For the better part of the past dozen years, ETHEL has been a role model for anyone who believes that a string quartet can also be a band. The group's contemporary repertoire, consisting of several hundred pieces, is known for its edgy and postmodern veneer, as well as the use of amplification and improvisation. Its members shun classical protocol with their use of choreography, theatrical lighting and improvised segues between compositions. They've recorded on Cantaloupe, the genre-bending label of the avant-garde collective Bang on a Can. And ETHEL has never strayed far from its downtown New York roots, even as it's embraced a broad mix of American folk traditions.
In 2007, the quartet embarked on TruckStop, a series of extended residencies involving local music communities across the U.S. Rather than being a one-off touring event, it developed into annual educational visits to the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations, with a new album of works by student composers of the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy and a series of shows with Robert Mirabal, a Native American flute player. Through its travels, ETHEL is increasingly finding common ground between noisy, complex experimentalism on one hand and musical styles from Hawaii to Kentucky on the other; along the way, it breaks down once-rigid walls that separated the two.
Deeper forays into straightforward pop music are of interest, too. This season, the quartet is touring Europe and Russia with "ETHEL Fair," a program built on collaborations with folkish singer-songwriters such as Juana Molina and Dayna Kurtz, post-punk guitarists like Tom Verlaine and Patrick A. Derivaz. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the group is touring with "Present Beauty," a program built around Ethel's own arrangement of the haunting Philip Glass score for the film The Hours.
"We've seen music as a form of communication and connection between people, and every time we see a line that people draw in the sand, we question it," Dorothy Lawson, ETHEL's cellist, told The Strad magazine recently. "We wonder what would happen if we just reached a little further and let down our guard that much more to work with the people on the other side of that line."
At The Greene Space, ETHEL puts that philosophy into practice with a bracing mix of contemporary works by Julia Wolfe, Dohee Lee, Jacob TV, Pamela Z, Huang Ruo and Anna Clyne.
Julia Wolfe: Early That Summer
Dohee Lee: HonBiBaekSan (excerpt)
Pamela Z: ETHEL Dreams of Temporal Disturbances
Huang Ruo: The Flag Project (excerpt)
Jacob TV: Syracuse Blues
Anna Clyne: Roulette