As noted in a recent CVNC news item, this is not your father's string quartet. The image of the string quartet has certainly evolved in the past 30 years or so. Not very long ago, the string quartet, the "classic" concert music ensemble, was considered to be the epitome of old-fashioned, boring, and elitist music. Probably the greatest popular-culture depiction of this perception came in the early years of the TV show Saturday Night Live, where a recurring skit featured a group called The Dead String Quartet. Four ghostlike, doddering old persons barely had the strength to lift their bows and get out a single, creaky chord before they all slowly fell over their music stands and collapsed on the floor. Well, I guess you had to be there. About the same time that this extreme caricature was being broadcast, the Kronos Quartet burst onto the scene, and the image of the string quartet was changed forever.
In 1998, a newly formed string quartet with the enigmatic name of "Ethel" appeared on the scene in New York City. If part of their purpose was to break the traditional rules of string quartet playing, they first needed to be well versed in those rules. Each member of this remarkable group comes from a distinguished, "legit" background. Todd Reynolds and Mary Rowell, violins, Ralph Farris, viola, and Dorothy Lawson, cello, boast resumes that include stints with some of the great orchestras as well as a broad background in jazz, rock, and Broadway productions. The members of Ethel prefer to be referred to as a band, and they don't shy away from making a spectacle of themselves and their music. Lighting, choreography, special effects, and a general "show biz" feel, in the best sense of that term, permeate their performances, which have been described as a "tightrope act without a net." But, this is no undisciplined, three-chord garage band. More importantly, they are definitely not a group of classically trained musicians who "play at" different styles that are written out for them – something that usually falls flat and disingenuous.
Ethel made their first appearance in this area on November 16 at Duke University's Reynolds Theater as part of the Milestones 2004 concert series jointly presented by the music departments of Duke and UNC Chapel Hill. A relatively few, open-minded and open-eared hearty souls ventured out to be rewarded by a brilliant display of creativity, virtuosity, and just plain fun. Despite some of the descriptions I have read of some of their performances, this one was rather tame as far as effects and non-musical "distractions" are concerned. Perhaps they wanted to tread a bit conservatively in an unknown red state.
They were all amplified, but that was it as far as electronic effects. Their configuration was a bit unusual. Both violinists sat facing the audience on bar stools so they were nearly standing. The violist was on the audience's left and the cellist on the right, sitting on standard chairs. With the small crowd and the personality of the group, the entire evening had a very intimate feel. You could sense how it might have seemed more comfortable listening to them in a small club with a drink. But, make no mistake about it – they are consummate musicians with the chops and intelligence to play anything.
Most of the works that they play are from contemporary composers, many of whom are associated with groups like "Bang on a Can All-Stars" and other New York-based modern-music ensembles. This includes composers like John King, Evan Ziporyn and John Halle. It was in the opening work, John King's "Sweet Hardwood," that you immediately realized the incredible range of their musical background and the veracity of their styles. There is nothing quite as lame as hearing a classical ensemble attempt to play jazz, blues or pop-influenced music – why do you think they call it "Muzak"? Mere technical precision just does not cut it. And when was the last time you've seen the terms "string quartet" and "Mississippi delta blues" in the same sentence, let alone hearing a string quartet play it in an authentic manner? It is clear that Ethel does not play anything unless they truly understand, feel and, to some degree, have lived the music. This is clear from their interpretations of jazz greats Thelonious Monk and Lenny Tristano and Indian ragas, all of which also require great improvisatory skills.
The audience loved it, in part because the players were definitely having a blast. It may perhaps be unfair, but I couldn't help contrasting Ethel with the unfortunate evening with the Emerson String Quartet last month, where the latter group seemed as if they'd rather have been somewhere else that night, instead of playing at Duke....
Ethel played their program without an intermission and saved their wildest ride for near the end. "Cat O'Nine Tails" by John Zorn is said to be "in a variety of genres including jazz, rock, hardcore punk, klezmer, film, cartoon, popular and improvised music." This description doesn't begin to convey the mind-bending journey. I guess you can't argue with some who might label it as "gimmicky," but I don't consider that negative. The changes come at you like a roller coaster. The impeccable timing, control, and nearly inhuman technical virtuosity required to carry this off made it one of the most amazing performances I have ever heard.
Throughout the evening, violinists Reynolds and Rowell took turns introducing each work and giving the background. All of Ethel went out to the lobby after the concert to speak with the audience, sign CDs and bask in the adulation. Those who missed them will have to settle for experiencing Ethel through cyberspace, at http://www.ethelcentral.com/.