29 MarETHEL: Heavy Composer Conversations
ETHEL is gearing up for its upcoming album release of “Heavy” (April 24th) – a power-packed, sonic snapshot of the group’s life in New York City. Recorded over an 18-month period by Cornelius Dufallo (violin), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Mary Rowell (violin), and Ralph Farris (viola), Heavy features works by eight celebrated contemporary composers: Don Byron, John Halle, Julia Wolfe, John King, Raz Mesinai, David Lang, Kenji Bunch, and Marcelo Zarvos.
As we count down the days till April 24th, ETHEL presents a series of composer conversations. This time around, we get cozy with Kenji Bunch, a pioneering composer/violist of new and experimental music.
Heavy Composer Conversation w/ KENJI BUNCH
ETHEL: How and when did you first encounter ETHEL?
KB: The ETHEL musicians are all longtime friends and colleagues from the NY scene, all of whom I’ve known well before the genesis of the group. It’s been so great to see them come together and take off like this!
ETHEL: ETHEL’s new album is an homage to New York City and its music. How has NYC influenced your work, and in particular, your piece on this album?
KB: On the surface, my work “String Circle” is influenced by vernacular American string playing traditions, which has more to do with rural America than with its most vital urban center. However, if it wasn’t for the cultural crossroads of NYC, where I’ve lived for the last twenty years, I may not have learned about these traditions. Incidentally, two of the artists whose work helped lead me to write this piece, Béla Bartók and Mark O’Connor, have both been residents of the city- on exactly the same block!
ETHEL: The album is entitled “Heavy.” How does this title resonate with your piece?
KB: I love the title- it suggests both a musical attitude (i.e. “heavy swing,” “heavy metal,”) as well as a certain artistic gravitas. At times, groove-oriented or pop-inflected music can be a bit marginalized as light entertainment, rather than viewed simply as a logical extension of what composers have done for centuries- incorporate the sounds of their contemporary environment into their original music. I take my music seriously, and I appreciate that ETHEL does, too.
ETHEL: Finish this sentence: “ETHEL is …”
KB: …an unstoppable force of nature- a group that continues to surprise, but also has a feeling of inevitability about it- as if it was only a matter of time before this group assembled to do what it has done. Like any true innovation, it seemed unthinkable at first, but has proven to be an essential part of the musical landscape, one that will leave a sizeable footprint in the trajectory of American concert music.
ETHEL: Finish this sentence: “New York City is…”
KB: …an overwhelming, intoxicating, invigorating mess that offers as fully nuanced an expression of the human condition as is possible in a small strip of land. The town where I learned- and continue to learn- my craft. Above all, in an age of the digital megalopolis that allows access to information from any point on the globe, it’s one of the cities that still matters.