An open-eared musical connector who holds that there is only one world and only one music, Ralph Farris’s work has brought him from string arrangements on the Grammy-nominated Five For Fighting hit, “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” to work as a music supervisor on Martin Scorsese’s The Key to Reserva, to a permanent chair as original company member (and assistant conductor) on the Broadway’s Tony-winning The Lion King. As a member of ETHEL, the genre-expanding string quartet described as a “jug band meets Bartok,” Farris has spent the last three decades on modern music’s frontlines, working with everybody from Paul McCartney and Leonard Bernstein to Chicago’s Kaotic Drumline and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
Born into a family of musicicans (he conducted for the first time as a teenager), Farris was a boy soprano and a wunderkind sting player, joining the New England Conservatory of Music’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 12, and attending the Walnut Hill School for the Arts at 13. A three-year Tanglewood Fellowship, and extensive study at Julliard followed. But then rock and roll beckoned, and by extension, the wide world outside of concert music. Precociously asking renowned pop classicist Michael Kamen for a gig, and getting it, Ralph was–at the age of 24–soon on the road leading a band for The Who’s Roger Daltrey. Ralph’s instincts and versatile skills have led him into situations both sublime (coordinating and arranging music for performances at St. Paul’s Chapel, near the World Trade Center site) and audacious (contracting and conducting an orchestra for the legendary Scorsese, coaching lead actor Simon Baker in viola performance). His resume stretches from country superstar Trisha Yearwood to avant-dance forefather Merce Cunningham, glam-shocker Alice Cooper, jam legend Trey Anastasio of Phish, and beloved indie quirksters They Might Be Giants.
Founded in 1998, Farris’s amplified string quartet, ETHEL, has become a go-to ensemble for cutting edge Manhattan composers like John Zorn and Phil Kline, as well as members of the venerable Bang on a Can collective. ETHEL tours the world, appearing on stages as varied as Venice Biennale, Sydney Opera House, Ravinia, TED, Lincoln Center, Holland’s TROMP Festival, Kennedy Center, FIAC in Guanajuato, Mexico, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Highlights of recent seasons include the world premieres of: Phil Kline’s SPACE at the gala reopening of Alice Tully Hall; ETHEL’s TruckStop®: The Beginning at BAM’s Next Wave Festival; RADIO by Osvaldo Golijov at the debut of WNYC Radio’s Jerome L. Greene Space; ETHEL Fair: The Songwriters at opening night of Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival; WAIT FOR GREEN with choreography by Annie-B Parson, commissioned by arts>World Financial Center; new collaborative works with members of Merce Cunningham Dance and Arena Dances company; and a commissioned original live film score at Celebrate Brooklyn!. Other highlights include performances at: the annual TED Conference; the TROMP Festival with Colin Currie and Todd Rundgren; in Eindhoven, Netherlands, as the Ensemble-In-Residence at the Muziek Gebouw Frits Philips; Merkin Hall as part of New Sounds Live: ETHEL Plays JacobTV; Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room, and the Grand Canyon Music Festival, where ETHEL is Ensemble-in-Residence with the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project. ETHEL currently serves as the 2011 Artists-in-Residence at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory.
ETHEL has released several albums since its debut, self-titled ETHEL (Cantaloupe Music, 2003), which was named one of Billboard’s “Best Albums” for that year. The group’s next recording, Light (Cantaloupe Music, 2006), was selected as #3 on Amazon.com’s “Best of 2006: Top Classical Editor’s Picks” and ETHEL’s most recent release, OSHTALI (Thunderbird Records, 2010), marks the first recording of American Indian student works. The group has appeared as a guest artist on a dozen music labels and was recently featured with vocal group Lionheart on John the Revelator: A Mass for Six Voices by Phil Kline (Cantaloupe, Music, 2008) and the Grammy® Award winning Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (Concord Records, 2009). New ETHEL release are planned for 2012.
With his ETHEL collaborators, Farris was instrumental in creating ETHEL’s TruckStop®, which has perfected his world-traveling open-earedness into something like an institutional form. Over the past 7 years, the band has made itself at home in dozens of communities the world over, staying anywhere between two days and two weeks, culminating in triumphantly collaborative performances. Celebrating locality via careful workshopping and potluck dinners, TruckStop® provides links between worlds. For the past two years, ETHEL has been Ensemble-in-Residence with the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP), an affiliate program of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, dedicated to teaching composition to young Native Americans.
An all-embracing musical chameleon, Farris has spent increasing time as an educator, as well, fostering a creative, open worldview among a new generation of musicians. He has collaborated with the Eastport Strings (residing in the Maine town where the Farris family summered), serves on the board of the Walnut Hill School of the Arts (where he graduated in 1989), and lectures frequently at Juilliard (where he won the Willam Schuman Award in 1994). He is a restless collaborator, at work on a host of projects, both with ETHEL and without, with choreographers, rock stars, filmmakers, educators, and poets, from coastal Maine to glittizest Las Vegas. It’s a small world, after all.
ETHEL endorses the AVID Family of Software Solutions and beyerdynamic Microphones. Ralph Farris endorses Glasser Carbon Fiber Bows.