Before Ethan Filner and I rehearsed the other week, we brewed some coffee, plunked a laptop down on the living room coffeetable, and recorded our conversation.
H: Have you seen the PR?
E: In the newspaper? Yes! It’s a nice kind of “welcome to the community,” which is what I’ve been trying to do - begin to be part of this community. My brother-in-law texted me, “You’re in the paper! Like Fonzie!”
H: Ok, so Fonz. Do you have a motorcycle?
E. No. Never.
H: Huh. What kind of car do you drive?
E: The Family Car is a Kia Soul inherited from my father who passed away a few years ago.
H: I’m sorry.
E: It still smells like his dog.
H: What kind of a dog was it?
E: An Australian Shepherd named Tripper, who got his name because he would run endless circles around my dad, making him… trip.
E: And the reason my dad had an Australian Shepherd is because I’d had one as a kid -- when my parents separated when I was in high school, my dad moved across the country to Baltimore area and he missed the dog, so he got his own.
H: And you were, meanwhile, on the Left Coast, where you’d grown up?
E: I grew up near San Francisco, a little further inland on the other side of the Oakland Hills - I was a Valley Boy.
H: So you must have learned to drive early then.
H: Your mum is still there?
E: My mom is still there in Danville, living in my childhood home. She teaches adult education at the West County Detention Center - the county jail - in Richmond, about 40 minutes north. So she’s helping convicts, and also people being held who are awaiting trial, work toward a G.E.D.
H: My mother worked in the prison system for some years.
E: Yeah? My mom has been there for a long time. I think it’s amazing, the work they do to help these guys, so many crazy stories (not to tell here) - and my mom keeps at it…
H: And whose idea was it to give you music lessons?
E: That happened in East Lansing, Michigan, before we moved to California. My older brother David started violin when he was six, I think he’d had a friend who had also started. Then I wanted to be like my brother and got started a year later, when I was four.
H: In Suzuki?
E: We started with, basically, a “pure” Suzuki method, but when we got to California a year later, our lessons began integrating score reading sooner than was normal, I guess. I made it through to about Suzuki Book 5 or 6 before other rep took over. I played violin for ten or eleven years before I started viola.
H: Many of my university students tell me that around age 12 or 13, things changed for them – I think it’s kind of a watershed moment for music students, right?
E: Well, what happened for me at 13 was music camp. So absolutely, that was a turning point, in terms of discovering a completely different population of kids who were interested in music the way that I was.
H: I played cello in my public school string program in PEI. And my sister played violin, and the boy down the street played violin, but when we all walked to school, the boy insisted on walking a block behind us, because he was getting so much flak for carrying a violin case around. Did you get any of that?
E: You know, I don’t remember any teasing or bullying for being in music like that. It was more generally about just being nerdy.
H: And this can be a kid’s own choice or identity, right?
E: Well, we apparently had a deal with our mom, when we got instruments and started lessons, that we would continue through the school years -- not necessarily having to reach a certain level, but to keep at it at least until graduation. Music turned into such a constant part of our lives, even with everything else we might have been doing as we grew, it was never really a question of whether or not to keep going, but of how to manage our time to fit everything in.
H: How connected do you feel with Danville now?
E: It’s my home town. It’s maybe a quarter the size and population of Kitchener, and the main drag is just a few blocks away from our house. I stay connected with a handful of people from there, not necessarily musical friends, Facebook is great for that of course.
H: You and I met at our local food club, Bailey’s Local Foods. I use “local” in its most loaded context, right, we’re talking about locally produced foods, the “100 Mile Diet.” And there was Rachael Ward who runs it with Maryrose Ivanco, and she led me over and introduced me to you, who, I assumed, was another local food aficionado. And then, as the conversation progressed, I realized: Ethan is actually a classical musician like myself. Similarly trained. At “international caliber” institutions, would you say?
H: But we don’t talk about “international calibre” food, though, right?
E: No, I suppose we don’t, not in the same way. But - simply, “international food,” certainly! Exotic flavors...
H: So are you a local musician now, here? Because I wrote an article for the Music Times last year, about how I proudly label myself as a local musician - but I still wonder what that means.
E: Let’s see. Am I a local musician. I think this is where the second half of my career begins and is looking like it’s going to be - that I will be a local musician.
H: Are you feeling like that would be locally-based, or is there more to “local,” some kind of commitment to a scenario?
