ETHEL’s Documerica transforms EPA photo project into multimedia feast

About Documerica

ETHEL's DOCUMERICAIn 1971, a hundred photographers commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Project Documerica fanned out across the country to capture America’s sometimes fabled, sometimes fraught relationship to its land. The result was an archive of thousands of photographs amassed over nearly a decade, an enormous artistic project that had been largely forgotten until recent digitalization. The imagery of Project Documerica is the inspiration for ETHEL’s Documerica, which taps the archive’s rich evocation of time and place and brings its visual and emotional impact into dialogue with the 21st century.

With Documerica, ETHEL invites audiences to contemplate individual and collective connections, action, and responsiveness to environmental and social challenges revealed through the repurposing of this distinctly American archive through the unifying language of art.

If you go

ETHEL’s Documerica
Saturday, January 24 / 8:00 PM
Loeb Playhouse
Buy Tickets


6:30PM / A panel of Purdue experts will present a survey of current climatological and environmental issues for discussion / Stewart Center, room 214ABC


A moderated discussion including the artists and experts from the pre-show talk / Loeb Playhouse


Robert L. Ringel Gallery / Stewart Center / January 12 – February 21

Visit the Ringel Gallery for an exhibition of photos commissioned by EPA during the 1970s that documented the state of the environment and its impact on society. Todd Wetzel, director of Purdue Convocations, will offer comments during the opening reception on January 22 at 5:30 PM


ETHEL logoCorrin Lee, violin
Kip Jones, violin
Ralph Farris, viola
Dorothy Lawson, cello

Acclaimed as “unfailingly vital” (The New York Times), “brilliant,” “downtown’s reigning string quartet” (The New Yorker), and “one of the most exciting quartets around” (Strad Magazine), ETHEL invigorates the contemporary music scene with exuberance, intensity, imaginative programming, and exceptional artistry.

At the heart of ETHEL is a quest for a common creative expression that is forged in the celebration of community. As cultural and musical “pollinators,” the quartet brings its collaborative discoveries to audiences through multi-dimensional musical repertoire and community engagement.

ETHEL’s 2014-‘15 season celebrates the diversity of regional American music, anchored by a national tour of the evening-length ETHEL’s Documerica. Described by The New York Times as “new music bonding with old images in rich, provocative and moving ways,” this program directed by Steve Cosson features montages by acclaimed projection artist Deborah Johnson in concert with commissioned work by Mary Ellen Childs, Ulysses Owens Jr., Jared Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and James “Kimo” Williams and new music by the members of ETHEL.

Throughout the season ETHEL tours several critically-acclaimed signature programs, ranging from a collaboration with guitar virtuoso Kaki King, to the Music of the Sun concerts with Robert Mirabal, to an introspective program Grace, featuring ETHEL’s arrangements of music by Ennio Morricone and Jeff Buckley. Other highlights include: a “Composer Portrait” of Missy Mazzoli featuring a premiere of her new quartet commissioned by ETHEL at Miller Theater; performances as the Resident Ensemble at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Balcony Bar; and a residency at Denison University culminating in a performance at the Tutti Contemporary Music Festival.

Always striving to demonstrate the unifying power of music, ETHEL has initiated innovative collaborations with an extraordinary community of international artists including David Byrne, Bang on a Can, Todd Rundgren, Carlo Mombelli, Ursula Oppens, Loudon Wainwright III, STEW, Ensemble Modern, Jill Sobule, Dean Osborne, Howard Levy, Simone Sou, Andrew Bird, Iva Bittová, Colin Currie, Thomas Dolby, Jeff Peterson, Oleg Fateev, Stephen Gosling, Jake Shimabukuro, Polygraph Lounge and Vijay Iyer.

For ten consecutive years, ETHEL has served as the Ensemble-in-Residence at the Grand Canyon Music Festival’s Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project. The group’s ongoing dedication to working with indigenous people and music culminated in the 2010 release of Oshtali: Music for String Quartet (Thunderbird Records), the first commercial recording of American Indian student works. ETHEL is also the 2014-2015 Ensemble-in-Residency at Denison University.

ETHEL’s debut eponymous CD was a Billboard Magazine “Best Recording of 2003.” Its second CD, Light, ranked #3 on’s “Best of 2006” and #5 on WYNC’s “Best of 2006 Listener Poll.” The group’s most recent CD, Heavy, was released in 2012 to great critical acclaim. ETHEL has appeared as a guest artist on many albums, including The Paha Sapa Give-Back by Jerome Kitzke, (Innova, 2014), Cold Blue Two (Cold Blue Music, 2012), Glow by Kaki King (Velour Recordings, 2012); Blue Moth by Anna Clyne (Tzadik, 2012); A Map of the Floating City by Thomas Dolby (Redeye Label, 2012); The Duke by Joe Jackson (Razor & Tie, 2012); John the Revelator: A Mass for Six Voices by Phil Kline (Cantaloupe Music, 2008) with vocal group Lionheart; and the GRAMMY® Award-winning Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (Concord Records, 2009) 

Over the past five years, ETHEL has premiered 100+ new works by 20th- and 21st-century composers including: Phil Kline’s “SPACE” at the gala reopening of Alice Tully Hall; “RADIO” by Osvaldo Golijov at the debut of WNYC Radio’s Jerome L. Greene Space; ETHEL’s TruckStop®: The Beginning and ETHEL’s Documerica at BAM’s Next Wave Festival; ETHEL Fair: The Songwriters at opening night of Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors; “WAIT FOR GREEN” with choreographer Annie-B Parson commissioned by Arts Brookfield; and “HonBiBaekSan” by Dohee Lee at Meet the Composer’s 3-City Dash Festival. ETHEL’s HomeBaked series has commissioned and premiered works by emerging NYC composers Andy Akiho, Hannis Brown, Anna Clyne, Lainie Fefferman, Dan Friel, Judd Greenstein, Matt Marks, and Ulysses Owens Jr. to date. ETHEL has debuted original scores in combination with new choreography by Aleksandra Vrebalov/Dusan Tynek Dance Company and Son Lux/Gina Gibney Dance; and works by contemporary music luminaries such as Philip Glass, Julia Wolfe, John Zorn, Evan Ziporyn, Steve Reich, John King, Raz Mesinai, John Luther Adams, JacobTV, Hafez Modirzadeh, David Lang, Kenji Bunch, Don Byron and Marcelo Zarvos.

ETHEL group image on the staircase with their instrumentsSteve Cosson is a writer and director. He is the founding Artistic Director of The Civilians. The company has supported the development of 13 original works that have been performed Off-Broadway and in over 40 cities nationally and internationally. Highlights of Cosson’s work for The Civilians include: Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns (Playwrights Horizons, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, The Washington Post’s #1 play for 2012); Bess Wohl/Michael Friedman’s Pretty Filthy; co-writer/director Paris Commune (BAM Next Wave, The Public Theater, La Jolla Playhouse); co-writer/director The Great Immensity (upcoming Public Theater, Kansas City Rep), The Next Forever created for the 2012 TED Conference; In The Footprint (Top 10 of 2010 in The New York Times, Time Out, New Yorker); This Beautiful City; (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch and Gone Missing (NY Times Top 10 of 2007). Other directing highlights include Spring Awakening (Olney  Theatre); Anne Washburn’s A Devil at Noon (Humana Festival, O’Neill); U.S. premiere of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life (Soho Rep); Bus Stop (Kansas City Rep). His plays are published by Oberon Books, Dramatists Play Service and an anthology from Playscripts.

Deborah Johnson, aka CandyStations, (projections design) is a show designer based in Brooklyn, NY. She has designed and performed visual projections and lights for music groups including Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, Wilco, Calexico, M. Ward, ETHEL, and Lambchop, performing in such venues as Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Fillmore, The Ryman, and Wiener Konzerthaus.

