by Caleb Easterly
The string quartet ETHEL has made a splash in chamber-music circles and the classical music world at large, becoming known for performances that stray from the common formula, while presenting new works with unparalled energy.
Their album release party last Tuesday at the newly renovated Joe's Pub was a blast. Pieces from their new album, Heavy, are varied and fresh. They began with a lively piece by Julia Wolfe (present at the performance), Early That Summer, leaping into the driving sixteenth notes with a vivacity I've never seen in a string ensemble. Cellist Dorothy Lawson described ETHEL as a "band," and with amplified instruments and their forceful stage presence, they gleefully threatened to cross over into rock territory.
The festive atmosphere instantly disappated, however, as violist Ralph Ferris described the story behind David Lang's lovely piece, Wed: A friend of Lang's was dying of terminal cancer and decided to get married on her deathbead. The members of the group displayed extraordinary sensitivity to the material, with a lush bed of chords laying beneath a lone yearning note in the high register of the violin, intoned several times throughout the short piece. Eventually, all voices dropped out save that violin note, fading into the bare and fleeting distance.
Their new album is fantastic, featuring several works from the past two decades that were not heard at the concert—most notably Don Byron's 4 Thoughts on Marvin Gaye, the album's only concession to a "traditional" four-movement quartet work. Also fascinating is the packaging, a cardboard sleeve the size of a 7" single with a cover design that could suit a hard rock band; a new kind of album from a new kind of string quartet.
The concert finished with some guest stars: composer and violist Kenji Bunch, and one of the founding members of ETHEL, Mary Rowell. They finished with Bunch's own String Circle No. 1, a rollicking jig-like work, and No Nickel Blues, by John King. As the players traded improvised solos around in No Nickel Blues over a finger-plucked jazz-bass figure on the cello, they proved that ETHEL—and the modern string quartet—is not something to be taken lightly.