E: I want to have a relationship with my local community, to try to bring something beneficial to it, which I may or may not be unique in my ability to do. But coming off of 15 years of touring internationally and having home be where I catch up on what’s going on but I’m not necessarily part of it, well, my wife and kids have grown a lot while I’ve been busy. Now I’ve been two months at home here and already, I’m loving being more a part of the development of everything going on in our house. And I’m fortunate to have made some friends in my previous quartet-life who live in the GTA, who have introduced me to some of the local players, who have been introducing me to their friends… and who so far are these very talented, experienced, fun-to-play-with people.
H: Community involvement is such a deep question, for instance, when the symphony is looking for a conductor, should the conductor live in the community? When I got the job at Laurier, 20 years ago, I remember an interview question being, “You won’t live in Toronto and commute out, will you?” Nowadays, of course, I have many Laurier colleagues who have to commute to several communities because they’re contract instructors. I myself could not bring my experience back to my home town in Prince Edward Island because there are no jobs there. Some of my students could not go back even to their home countries - Iran, for example. So I guess “local” comes to mean “where you find yourself,” rather than going back to your home town. I’m wondering, what will that mean for you? Of course, we have to do whatever we can get, but how do we prioritize making connections with local musicians, as opposed to say touring – how are we thinking about this in the music sector?
E: That’s a tough set of questions! I am a strong believer in the value and validity of a certain sense of individualism, as far as different people having different ideas that might be “right” for them but not necessarily for others, and that the cultural beauty in our world emerges from the existence of those distinct and countless differences. And that somewhere - somewhere - there is, in the broadest sense, a place for every person... a key for every lock. As I learn more about where I am now and take some time time to consider what feels right as a “what’s next?” for me, I’m first of all trying to reach out to every new friend I make to build myself a foundation for a local career, whatever shape it eventually takes. You mentioned touring: I do enjoy traveling -
H: I do too! Let’s go, forget this local stuff, right!?
E: - but No, I happy to have a break from that now.
H: Me too, I have stayed home to raise my kid here.
E: One thing I learned in my time with the quartet is the importance of building and maintaining a strong, dedicated support base in your home town. It was vital for the survival and success of our group, and I think it’s equally important for an individual artist. Settling down at this point, in this new area, I have a bit of a developing fantasy of building something in the community, where I wouldn’t necessarily just be a player.
H: Oh, a utopian vision! I have lots, what’s yours?
E: These days, my utopia would be if there was a place where, when people were done with their workday, they could go to a place to play music for fun, old-fashioned salon style but not necessarily someone’s house. It could be like a weird merging of coffeeshop/bar/music venue/lounge/library/music studio. A safe place to experiment, or to “work out” in a different context than your practice studio at home. I think I would love to direct or host something like that. To remind people - fellow musicians - that what we can do is not limited to what we might currently be getting paid for, but that there’s so much fun and enjoyment to be had.
H: That strikes a chord with me. I’ve had former students talking in those terms. One dreams of buying a piece of property and building an artist community on it. Myself, I’ve always wanted to have a coffee house or salon – or a travelling caravan –
E: Food truck, music truck –
H: Ya, so many of us have thought of that! I remember about fifteen years ago, there was an experiment in Halifax with a venue called the Kyber Café. Indie musicians will remember it, Joel Plaskett came out of that. You would go in, it was a bit like the Working Centre in Kitchener. But upstairs there were recording studios. Downstairs there was a stage. It was a central headquarters, it’s passed into the annals of Canrock history now.
E: But it was vibrant. Or just experimental?
H: It was both, it was foundational to the East Coast indie music scene which is still one of the great scenes in Canada, many great artists coming out of it. So are you hired at Bailey’s Local Foods?
E: My wife Elisabeth has been working there since last year, and I started helping out when I moved here this summer. And she’s been sick recently, so I’ve been doing more. [Ethan’s wife was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer in August and is currently undergoing chemotherapy.]
H: So you and Elisabeth and I all support Bailey’s Local Foods, and now we have a concert together at the K-W Chamber Music Society. They are also a “local” endeavor – much longer-lived than the Kyber Café in fact. I believe their recording library features every notable classical musician in Canada over the past forty years. We’re talking longevity of an experiment in local community, continually drawing new members but with a core audience as well. And now, we’re about to connect into that community. But do the Bailey’s Local Food people know the K-WCMS people? Should they meet and could they meet?