Deborah has also created site-specific projections for events at the Museum of Modern Art, 92Y Tribeca, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Chicago’s Millennium Park, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Her music video and animation work has been exhibited worldwide and screened at numerous film festivals. She has completed residencies at Mass MoCA, The Experimental Television Center, and The Atlantic Center for the Arts, where she was one of seven artists selected to work with new media artist Carsten Nicolai.

Deborah most recently designed the visual component for Planetarium, a commissioned work between Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, which made its US debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March 2013.

Adrian W. Jones (set design) Born and raised in New York City, Adrian’s designs for the stage have been seen on Broadway, across Europe, the UK, Australia, South America, and regionally across the United States. Including: Looped with Valerie Harper: Broadway & National tour,  Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz world tour, Vision Disturbance with Richard Maxwell, at Under The Radar and European tour, Anna In The Tropics directed by Nilo Cruz, and recently: The Nether at the Kirk Douglas Theater.  Other theater In New York: The Public Theater, LAByrinth Theatre, The New Group, The Cherry Lane, and Synapse Productions. Outside New York: New York Stage & Film, Goodspeed Musicals, Bard Summerscape, Baltimore Centerstage, Pasadena Playhouse, People’s Light and Theater, Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble, Barrington Stage Company, Boise Contemporary Theater, Capital Rep in Albany, Theaterworks Hartford.  His interior design work was published in Dwell Magazine.  He has been a recipient of the Connecticut Critic’s Circle Award, The Carbonell Award, and The Kevin Kline Award. Adrian is a graduate of Occidental College and the Yale School of Drama. He currently divides his time between Los Angeles and Brooklyn.

Christopher Kuhl (lighting design) is a lighting, scenic, installation and conceptual designer for new performance, theatre, dance and opera. Recent work includes ABACUS (Sundance Film Festival, EMPAC, REDCAT); The Elephant Room (St. Ann’s Warehouse, Philly Live Arts, Arena Stage); Quartier Libres by Nadia Beugré (New York Live Arts); Soldier Songs (Prototype Festival); John Cage Song Books with SF Symphony (Carnegie Hall); Motherhood Out Loud (Primary Stages); The Nether (Center Theatre Group); Open Meadow (Hand2Mouth Theatre). Chris has had the pleasure of working and making art at On the Boards, The Kennedy Center, The Walker, YBCA, Hartford Stage, BAM, Jacob’s Pillow, LA Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Beijing Music Festival, Queer Zagreb, KVS Belgium, MAC France, Santiago a Mil Chile, and Duke University. In 2011 Chris was the recipient of the Sherwood, Drammy, Horton, and Ovation Awards. Chris is originally from New Mexico and a graduate of CalArts

DOCUMERICA Commissioned Composers

Mary Ellen Childs, a 2011 USA Friends Fellow, composes concert work, often with a strong visual element. She has received commissions from the Kronos Quartet, Chamber Music America, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, The Kitchen, Walker Art Center, Meet the Composer, and MAP Fund.

Ulysses Owens, Jr., a multi-Grammy Award-winning drummer, composer, and producer, has performed with world-class musicians including Patti Austin, Terence Blanchard, Benny Golson, Russell Malone, Wynton Marsalis, and Kurt Elling. Currently, Ulysses tours as the drummer with the Christian McBride Trio.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, is dedicated to the development of American Indian classical composition. An Emmy Award winner, his works have been performed by the National Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic, Colorado Ballet, and the New Mexico Symphony.

James Kimo Williams is a producer and composer, 2007 Fulbright Specialist, and Vietnam veteran. His compositions have been performed by the Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit Symphonies. Williams’s work, Buffalo Soldiers, was commissioned by the United States Military Academy at West Point to celebrate its 2002 bicentennial.

