Dream House

Dream House

HGTV meets Koyanisqaatsi
Mary Ellen Childs
Catalog Number: 
new classical
string quartet
music for dance

Minneapolis, MN

Release Date: 
Jul 3, 2007
Liner Notes: 
1 CD
One Sheet: 

Composer Mary Ellen Childs recently undertook a major renovation of her home. Surrounded for months by repetitive work rhythms, the beauty of rough-hewn hands at work, and walls once there, now gone, she responded by creating the 14-movement Dream House. Dream House serves as a commentary on cycles of time, rhythms of work, and the intertwined nature of destruction and creation.

Performed by the acclaimed New York-based ETHEL, several of the movements incorporate recorded and manipulated sounds of destruction and construction, woven into a lush and dynamic string quartet texture.

In live performance Dream House includes stunning multi-image video that surrounds the string quartet (based on time-lapse and real-time video images of destruction and construction) and this CD includes one bonus track with video by Daniel Polsfuss that can be viewed in your computer. Sound montage is by Neverwas (aka Chris Cunningham). Minnesota-based Childs is well known for her theatrical music and visual percussion works.


No matter how dilapidated it may be, a house facing the wrecking ball can engender sadness if one is willing to acknowledge it. Years ago, the dwelling was brand new, with every detail crafted with the promise that it would one day become a home. Call it middle-class melancholia or sentimental anthropomorphising, but there simply is a raft of emotion tied up in these structures that give us all importnat shelter... At it's most angry, such as in "Welding" the music is fiery, at its most reflective, such as in "Very High", it almost sobs as notes punctuate the texture exquisitely. ETHEL play the entire range with spot-on accuracy and admirable literalness, letting the music provide the sentiment.

by Andrew Druckenbrod

Here is all the pathos one could wish for in 14 continuous movements, inspired by the composer's personal brush with the destructive and creative processes of home remodeling: long soulful lines, slow, powerful build-ups, and recorded sounds of actual home demolitions elegantly woven into various sections. The quietly searing whistling of "Very high" sounds like a broken heart; "Waiting" is also painfully sweet. The phrases everywhere are entirely discernible and feel organic. Ethel sinks into the music–the playing and the music are united completely.

by McCormick

Sometimes it takes a powerful effort to understand the wisdom in common phrases: Mary Ellen Childs, for one, found out about the relationship between life and decay while completely renovating her house. The simple theoretical mnemonic that deconstruction is a prerequisit for construction and that everything will die down and transform eventually became a vivid experience while bending over work images, listening to the noises of hammers and drills and observing the immediate changes in the most personal of environments. All of these sentiments have found their way to “Dream House”, originally a combination of video images and live performance for string quartet. Even though the visual aspect is an integral part of the concept underlining Child’s meditation, one can safely claim that it works just as well on CD. On the one hand, part of the medial complexity has been preserved by the inclusion of thematically related sound montages courtesy of Christopher Cunningham, blending in seemlessly with the instrumental performance of contemporary music specialists Ethel. Especially the blustering drone roars and crashing metal tectonics underneath the repeated string sighs in “Destruction” lift the music to a new level of tragedy, majesty and sensory responsiveness. Secondly, the compositions carry enough of the message to get by on their own. In the first third of the album, tracks start with full flow, only to disintegrate through decreases in volume, stretching of cycles, blending out of melodic lines, slowing-down-effects and gradual submission by the intensifying field recordings. In the middle section, the string arrangements either sublimate into sustained harmonies, irrecognisable electronic pastiches or float off into the upper register (as on the aptly titled “Very High”). Towards the end, Childs then constructs new forms from the ashes, rising like a friendly phoenix. Here, the loops and spiraling sensations are bathed in warm tonal colours and in smooth and unagitated discourse. Even though she doesn’t completely eschew the metaphysical consequences of her concept, “Dream House” is very much grounded and relates to tangible phenomena. Again and again, Ethel pluck their instruments like banjos, bend them into tortured voices, make them sound like iron wires being pulled in asthmatic rhythms while Cunningham’s tapings always retain their concrete character, refusing to become metaphorical. All of this implies that the record not only can, but probably should be seen as a wild emotional ride, which hits the heart before the brain. Childs is not shying away from philosophical exchanges, but she wants to share the immediacy and impact of the events which induced her to write the piece in the first place. She certainly has a point. After all, her music is not just meant to be a simple theoretical mnemonic, but a personal study of the mechanisms and psychological implications of destruction.

by Tobias Fischer

Childs' music takes us with her in the work of renovating her own house. Building on the work of Philip Glass, we hear impressions of tearing down and putting up walls, as well as the contemplative moods of the builder reflecting on her work. Ethel String Quartet shines brightly above recorded sounds. by Jeff Pinzino

This is music that has potential appeal for both the open-minded classical listener and the rock music fan who enjoys the daring edge. If this sort of thing keeps up, modern classical music could become — dare I say it? — relevant to more than just a handful of aficionados. - Mark Sebastian Jordan