Live Music by ETHEL to Accompany Ship of Monsters Film

Williamstown Film Festival and Mass MoCA Join Forces

By: - Oct 27, 2009


We were able to get an advance peek at Friday's big movie event this week when we exchanged emails with ETHEL, a string quartet like no other. They will be performing their original score "live" to the Mexican science- fiction-meets-spaghetti-western film La Nave de los Monstruos (The Monsters' Ship) at Mass MoCA's Hunter Center on Friday, October 30, at 8 p.m.  Presented in association with the Williamstown Film Festival, the event pairs a classically trained group of musicians and a score that is far from classical with a film that conflates two divergent genres.  The story pits former Miss Universe astronauts from Venus and extraterrestrial monstrous creatures against a lone Mexican cowboy who fights to save humanity.

This is not unusual for ETHEL, since they thrive on challenging the traditional role of a string quartet. The Julliard trained musicians perform contemporary chamber music with the raucous energy of a bar band. Their fans range from high school students to their grandparents. They have crossed the generational divide.

The decade old quartet is comprised of players Cornelius Dufallo and Mary Rowell, violinists; Ralph (Rafael) Farris, violist; and Dorothy Lawson, cellist.  They are all skilled and engaging performers whose love of innovation has not waned as they have grown.

Because the quartet infuses their sound with rock, blues, classical, jazz and other popular genres, they are eclectic enough to take on the task of creating a sound track for what has to be one of the strangest films ever made.

Synopsis of the plot of The Ship of Monsters is pretty far out.  The last man on Venus has died. In order to save their planet, two Venusian astronauts, Beta (Lorena Velazquez) and Gamma (Ana Bertha Lepe), blast off to find men on other worlds. After collecting a motley crew, the Venusians crash land their "Ship of Monsters" into the closest planet, Earth, which they have overlooked. Upon landing in rural Mexico the two interstellar babes find themselves face-to-face with the sly, witty, and affable, singing cowboy Lauriano (played by Jose Gonzalez). The remainder of the film is an action-packed story of survival and cunning as Lauriano and Gamma take on Beta (who is also a vampire) and the hideous monsters in order to save planet Earth. 

Over the past week, we emailed back and forth with ETHEL, and Ralph Farris their viola player, was happy to indulge our curiosity about this strange project.

Do you enjoy composing new music?

Absolutely! It's one of the most rewarding things that we do.

Alone or as a group?

We have some of our best "aha" moments when we compose together. Playing your ideas off of your closest colleagues is a remarkable privilege.

How do you go about it?

There are a few different ways this work goes down. There's the nuts-and-bolts stuff -- we study the film, figure out where we want to do what, and so forth, all with the intention of finding places to play. (The film does have dialog in Spanish.) Above all we want to make this a satisfying musical experience, so there's lots of homework to be done with the stopwatch, figuring out how long we can play during the big (spoiler alert!) vampire scene.

We then play little grooves and tunes for each other, and build songs just as any band would.

As we dig into a project and the ideas are flying, inevitably someone gets hit by sudden inspiration. When that happens, one or two members of ETHEL will go off and work on that inspiration. The others will keep on rolling - brainstorming, studying the film and getting another cup of coffee, keeping the ideas flowing.

Eventually, the inspired folk(s) come back to the fold, share their awesome ideas, and then set about convincing the other members of ETHEL of their brilliance. It's quite good fun.

And then there's the spark that happened even before this project first came to us. Mary had written this amazing sci-fi theme that's straight out of some 1960's soundtrack. It's just an instant classic. She started writing it before we had even first met about the film. So she walks into our first session, plays this tune for us, and we're all totally blown away. Not only has she totally nailed the genre, but she's created what will become the main title music! Just amazing.

You guys just finished the score in a marathon work session. So is it set in stone, or is there improv too?

There is a bit of improv in the piece, particularly in some of the blues numbers. There's also some funky improv -- Neil's doing a "robot" solo, and Dorothy's got something going with a slide whistle. Not sure if she wants me to advertise that or not...

Back in 2000 you worked with Bang on a Can, any chance you might collaborate with them again, maybe even for their annual residence in July at Mass Moca?

The folks at Bang on a Can are good friends and we continue to work with them as often as possible. We just performed on their New York Marathon this past spring. And we're always thrilled to come back to Mass MoCA!

Most other string quartets resist both electronics (amplification, sound manipulation) and instrument updates, yet you are selectively using modern  advances. Is this a bit like walking a tightrope between tradition and the future?

It just feels right to us, this work that we do. We are citizen-artists of this age when the world is coming closer together. All these sounds are converging upon each other. What an opportunity we have as musicians to soak it all in, to listen, to hear, share!

Its been over a decade since the formation of the group, does it feel that long?
Wow. We know each other so well; we truly are a family. You mark the time as you would with your family. Dorothy's eldest daughter is just 1/2 year younger than our group. When I see Fiona, I'm happily reminded that ETHEL is in fact a pre-teen New Yorker!

How do we bring more young people to classical-contemporary music?

Well, for my part, let's break down the walls. Kids don't have 'em, so why should we? It's very cool to play your solo bassoon etude. It's even cooler to program it with an electronically-processed wind quintet and some freestyle reed-boxing.

And that door swings both ways! Look at the rock artist hanging with symphony orchestras, the western choreographer apprenticing in Asia, the community art teacher reaching across ancient borders to offer programs to all comers. There's astonishingly inspired cross-disciplinary work going on all around us.

Do you think there is hope for the older Beethoven-Brahms audiences to enter the current century?

LOL! Well, my mom digs what we do. Mostly. But to flip that on its ear -- ETHEL considers what we do to be a natural extension of our own artistic journeys. We make the music we make because it just organically flows that way. I would hope that as ETHEL swims around this great world-collage of sounds and styles, that we can always offer a hand, a groove, a motif, that can be inviting, inspiring, welcoming -- to listeners of any age.

What are you working on now?
Right down to the wire, it's "La Nave" all the way, baby! And then it's straight on to our Winter Solstice show with Annie-B Parson in December, at the World Financial Center in NYC.

Have you accomplished your major artistic objectives? If not, what artistic or audience challenge is gnawing at you?

I get to play music for people! What could be better? It's all about the journey for us, and that journey is a blast.

A video about Ethel and the Film

The band began composing the score during a residency at BRIClab in Brooklyn, New York, this spring and premiered it live in June as part of Celebrate Brooklyn! They have continued to work on and polish the final version to be presented Friday night at 8:00 PM at the Hunter Center of Mass MoCA in North Adams. It is a part of the eleventh season of the Williamstown Film Festival. The entire WFF schedule is available online at

Tickets for La Nave de los Monstruos are $15 in advance/ $18 day of the show/ $10 students. MASS MoCA members receive a 10% discount. Tickets are available through the MASS MoCA Box Office located off Marshall Street in North Adams, open from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. Wednesdays through Mondays. Tickets can also be charged by phone by calling 413.662.2111 during Box Office Hours or purchased online at