Originally from Goshen, Indiana, Ethan Setiawan tried out numerous instruments before finding his way to the mandolin. “I played the cello, and tried out banjo and ukulele as a kid”, he explains, “But I really liked the mandolin, it was small but packed a bigger punch than the ukulele. Anyway, that was the one that stuck”, he laughs. Years later, Setiawan has a command of the instrument far beyond his twenty-five years, and has won both the National Mandolin Championship at Winfield, KS and the Rockygrass Mandolin Championship. On his new album, “Gambit”, Setiawan takes the calculated musical risks of a seasoned player. He moves aptly between stylistic influences, harkening back to the experimental string band music pioneered in the early 80s while presenting entirely original compositions.
Setiawan was one of three children who were all homeschooled by folk-loving parents, so his childhood was untraditional, and full of exploration, but music gave him a social outlet outside of the home. “As a teenager, I loved the idea of going to jams and having this community of people I could hang out with”, he explains. He began driving to Chicago to take lessons with Don Stiernberg, and traveled to California to attend The Mandolin Symposium. After finishing high school, Setiawan attended Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. “I think I came into Berklee as a very technically oriented musician, but just being exposed to so many different styles and incredible musicians really broadened my musical horizons, and gave me a deeper understanding of artistry and musicality beyond technical proficiency”, he explains.
Since then, his path has wended its way through traditional bluegrass, to Bach partitas, to free jazz. His debut full-length album, “Flux” is made up of original tunes drawing from all these wells. In retrospect, Setiawan can see immense growth in himself since the release of “Flux”. “I can look at most of those tunes and point you back to a Matt Flinner tune or a Bela Fleck tune that I drew inspiration from, but it feels more like a school project to me, something that I set out to do with a specific goal in mind, whereas “Gambit” feels more like my own artistic statement.”
Produced by legendary fiddle player Darol Anger, the project features Anger’s signature chamber music influenced arrangement styles. “What I love about the album is that the sum of it is greater than its parts”, explains Setiawan. “It starts with an introductory meditation, and it moves through a Swedish tune, a real jammy number, some more jazz and new age influenced pieces, as well as the old time and bluegrass elements. It’s not one thing, it’s a whole record”. In working with Anger, Setiawan found that he was able to make the most musical choices for each tune, leaving academic influences aside.
“Gambit” was recorded in Maine at the Great Northern Sound Society, and features an all-star cast of musicians including Darol Anger (fiddle), Tony Trischka (banjo), Sam Leslie (guitar), Brittany Karlson (bass), Ethan Jodziewicz (bass), Louise Bichan (fiddle), Joe K. Walsh (mandolin), Mike Marshall (mandolin), Neil Pearlman (keys), and Matt Arcara (banjo).
In addition to his solo projects, Setiawan is an in-demand side man and band member, and can be seen playing with his band Corner House, Darol Anger, and Tony Trischka among others. One listen through to “Gambit” will explain why Setiawan is in high demand. Throughout the record, his technical proficiency is rivaled only by his restraint, leaving room for the music to thrive.