Usually, music from a string quartet features the classic sounds of violins, violas and cellos, and little else.

Not this time.

"The River," a new album by New York-based string quartet ETHEL, features a mixture of traditional Native American music and classical string instruments.

The members of ETHEL collaborated with Native American artist Robert Mirabal from Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. Their album draws influences from indigenous musical traditions all over the United States — and from places as far-flung as Morocco, Nigeria, Tibet and the country of Georgia.

"The River" is a collaboration between string quartet ETHEL and Native American Artist Robert Mirabal. Pictured from left to right is Ralph Farris (viola), Kip Jones (violin), Robert Mirabal, Dorothy Lawson (cello) and Corin Lee (violin).

Tim Black/Courtesy

But it's also deeply personal, according to cellist Dorothy Lawson.

"'The River' as a body of music is like a self-portrait of the quartet with Robert Mirabal. You know, it's kind of a musical selfie."

The album was recorded in 2015 at Mirabal's home on the Taos Pueblo Indian Reservation in northern New Mexico.

Mirabal, a three-time Grammy Award winner, says he drew inspiration for the album from his own cultural traditions.

And the Pueblo River that flows past his home.

"I had been seeing things from a very tribal and ceremonial perspective about [the] river and how we as each individual are connected to so many different aspects of how the river is, where it flows, how it flows into other people. So that was my inspiration to create music that is metaphorically based on humanity yet still has that essence of [the] river going through us."

Mirabal has been collaborating with ETHEL for the past six years, but this is the first album they've released.

Members of ETHEL can be seen playing inside the home of Robert Mirabal in Taos Pueblo, N.M. The album was recorded in the summer of 2015.


Mirabal played a variety of instruments, like the Native American flute, drums, didgeridoo, and shaker. 

"I wanted to get the Native American flute beyond the stereotypical wind blowing through the trees and birds," he said with a laugh.

"I wanted to get it to the level of how dynamic this flute can become and the only way I could do it was through someone who could bend their notes, bend their pitches just a little. Fretless instruments," he added. "All you need is four. A viola, cello and two violinists and it will create some amazing, amazing aspects, and put the Native flute on top of it."

"The River" has been described as a cross-cultural experience, and Lawson says she has always dreamed that ETHEL could really spread its wings like this on a studio album.

"You can hear a really wonderfully wide range of human style and experience in the album because each of us brought different colors," Lawson said.

ETHEL is the resident ensemble at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Balcony Bar, as well as the ensemble-in-residence at Denison University. Their members are Ralph Farris (viola), Kip Jones (violin), Lawson (cello) and Corin Lee (violin). They are currently on tour with Mirabal for their new album.

"The River" was released in June of 2016. Learn more about the band here. And check out this video of ETHEL and Robert Mirabal recording "The River":

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI