Minnesotan violinist Kip Jones talks about ETHEL's collaboration with Robert Mirabal

by Austin Gerth, Special to MPR
January 14, 2014

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Fans of forward-thinking classical music in the Moorhead area will be in for something special on January 25 when ETHEL, an acclaimed string quartet based in New York, stops in town to perform with Grammy-winning Native American flautist Robert Mirabal. The performance, part of a series of concerts entitled "Music of the Sun," will take place at Minnesota State University Moorhead's Roland Dille Center for the Arts.

ETHEL's creative partnership with Mirabal dates back to 2008, when they worked together as part of ETHEL's TruckStop project, which brings the quartet together with musicians from various world music disciplines. ETHEL and Mirabal subsequently began performing "Music of the Sun" in 2011. It is ETHEL's longest-running program.

Kip Jones, one of ETHEL's violinists, is originally from Duluth. He joined ETHEL about a year and a half ago, having previously spent years traveling around the world as a solo performer, often playing in nontraditional venues like subway platforms or Mongolian farmhouses. He still resides in St. Paul and keeps an apartment in New York for his work with ETHEL.

"I love being a Minnesotan," Jones said. "[But] New York is a wonderful foil."

The "Music of the Sun" concerts include a blend of contemporary classical works, traditional Native American songs, and compositions by Mirabal; there are two pieces that rely on "structured improvisation" and also "some material that's come out in the last year," according to Jones.

Jones has enjoyed the experience of working with Mirabal.

"We performed with Robert at one of my first shows," Jones said, "Immediately the rapport was there. It's my favorite program we do."

ETHEL have long been supporters of Native American music, serving as the Ensemble-in-Residence at the Grand Canyon Music Festival's Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project for several years running, and having performed on the resulting album Oshtali: Music for String Quartet (2010).

The quartet's willingness to experiment with forms of music that don't normally fall under the umbrella of classical music — from arrangements of music by pop musicians like Jeff Buckley to their association with musicians like Mirabal, to their use of amplification and improvisation live — has meant that reviewers often tag the quartet as a "postclassical" ensemble. Jones, however, seems ambivalent about this characterization of the group, first saying that the term "postclassical" is "meaningless," but then adding that "it does strike a certain feeling," and that that feeling about the group's music is accurate.

"The feeling you experience when you read the word is what we are," he said. "[But] I just call it [being] a good band. We're a good band."

Austin Gerth is a member of the class of 2016 at Concordia College. He also writes for Concordia's student blog, The COBBlog; and Concordia's student newspaper, The Concordian.

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