ETHEL + Robert Mirabal The River
Innova Recordings (www.innova.mu )
Review by Tyran Grillo
"An Kha Na" (excerpt)
"Tuvan Ride" (full song)
The River is a nondenominational masterpiece documenting a collaboration of forces between the ETHEL string quartet and Native American flute player/maker Robert Mirabal. The recording sessions took place under the open skies of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, the surroundings of which are referenced by a dusting of field recordings. Wind and water, for instance, harmonize in the ambience of opening track “An Kha Na.” Its blend of indeterminate and composed sounds makes the introduction of strings and the singing of those playing them seem like something from another plane of existence. An overwhelming impression of distance prevails when the song transitions into “Tuvan Ride” through sounds of horses. While this jump from an American heritage site to the Mongolian outback might seem arbitrary in theory, in practice I can hardly imagine a clearer manifestation of the album's title. Here the river is no metaphor, but the very interconnectedness of life on Earth.
Each track, in fact, is one powerful stone's throw after another, landing in territories of disparate yet interlocking temperament. Whether it's the Hawaiian-based “Chant” or the Georgian folk song “Tsintskaro Memory,” the ancient children's song “Wi-Wa” or “Gat'té,” which closes the album with a prayer from the "Heart Sûtra," every petal on this flower feels as necessary as the stem feeding it.
"Tsintskaro Memory" (excerpt)
Although the members of this collective specialize in their respective instruments, they often make use of percussion and their own voices as a way of expanding a shared horizon of dirges, purges, and surges. Mirabal's flute is an entity unto itself, soaring over the quiet dreamscapes of “Rana Run” with wings of its own making, and like his poetry cycles through seasons with strength to spare. His spoken word in “Skywatchers” is especially moving for revealing his deepest philosophy: one must look up in order to see within.
In Mirabal's presence, ETHEL finds the most truth it has ever expressed on a single recording, and proves to be one of the truest bearers of the Kronos Quartet torch. Not only for their technical skill and adventurousness, but more importantly for their willingness to cross borders without hesitation. Such openness of heart and gathering of spirit should be a model for these times, not least of all in the shadow of 2016's ongoing injustice at Standing Rock. When the world seems bound for destruction, art like this is a reminder that indestructible havens still exist if you know where to look…or listen. - Tyran Grillo