While it is an unavoidable fact that the Kronos Quartet has set the standard for contemporary string quartets interpreting an almost exclusively contemporary repertoire, the fact of the matter is that they come from a classical background, and no matter how far they attempt to stray from it, they can't escape it. Their attempts to interpret the music of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, for example, did nothing more than highlight their more literal interpretations. Not so with Ethel, whose members have played with everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Sheryl Crow. When they say, in the liner notes to their self-titled debut recording, to play their music loud, they mean it. And while Ralph Farris, Dorothy Lawson, Todd Reynolds and Mary Rowell are as capable of breaking bread with the most serious of new music artists, they are also equally able to let their hair down and have more than a little fun.
On John King's three-movement "Sweet Hardwood," which opens up the disc, not only are the references to American roots music clear, they are played with complete authenticity and commitment. "'Sweet Hardwood' turns the quartet into a big old dobro," says Farris, and no more evident is this assertion than on "Shuffle," the third piece, which finds everyone in the quartet playing with complete veracity, and more than a little visceral blues.
Contrast that with Phil Kline's four-movement "The Blue Room and Other Stories," where largely unmoving pedal tones create a sense of foreboding often overshadowed by the darker hues surrounding them. In stark opposition to King's work, "The Blue Room and Other Stories" shows another side to Ethel, one with a slightly more urban edge, even in the peaceful moments of "The Blue Room," but especially in "March" and "Tarantella," where forward motion is more predominant.
Reynold's own "uh...it all happened so fast" furthers the urban analogy even further, with cello defining a dark bottom over which the three other strings play rich counterpoint in a composition that has a certain rawness to it that, along with "Sweet Hardwood," proves that Ethel easily stands on its own as a contemporary chamber group.
With a minimalist approach that brings to mind Terry Riley's landmark "A Rainbow in Curved Air," Evan Ziporyn's closing composition, "Be-In," works its hypnotic charm with Ziporyn adding the additional texture of bass clarinet. Typical of his work however, while the reference to minimalist composers is evident, there is a larger world view that adds a unique dimension to the piece.
In a world where contemporary string ensembles abound, what differentiates Ethel is a certain edge, a certain unschooled rawnessalthough the members of Ethel are clearly thoroughly schooled and capablethat allows them to dig deeper into the material and imbue a more personal stamp. If Ethel is anything to go by, we can all expect to hear more from this quartet in the future.
Sweet Hardwood: Hardwood, Spiritual, Shuffle; The Blue Room & Other Stories: The River, March, The Blue Room, Tarantella; uh...it all happened so fast; Be-In
Ralph Farris (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Todd Reynolds (violin), Mary Rowell (violin) With Guest: Evan Ziporyn (bass clarinet on "Be-In")
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