Program Notes

Ephemeral Geometry

Mary Ellen Childs

Of the many wonderful photos in the EPA Documerica collection, I gravitated to those that lean to the abstract – an electrical tower with lines in geometric patterns, a bird silhouetted against the big red ball of the setting sun, an extreme close up of a puffy dandelion – each a real thing made to look slightly unreal through the photographer’s eye. By looking so close up, or from an extreme angle, or through dramatic lighting, our sense of reality is altered just enough for us to see something unexpected. I kept these photographs loosely in mind, sort of sitting at the back of my brain below conscious thought. I wanted each of the three movements of Ephemeral Geometry to have a completely different flavor. The photos gave me a place to connect musically where image and sound came from the same impulse, with music capturing the dramatically different energy of lines, dots and arcs – the abstracted sense of the real things in these photos.


Ralph Farris

In exploring the Documerica archive, I was drawn especially to images of pain, of destruction, of decay. So many of the challenges from those times remain with us today, even as the arguments grow in volume. And ever we hold to hope…


Kip Jones

In writing Shout-out, aside from nods to three of my favorite composers (guess all three and you win a prize), I wanted to channel the feeling of “Track 01” on some of my most-loved records. There’s no thematic undercurrent, other than an effort to frame suspensions creatively; just kick back, put down this program, and enjoy the show!

Epic Soda

Dorothy Lawson

This hard-grooving romp begins as standard blues, interwoven with fragments of pieces ETHEL has performed. Embedded references include Julia Wolfe’s Early that summer, Nizhoni Spencer’s Write the Wrong Not the Right, and Kevin James’s Ainu Inuma. Along the way, there are references to popular hits from the 70’s. My aim is to showcase ETHEL individually, while evoking the joy and energy of our shared experience.

The Simplicity of Life

Ulysses Owens, Jr.

The Simplicity of Life is a musical journey that I hope causes you to reflect and ponder what is most important to you and revel in the beauty of simplicity surrounding those thoughts.

Pisachi (Reveal)

Six Epitomes for String Quartet

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate

The title and the short epitomes are a bit of play on words that alludes to the fact that the presentation is made of snapshots (epitomes) of larger landscapes. Each epitome has a completely different character. In honor of the Southwest, I have incorporated and developed Pueblo Indian melodies and rhythms throughout.

interludes i & ii

Tema Watstein

While our commissioned composers chose images from the archive to inspire their pieces, Deborah Johnson had a number of transitional images in mind for me: mangroves and exaggerated fish-eye shots of landscapes from above. They’re almost kaleidoscopic. This made me want to create something distant, transitional and transient – a little celestial and a little lonely.

Into the Liquid

James Kimo Williams

As I perused the Documerica Project, I was struck by the images that had water as a central image either as the main subject or peripherally associated. I thought about how a simple photograph can tell so much about a time and place. I realized that many of the significant turns of events in my life (good or bad) also had a connection to water.

For Into the Liquid as with most of my compositions, I want the listener to connect to the music as if viewing a series of photographs depicting an aspect of my life experiences. The work opens with an introductory motif presented in different harmonic and rhythmic variations that reflect the emotional roller coaster of thinking back to specific events in my life.  The last chapter, “A Veterans’ Lament”, is a reflection of my life as I view it through a prism of military service.

ETHEL gratefully acknowledges its supporters

The Board of ETHEL’s Foundation for the Arts; The Aaron Copland Fund for Music; The Amphion Foundation; Bloomberg Philanthropies; Brooklyn Academy of Music; The Carnegie Corporation of New York; CECArtsLink; Chamber Music America; The Cheswatyr Foundation; The Delmas Foundation; The Greenwall Foundation; The Jerome Foundation; LEF Foundation; Meet the Composer; Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation; The Multi-Arts Production Fund, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Rockefeller Foundation; The National Endowment for the Arts; The Netherland-America Foundation; New Music USA; The New York State Council on the Arts; New York Community Trust; The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; OZ Arts; The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation; The Thompson Family Foundation; and The September 11th Fund.

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