E: I’m trying not to generalize here, but I think they would find each other fascinating. It’s a wonderful, diverse crowd I’ve been getting to know at Bailey’s. A few customers are already K-WCMS regulars, and say they’re looking forward to our concert - and it’s nice to recognize them at some of the other concerts I’ve attended. But sure, it would be interesting - always great! - to see more crossover, sell out more classical concerts... It’s never going to stop for me, this need to feel like there’s relevancy for the music you and I are playing.
H: Greg Sandow calls it “the crisis in classical music.”
E: Yes, given the contemporary competition for one’s ears, the noise all around, how people feel stressed out, and how there’s not enough time for anything.
H: You must have been dealing with this during the fifteen years you were with the quartet. Did you see changes in audiences during that time?
E: Through the years, yes, sometimes it has seemed like the audience is getting older – though not without exception: there were plenty of concerts where it was noticeable that more young people were coming to listen. Sometimes it all hinges on whoever’s the immediate authority: what’s the school teacher’s attitude during an outreach presentation, are they engaged, asking questions to model good behaviour for their students, or are they grading papers while we babysit their class? Does the concert presenter have a realistic sense of their audience’s tolerance for new music, or are they suffocating their own series by restricting the programs to only music written before 1900 because they think their patrons won’t like anything more “modern” than that? This problem has so many layers. Not least is the generation’s worth of funding cuts to school programs so many of us suffered through and are still trying to fix. Thankfully, there are a lot of younger musicians searching for solutions with a lot of positive energy.
H: What would you say to somebody who didn’t normally go to this type of concert? How would you sum up what you love and what your specialty is?
E: It’s our business to move people. To bring people to a different state of being than what they maybe ever thought was possible before. And I love the idea that in any given audience there is at least one person who’s hearing this music for the very first time - it’s an incredible responsibility, and power, we have as performers. We’re not trying to sound like a recording we’ve heard. We’re telling a story, without words. We’re painting together, in the moment - something we’ve discussed during rehearsals, but which doesn’t have to translate exactly. Anybody can have a different sense of what it is. It’s not going to be all beautiful all the time, because music is reflective of dissonance and loss and pain as well as happiness and joy.
H: The question we get asked all the time is “Who’s your favourite composer”?
E: The answer we give all the time is “Whoever’s on our stand right now!”
H: hahahaha okay, I don’t care. You can’t have a favourite musician!!
H: That would be so snotty!! Okay so listen, let’s just geek out. On a very technical level, what’s in your musician brain right now, what are you trying to work out?
E: Reprogramming myself to work as a freelance chamber musician, without wanting to lose everything I learned operating as a full-time quartet musician for so long. Our quartet had made a commitment not to take outside work. We lived in the same town and rehearsed four hours, five or six days a week, and on the road for maybe a third of every year. Intense work for fifteen years, trying to make a unified statement.
H: So you were an “intentional community” yourselves, a sort of “commune.”
E: Yes. We probably spent more time with the quartet than we did with our own families. So yeah, I’m trying to find myself. I still sometimes imagine what their voices would be saying, but –
H: But now you can say, “But no!”
E: Yes, “Well, Now I’m going to do it this way!”
H: And you’re exploring working with various pianists, other musicians, but more open-ended.
E: I’m excited about the general feeling of learning how to freelance, playing a part of a different group every time, to find this other way of “doing” music, and, hopefully, to make the most of it!
H: What about playing contemporary music?
E: Happy to! And maybe I’ll rope some of the composers I worked with as part of the quartet into writing music for groups I meet here, as we figure things out.
H: Will you be doing outreach concerts?
E: In the quartet, we did a lot of outreach activites, in schools, libraries, community centres, both at home and wherever we toured. And we didn’t have a scripted show. Knowing the kids had to be moved, we wanted to reach them individually, interactively - not just talk at them. So, I’m ready to help, like volunteering to help here with my son’s high school music association.
H: What do you want to be doing in ten years time?
E: Lots of concerts!
H: All over the world?
E: I don’t know why I hesitate with that.
H: Are you tired of being on the road?
E: A little bit, yes. The thing is, if there’s an opportunity, I’m sure I’ll say, sure, I’d love to!
H: It’s harder for us all to plan five or ten years ahead now, not knowing about so many things like climate change and so on.
E: I think we have to be idealistic. Shoot for the stars, and make adjustments - course corrections - along the way.