Grand Canyon Musical Festival

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Now in its 28th season, the Grand Canyon Music Festival some of the world’s finest musicians as well as music education and outreach programs in rural Arizona. Dorothy Lawson and Cornelius Duffalo of the string quartet ETHEL talk about their music and their work with Native American composers through one of the festival’s outreach programs.

Ted Simons: The Grand Canyon music festival wraps up its three-week concert series with performances Canyon national park. Now in its 28th season, the festival features some of the world's finest musicians as well as music education and outreach programs in rural Arizona. " Ethel "is a is a string quartet that's been involved With the festival since 2005. I'll talk with members of "Ethel"in a moment, but first, let's listen to some of their work.

Ted Simons: I recently spoke with "Ethel" violinist Cornelius Dufallo and cellist Dorothy Lawson, a founding member of the string quartet. Welcome to "Horizon." Thanks for joining us.

Dorothy Lawson: It's a pleasure, Ted.

Ted Simons: What is "Ethel" trying to do?

Dorothy Lawson: It's a string quartet but we've thought of ourselves as a band. We're a voice, we're composers for people of our all time and generation and we've expanded to include work that we do reaching out to people of other cultures and we generally keep our minds as open as possible to the uses of music.

Ted Simons: Did -- I know you started -- what? -- '98?

Dorothy Lawson: '98.

Ted Simons: Was the crona quartet an influence?

Dorothy Lawson: Without them, there wouldn't have been an easy access to the market. They changed the way the people viewed the medium.

Ted Simons: When you started and tried to expand the boundaries, be adventurous, has that changed or evolved over the years?

Dorothy Lawson: Oh, yes. The first work we did, the first way we understood our -- our role in the world, it was pretty traditionally. We were profession musicians and working inside of a urban environment in New York City and loved it and easy access to all kinds of creative minds and composers we loved. And that was the initial energy behind it. They were their voice. The medium. As it's gone along, like I say, we've discovered and developed more of our own voices in the music and improvise a lot and all compose but we also began to -- through -- through exposure to other cultures which was not entirely of our design, we realized this was another opportunity and we've been doing it more and more actively ourselves and reaching outside of our world.

Ted Simons: People will hear string quartet and improvise and say, what's going on here? What's going on here?

Cornelius Dufallo: That's a good question. You know, when "Ethel" started out, it was more unusual for string quartet players to improvise, definitely but over the last 10-12 years that's changed quite a bit and there's younger groups coming up who do improvise and do different genres and it makes us feel proud that the genre has changed over the years.

Ted Simons: I know you mentioned looking for contemporary composers and newer music and composed in the last 15 years or something, what is contemporary arrangements accept for a string quartet? It seems almost anything goes these days.

Cornelius Dufallo: That's a really good question and it's hard to explain. The easy answer is to say that the contemporary arrangements is the music being written right now. And in many ways, it's as simple as that. But when you get into it more, there are things about contemporary music that attract us, particularly, composers who are influenced by other genres, popular idioms and -- idioms and we are interested in music that crosses cultural boundaries.

Ted Simons: When does that way of trying something new and venturing out, when does that become the idea you're having more fun than the audience, that the audience isn't quite hanging in there? Can you go too far with something like that, or can you go too far?

Cornelius Dufallo: That's a good question. Wow, you're full of good questions.

Ted Simons: We try.

Cornelius Dufallo: It's so important to us to maintain a connection with the audience and a real understanding of what it is that communicates with the audience, because we play for them.

Dorothy Lawon: Uh-huh.

Ted Simons: Is that how you see it as well?

Dorothy Lawson: Yes.

Ted Simons: What he said?

Dorothy Lawson: Absolutely. I would say that we've kept in touch with that all along as we've developed and, in fact, it feels like -- very much like riding a wave. We're not actually totally designing the trajectory, but following what works. We're actually using energy we get from the audience.

Cornelius Dufallo: Yes.

Dorothy Lawson: Because they do respond warmly, avidly, and moved to be part of something that's of our time.

Ted Simons: Yes.

Dorothy Lawson: And we're not designing, we're listening and watching and -- we're available to it, but that's more our attitude.

Cornelius Dufallo: But a lot of composers these days have a similar attitude. It's not just us. A lot of composers we're reaching out and commissioning are also interested in the connection with the audience.

Dorothy Lawson: Yeah.

Cornelius Dufallo: I think in a lot of ways, the days of the ivory tower and the composer who doesn't necessarily care if people are listening, maybe those days are over.

Ted Simons: Interesting. The days of just sitting down at some sort of symphony hall and not moving -- they may be gone too, especially with something like the Grand Canyon music festival. Talk about that event and why you're drawn to it.

Dorothy Lawson: Oh, gosh. Well, the -- a lot of the festival is fairly traditional. It's concerts for a live audience and some of the events are strictly classical. And -- but they -- they know us personally, the people who run the festival, Clare Hoffman and Robert, are dear old friends and they've approached us many times over the years to participate, knowing that our approach is more visceral and less -- less grounded in a tradition and more -- it's more of kind of a conversational style.

Ted Simons: Sure.

Dorothy Lawson We -- we do talk to the audience, we invite immediate response. We -- we love it when they feel compelled to get up and dance. It's all good. [Laughter] And you know, we've had a lot of warm relationships around that. The fact that people like to be approached that way. Maybe it's also moved the festival a little bit. I don't know. But they are the ones who created that particular festival and been running it for 30 years. It's a magnificent thing.
Ted Simons: And outreach programs and educational programs involved as well?

Cornelius Dufallo: Right, there's an incredible program called the native American composer apprentice project and we've been doing this for -- what? -- this is our seventh year this year. And we tour around Navajo and HOPI nations and work with high school students and help them to develop their pieces for string quartet and then over the course of a week, we collect 25 pieces and perform them all at Grand Canyon music festival at the end of the week.

Ted Simons: I would imagine when you get those to. Perform, it's amazing what you wind up with, isn't it.

Dorothy Lawson: It's incredibly exciting. We look forward to that as much as anything we do all year.

Ted Simons: And can you tell these are compositions made from this particular land? Does it come through?

Cornelius Dufallo: I would say so. I think there's a -- there's an amazing mix in a lot of music we find. There's an amazing mix of very old traditional melodies mixed with rock 'n roll rhythms and harmonies and it's a fascinating fusion. It inspires us.

Ted Simons: You've got the Grand Canyon and the native American composers, that's got to move you a little bit, huh?

Dorothy Lawson: It's huge. And also very, very exciting what -- of course, what happens to the students as people. Because the program not only involved a certain amount of training they get, which is not available through their regular schooling, but they're presented to their communities and their school populations as extraordinary individuals with interesting voices and because we perform the pieces not only for the festival but not high schools and the kids themselves have been really kind of keeping a culture alive around writing music. It's incidental in a lot of ways but it's for string quartet. There's a professional composer involved who comes and not only shows them the technology we're using, the reading and writing of it, but gives them some sense of how we develop ideas and combine them, run ideas one over another, you know, it's a compositional idea.

Ted Simons: And contemporary music moves on.

Dorothy Lawson: Exactly, exactly.

Ted Simons: Dates for the festival?

Dorothy Lawson: The final concert is September 10th. This coming Saturday, yeah and it's been a three-week festival so two of the weekends are done and we performed at those weekends.

Ted Simons: It's good to have you here. And continued success and thanks for joining us on "Horizon."

Cornelius Dufallo: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Saturday is your last chance to catch a concert at this year's Grand Canyon music festival. For more information, visit the festival's website at That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thanks so much for joining us. You have a great evening!

Dorothy Lawson:String Quartet ETHEL, Cornelius Duffalo:String Quartet ETHEL

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