if I liked
it. Would it affect my classical playing? My answer was that I didn’t really
know. Now that they see that I am following my heart and paving new ways in
music, they are constantly encouraging me to be more creative. I’m very lucky
in that way.
BB: Given that
you’re committed to extended technique, has it changed your classical playing?
JC: There are certain sounds in twentieth and twenty-first
century music that can be very different from classic and romantic music, and
definitely more sounds and noises – including the ugly ones! (I use a 1770
Storioni violin for everything I do.) The nice thing about it is that if you
are working alongside composers, they can guide you toward the “right” sounds
for a piece, whereas in classical music, you are guessing more to find that
particular sound that will fit the music. For a while it was really hard to
make that switch but I’ve become more accustomed to just adding more sounds to
my toolbox! I think improvisation can actually help with the classical playing,
too. Former ETHEL member, Todd Reynolds and I have discussed this issue
actually and we both agree that new music and improvisation can help free up
the classical mindset of playing everything perfectly. After all, it’s common
knowledge that Beethoven and Chopin, for instance, were constantly improvising
and for that matter, coming up with new music for their time. In any type of
music, classical to experimental, the focus on sound, nuance and intonation has
to still be there. I like to think I’m putting my classical training into new
music with the difference being that in new music, and for sure in improvised
music, the results are more immediate.
BB: There has been
a recent movement of young, creative new music organizations. I feel that ETHEL
started this back at Joe’s Pub in 2002. I remember sold-out rooms with people
sitting on the steps listening to this string quartet. In a way, they paved the
way. Talk a little about where you think the music is now in relation to the
JC: There has been
an explosion in the new music scene. It’s great! There is more media attention
now than ever, and some really hot groups that are so good at new music are out
there. People are definitely attending these concerts as promoters are
believing in us and in the music. I think it has something to do with the fact
that new music being produced today is more relatable for the general audience
and also being performed at a very high level. It’s less about being complex
and atonal – which has its place and reason for existing – but more about music
for our time. ETHEL was a pioneer of this music. I saw them perform when they
first started out at a concert at Symphony Space and remember thinking, “Wow!
They’re really cool, amplified, standing, and moving around.” ETHEL is doing
even more now, so I’m excited to be a part of it.
BB: How did you
find out about the opening in ETHEL?
JC: It was a bit of
a surprise. I knew Mary, Ralph and Neil. I’ve known Neil since we were both
teenagers. We attended the Aspen Music Festival at the same time. Neil called
me out of the blue and asked if I was interested in playing in a string
quartet. Since ETHEL is based in New York City, near my home and husband, it
was a possibility for me. So, I went in to read and when we sat together it
felt amazing and clicked! The music is extremely fun to play and I am familiar
with so many of the composers that ETHEL has performed and will be performing,
so the decision was mutual.
BB: It’s the idea
of being in a band again. How do you think this is going to change your solo
career now that you’re a member of a group?
JC: For the
immediate future, a lot of my focus will be devoted to learning ETHEL’s vast
repertoire. It’s the kind of music I would play on my own anyway, and I’ve
always had a love for string quartets and the workings within. I see Neil doing
his own solo projects and Mary did great things on the side as well. Ralph has
his own show on Broadway, and Dorothy is a professor at Mannes. Perhaps going
forward, more or different opportunities for my soloing will come out of
playing in ETHEL.
BB: So much of what
ETHEL is about is its residency work, specifically the TruckStop® project. They’ve been really switching the definition
of touring and working with communities. Has that been part of your work in the
JC: Residency work
has been a large part of what I do. I was a Teaching Artist for the New York
Philharmonic’s Educational Department for seven years as well as the Brooklyn
Philharmonic and 92nd Street Y. I was involved in creating outreach curriculums
for thousands of inner city school kids. We performed, introduced and taught
classical music in the public school system. So it’s going to be a natural
transition for me, since ETHEL already has a great outreach aesthetic in place.
I think that the educational component of any group is very important as it is
a way to get children of all ages as well as adults interested to see and hear
BB: What about the
theatrical element? You talked about ETHEL playing while standing. They’ve done
pieces directed by Annie Dorsen. They’ve performed at the World Financial
Center where they really work with staging and presentation in nontraditional
JC: ETHEL is
planning more collaborations that involve multimedia and guest artists going in
line with its innovative programming models, and that could mean some more
choreography for us, but that’s one aspect I’m hoping to do more of because, if
and when it fits with the music, it can be that much more exhilarating for us
to play and for the audience’s experience as well.
BB: What do you predict
will be your biggest challenge now that you are in ETHEL?
JC: It will be a
big responsibility to carry on the pioneering qualities as well as its founders
have done it. I have a great respect for ETHEL and everything that has been
achieved so far. I know it has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point.
Carrying the torch, staying innovative and keeping it an excellent group is a
big part of what my job will be.
BB: When is your
first ETHEL concert?