As a child growing up in the Taos Pueblo of northern New Mexico, Robert Mirabal's life revolved around ceremony — ceremonies marking rites of passage; ceremonies praying for sun or rain; ceremonies honoring nature, a successful harvest or the life force itself.
So even after he had collaborated with everyone from John Tesh to the Smashing Pumpkins, earned three Grammys, and become Native America's most well-known and best-selling artist, the musician, writer, singer and storyteller felt there was something missing from his live performances.
"The pueblo ceremonies are all about celebration," says Mirabal, 47, who continues to live in Taos with his three daughters when he's not touring. "But there is no celebratory form of art within mainstream America."
His first meeting with ETHEL, an innovative contemporary string quartet that has made collaboration and community an essential part of its mission, instilled in Mirabal the belief that capturing a sense of the ceremonial in his public work might be possible.
That was back in 2007 at the Grand Canyon Music Festival's Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project, which ETHEL has served as ensemble-in-residence for nine years; a year later ETHEL and Mirabal debuted "TruckStop," honoring indigenous communities, cultures, and music, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
At last, Mirabal felt like he was at home on the stage.
"I immediately fit into what they do like a glove," he says. "We were on the same page without knowing it. For me, to find a group that could go beyond the linear form to become metaphorical and meet me in the world where I come from was very, very powerful. When I met them, it taught me how to listen to my own sound."
The cutting-edge but classically-trained quartet, which often uses improvisation and amplification in its performances, helped Mirabal find that sense of ceremony with an audience. Moreover, the copacetic partnership coincided nicely with a growing commitment in this country toward sustainability, environmental preservation and a shared sense of place and purpose — all integral parts of Mirabal's upbringing and culture.
"Not to sound new-age trite, but it's what people need. And we've conveyed that musically in a way I've never been able to do before."
Their most recent collaboration is "Music from the Sun," which they will present this week as part of the Ringling's NowHERE contemporary stage series. The program evolved, says ETHEL founder Ralph Farris, through discussions with Mirabal about his ethos and the agricultural cycle that is at the critical core of pueblo life.
"We used to think we were doing a program about the sun, but in fact, it's more than that," says Farris, who plays the viola and serves as ETHEL's artistic director. "What we are really talking about is the relation of humans to earth and how people bring a real world relationship to their actual physical surroundings and into a ceremonial context. Pretty much everything Robert does on stage is ceremony."
As such, each of this week's four performances will intentionally be slightly different.
All will include a number of preselected works, including Farris's "Three Solstice Songs," with Harry Smith's poetry sung by The Music of the Sun Chorale Ensemble, an impromptu group of New Music New College students, faculty and community members assembled just for this program. ETHEL will also perform several pieces alone, without Mirabal's accompaniment on one of the native flutes he crafts himself.
But there will also be an improvisational element. Not long before each show, Mirabal will teach the chorus a chant from his tribe, possibly a different one for each performance. The chant will be incorporated into the concert, but no one is exactly sure just how it will play out...until it does.
"To some extent, there was an act of faith here," says the chorus leader and director of NMNC, Stephen Miles, whose group will not rehearse with all the artists until the day of the first concert. "But this is not an unusual thing for us to do.
"ETHEL performs contemporary music that is innovative and sometimes improvised, and in the world of New College, that's probably less than three degrees of separation. Robert Mirabal just adds a whole new dimension of this."
Local choruses have been incorporated in the program whenever possible on the current tour, says Farris.
"By far, we love it more when we have a chorus," he says. "There's such a grounding of the human voice — after drumming, it's the most natural human expression — and suddenly you have a way to connect to other people instantly."
The success of the venture for everyone relies on abandoning a western concept of performance and perfection and embracing a Native American philosophy of acceptance and appreciation, Farris says.
"The formality about right and wrong that we have forced on most musical expression in the concert world, it's just not present in Robert's world," he says. "It's all just there and that's what it is, there's no judging. Robert has opened our eyes to the ceremony all around us and it's a profound thing."
For Mirabal, the result is "a powerful new form" that allows the artists to move into an expanded realm of expression, "like a cog wheel finally hitting something that fits and the whole machine starts to move and flow.
"You can have scores written for you, or have a symphony play with you, but all it is is everyone reading notes," he says. "To create an ensemble evening that pushes you to understand what life's all about and becomes a blessing for the whole audience, that's what true art is."
MUSIC OF THE SUN, ETHEL and guest artist Robert Mirabal, with chorus from New Music New College. Part of the Ringling's NowHERE stage series at the Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Rd. Sarasota. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20-22; 2 p.m. Feb. 22. $10-$30. 360-7399; www.ringling.org/nowhere