Ethel goes where no string quartet has gone before


by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., June 10, 2004) – One of the advantages of naming your string quartet “Ethel” is the opportunity it gives you to play with the name in titling your programs.

“We can do ‘Ethel Goes to the Beach’ or ‘Ethel Goes to Hawaii,’” said Todd Reynolds, violinist and co-founder of the group, in a recent phone interview from an office at Mass MoCA, where the quartet has been ensconced for the last two weeks workshopping its newest program, “Ethel Goes to the Movies,” which will be staged as a work-in-progress concert tomorrow night at 7:30.

Tomorrow night’s film-and-music program by Ethel is not to be confused with Mass MoCA’s summer film series where bands play live soundtracks to feature films. Rather, Ethel’s show is a diverse one in which the group, including violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson and violinist Mary Rowell, explores different ways to integrate film into the quartet’s performance and overall esthetic.

This will include playing along to the short, animated, Oscar-nominated film, “The Indescribable Nth” by Oscar Moore, for which Ethel provided the original soundtrack composed by Bennie Wallace. Also on the program is “Shadow Quartet,” a collaboration with composer Neil Rolnick utilizing live electronics, and a collaboration with video artist Luke Dubois, in which the music Ethel plays will affect the video image on screen.

“It will be a real exploration of live video with music, finding ways of working with these elements, which we always wanted to explore,” said Reynolds.

When it came time to name Ethel’s latest CD, just plain “Ethel” sufficed. Released on the Bang on a Can-affiliated label Cantaloupe, the recording includes a representative selection of the quartet’s “greatest hits,” including works by Bang-affiliated composers John King, Phil Kline, Evan Ziporyn and Reynolds. Ziporyn and Reynolds are also members of Bang’s resident ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and Kline, also a Cantaloupe recording artist, will perform his “Zippo Songs” program at MoCA on July 10.

It’s worth noting that all the pieces on “Ethel” are by living composers, and in fact all were written in the past 15 years.

“On the whole, we don’t play anybody who’s dead, and we tend to search for music that can be written for us, more than music that has been written for other people,” said Reynolds, who, in a typical indication of the eclecticism that defines the avant-garde, is a longtime member of Steve Reich’s ensemble, the Betty Buckley Band, new music cabaret act Nuove Uova, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.

In addition to the composers on the CD, Ethel plays music by John McLaughlin, John Zorn, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Bennie Wallace, and Steve Reich. The common ground among these composers, said Reynolds, is “a real visceral quality that comes out of humans in this day, especially those of us who live in New York. The stuff is so vibrant and vibrating. It goes straight to the heart. It’s real impactful. It doesn’t beat around the bush. It comes straight out of folks and goes straight into folks. There’s a real, direct line to the audience and from the composers. Without sounding too new-agey, there’s somewhat of a soul connection that is really important to us.”

No one would mistake the music Ethel plays for “new age.” Nor is it the violent, abstract scratchings one expects from the outer fringes of the avant-garde. Underneath John King’s “Hardwood,” which kicks off the group’s CD, beats a steady, rhythmic pulse rooted to the suggestion of a delta-blues chord progression. As the title indicates, Phil Kline’s “Tarantella” is evocative of a lively, Mediterranean dance. And while Ziporyn’s “Be-In” -- which concludes the disk and features the composer on bass clarinet – luxuriates in its lyricism while borrowing inspiration from Balinese gamelan music, it also adheres to the formal vocabulary laid down by Bang avatars Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

Although collectively the musicians in Ethel boast a list of playing credits including stints with Sheryl Crow, Joe Jackson, Allen Ginsberg, Roger Daltrey and Barry White, after all is said and done, Ethel is still a classical-styled string quartet. “We are a classical string quartet in the sense that we all bring that education and deep knowledge of four-hundred years of western music to the table,” said Reynolds. “We all know the late Beethoven quartets.

“But we’re all James Brown fans, too. We all have a big education in pop music. Perhaps very much we are a classical quartet in our present day, delving deeply into what’s happening in world music and jazz so that we can be real-time interpreters and creators of what’s going on, in the way that classical composers were with what was going on in their day.”

Tomorrow night’s program also includes “E(go),” an Ethel composition for octet that Ethel will perform with New York-based avant-punk-jazz quartet Gutbucket. Also based on the Cantaloupe label, Gutbucket, whose latest CD is “Dry Humping the American Dream,” includes saxophonist Ken Thomson, guitarist Ty Citerman, bassist Eric Rockwin and drummer Paul Chuffo.

For reservations call 413-662-2111.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 11, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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