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ETHEL: Light

John Kelman By

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These days musicians raised in compartmentalized traditions can find themselves challenged by the homogeneous blending of diverse musical interests. Not so with Ethel, a young string quartet that may be traditional in configuration, but brings together a wealth of influences—not because it's fashionable, but because it's the only thing that makes sense. Light, the followup to Ethel's remarkable 2003 eponymous debut, continues to explore the nexus of composed music and improvisation with a rawness not normally found in contemporary classical music.

There's good reason for this. While traveling in new music circles like its mates on Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe label, these players have also toured (collectively) with Joe Jackson and Todd Rundgren and (singularly) with everyone from Ornette Coleman to Lenny Kravitz. The Americana flavour of some of Light only feels authentic because there's a looseness in the phrasing and bending of notes that's more Leadbelly than lieder. Cellist Dorothy Lawson, in particular, has a visceral edge that gives the opening "Arrival"—one of three excerpts from Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvis' "Nepomuk's Dances"—a feeling of grit that's distinctly unclassical.

That doesn't mean they aren't capable of elegant classicism. Surprisingly, however, it's most prominent on violinist Mary Rowell's arrangement of the late jazz pianist Lennie Tristano's "Requiem." Still, the haunting intro gives way to a slow blues core where a violin/viola/cello rhythm section supports Rowell's spare but effective solo before returning to its more pensive intro. "Sickness and Death," also from "Nepomuk's Dances," is a darkly static yet strangely beautiful piece, while "Memory" is more energetic, the quartet pushing the propulsive rhythm along with loud foot stomps.

Ethel also works comfortably in more avant-garde settings. Pamela Z's "Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances" is a complex composition that combines cued musical passages with vocal samples and more. At times sparse, at other times bordering on chaotic, it's equal parts social commentary and just plain fun.

Ethel may be a string quartet, but violist Ralph Farris' arrangement of Finnish harmonium player Timo Alakotila's "Pelimanni's Revenge" would feel at home at the Grand Old Opry. Rowell's "Also Sprach Einstein" ends the album by combining country stomp with cat calls, snorts, assorted raspberries and the significant contributions of Einstein, a gray African parrot. Ethel transcends the conventional, playing tag team with accompaniment and making use of lead voice roles that are more potently rhythmic than any string quartet player has a right to be.

Ethel's stylistic irreverence and improvisational élan makes it an anomaly: a string quartet that disproves the definition of classical music as "serious" music. There's no shortage of serious playing on Light, but the members of Ethel break down barriers by connecting in a very direct way—not only with each other, but with their audience as well.

Track Listing: Arrival; Sambula; Lighthouse; Chai; Requiem; Pelimanni's Revenge; Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances; Sickness and Death; Memory; After Dust; #3; Also Sprach Einstein.

Personnel: Cornelius Dufallo: violin; Ralph Farris: viola; Dorothy Lawson: cello; Mary Rowell: violin. Guests: Randy Crafton: whistle (2,12); Einstein the African Gray Parrot: vocals (12); Erin Gray: vocals (12); Vijay Iyer: piano (7); Pamela Z: vocals & samples programming (7).

Title: Light | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Cantaloupe Music


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