BIFA: Colorado premiere of ETHEL’s ‘Documerica’ comes to Breckenridge |

BIFA: Colorado premiere of ETHEL’s ‘Documerica’ comes to Breckenridge

ETHEL’s "Documerica" mixes a boundary-pushing performance of original works, some commissioned and others composed by the New York-based string quartet, with a multimedia projection of 1970s-era photographs from the EPA’s Documerica project. The show makes its Colorado premiere at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge on Sunday, Aug. 16, as part of the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts.
Jack Vartoogian / Special to the Daily |

If you go

What: ETHEL’s Documerica

When: 7:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16

Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave, Breckenridge

Cost: $25 to $45, depending on seating

Tickets: Call the Riverwalk box office at (970) 547-3100.

What: Pre-show discussion

When: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16

Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge

Cost: Free to ticket-holders

More information: A collection of Documerica project images, made available by the National Archives, is available for viewing at

BIFA schedule for Saturday, Aug. 15

All day — Art installation, Amy Scofield, Illinois Creek Trail

All day — Art installations, Steuart Bremner and Terry Talty, Iowa Hill and Moonstone trails

8 a.m. to 10 p.m. — “The Blue Trees,” an installation by Konstantin Dimopoulos, Blue River Plaza

9:30-10 a.m. — Trail Mix concert with Michael Ward-Bergeman, Miika Gregg (violin) and John Klinghammer (clarinet), Iowa Hill Trail

Noon to 5 p.m. — “Abound,” an installation by Julie Hughes, Old Masonic Hall

2:30 p.m. — “Swoon!,” a performance by Australia’s The Fruits, Riverwalk Center Lawn

2:30-3 p.m. — Trail Mix concert with Kevin Danzig, Moonstone Trail

4 p.m. — “Swoon!,” a performance by Australia’s The Fruits, Riverwalk Center Lawn

4-4:30 p.m. — Trail Mix concert with Dru Griffin & Friends, Illinois Creek Trail

4-4:30 p.m. — Trail Mix concert with Cody Wayne, Iowa Hill Trail

5:30 p.m. — “Swoon!,” a performance by Australia’s The Fruits, Riverwalk Center Lawn

6 p.m. — Artist talk: Julie Hughes discusses her installation “Abound,” Old Masonic Hall

6 p.m. — Russick Smith concert, Festival Square

7:30 p.m. — Edison concert, Festival Square

7:30 p.m. — Michael Ward-Bergeman and Groanbox with the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra, Riverwalk Center

For more details on locations and a full schedule of events for the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts, visit

On Sunday, Aug. 16, Breckenridge hosts the Colorado premiere of “Documerica,” the latest and perhaps most imaginative show yet by the progressive string quartet ETHEL. The New York-based group is known for pushing traditional classical music boundaries, but in “Documerica,” they cross genres altogether by performing in concert with a visual projection that depicts American life and our relationship to the land in the 1970s.

The show takes its name from Project Documerica, an initiative of what was then the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency. From 1971 to 1977, the EPA commissioned well-known photographers to document environmental and sociocultural issues of the time, resulting in a library of approximately 80,000 images. Most of these were tucked away at the National Archives until recently, when the agency digitized nearly 16,000 images and made them available on its website, along with a smaller selection on Flickr.

“We were already thinking of incorporating multimedia in our shows using a visual experience as a common point of departure,” said ETHEL founding member and cellist Dorothy Lawson, so it was serendipitous when the archive became available to the public.

Photos inspire music

ETHEL sent collections of images to four composers with little direction other than to create music based on what the photographs inspired.

Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer and composer Ulysses Owens Jr. was drawn to images of the South, particularly New Orleans and the Baptist South. As the youngest of the four composers solicited by ETHEL, Owens’ experience was of “a world he still related to his parents and his family,” Lawson said.

James Kimo Williams, a Vietnam veteran, chose images depicting bodies of water that were important to him throughout his life.

“The piece that he gave us sort of narrates his early years as a child, as a young man, as a soldier and later in life as he’s come to peace with those experiences,” Lawson said.

Chickasaw Nation’s Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate worked with photos of the American Southwest and based his composition on Pueblo folk music, while composer Mary Ellen Childs was drawn to the geometry and design quality of the photographs, rather than specific subjects, according to Lawson.

“The pieces they returned to us are among the most profound I’ve ever seen of theirs, and I’m delighted and honored they took it so seriously,” she said. “It’s a privilege when someone puts a narrative like that in your hands to deliver to the audience.”

Original pieces by members of ETHEL — which also includes Kip Jones and Corin Lee on violin and co-founder Ralph Farris on viola — fill out the program’s structure.

A multimedia projection of more than 3,000 vintage images from the Documerica archive, created by artist and designer Deborah Johnson, forms the backdrop for the performance. While some of the imagery references pollution, urban decline, strip mining, political protest, car culture, inflation, unemployment, recreational pastimes and fashion trends, the projection represents more than just a literal interpretation of the 1970s landscape.

“Sometimes you are being drawn through a fantastical figurative storyline in the photographs,” Lawson said, “and sometimes the photographs are just a tapestry — their colors, their geometries, their shapes. It’s not a film score with a movie. It’s kind of an artwork on both sides.”

Director Steve Cosson worked closely with the visual designer to direct the flow and pacing of the images and focused in on the music, lighting design and color palette in the performers’ attire to help guide the show’s visual impression, Lawson said.

Colorado premiere

ETHEL’s “Documerica” premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 2013. It comes to the High Country on Sunday, Aug. 16, as part of the new Breckenridge International Festival of Arts, which runs now through Sunday, Aug. 23.

“I’ve known ETHEL’s work for a number of years,” said Robb Woulfe, president and CEO of Breckenridge Creative Arts, or BreckCreate, the nonprofit group putting on the festival. “They are always doing interesting projects.”

In Documerica, “one of the most startling images, from 1975, shows cars piled in a river,” he said. “It tells a story of where we were, where we are and where we need to go. That’s one of the reasons it’s so interesting to me.”

Both the environmental tenet and multidisciplinary aspect of the show made it a good fit for the festival.

“You can’t avoid the ground purpose of the photo archive to document the state of both the ecological environment and the social environment of the time,” Lawson said. “It expressed a lot and encoded a lot of information to us about who we were at that time.

“A lot of that comes through in the show, but we didn’t approach it in a didactic way. We weren’t trying to make a point. What we firmly believe as artists is that the audience is a collaborator in the final processing of the experience.”

Audiences are looking for experiences that open their hearts and bring them out into a larger sense of community and the bright side of the human potential in the world, she said.

“We love to contribute to that — this sense of greater sharing, greater community and larger scale of love among all of us.” It’s part of why ETHEL reaches out to collaborators who are underrepresented in the Western classical tradition, she explained. “The people we partner with are extremely energized by that and often come up with amazing evolutions.”

New video projection equipment purchased by the town of Breckenridge for the Riverwalk Center last year makes it possible to host the performance, which is “a sizeable presentation that takes tech,” Lawson said.

In addition to the pre-show discussion for ticket holders, ETHEL members will join the audience in the lobby after the show.

“We would love to hear from people — what they experienced, their memories of the time,” Lawson said. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Presented by Breckenridge Creative Arts, the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts is a celebration of adventure, play and creativity that runs Friday, Aug. 14, through Sunday, Aug. 23. Find more information and a full schedule at, or search “BIFA” at

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