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(Soundbite of music)

DAVID WAS: The word eclectic is much overused these days, except if being applied to the category-busting string quartet that calls itself Ethel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

WAS: The members of Ethel have collaborated with everyone from Sheryl Crow to Ornette Coleman to Yo-Yo Ma. Like the Kronos Quartet before them, these four virtuoso string players have never met a genre they couldn't feel, from jazz to classical to bluegrass. Their new CD, “Light,” is hard to categorize but a delight to behold.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: New York-based Ethel owes its existence to the success of the musical collective known as Bang on a Can All-Stars and their offshoot label, Cantaloupe Records. The Bang folks have been known as tireless promoters of contemporary classical music, and like Ethel, unafraid of big, bad genres like rock ‘n' roll or jazz. Their movement aims to take the starch out of instrumental music and perhaps create an audience for something other than the usual chamber repertoire of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Even better, Ethel doesn't find it outside of their province to evince smiles in the concert hall or on their new CD.

(Soundbite of song, “Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances”)

Unidentified Woman: This program has been made possible (unintelligible) scrap-booking kit.

WAS: One composition, “Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances,” is a whacked-out mash-up of modern classical strings, snippets of spoken advertising copy, and jagged shards of Irving Berlin's “There's No Business Like Show Business.” The net result is jarring. One doesn't know whether to laugh out loud or to shoot the television, like Elvis did.

(Soundbite of song, “Sickness and Death”)

WAS: They follow that composition with a sober and elegiac piece called “Sickness and Death” by Brazilian pianist Marcelo Zarvos, a piece noted for its emotional delicacy and restraint. But just when you expect them to maintain that mood, they bring in an unlikely guest vocalist: Einstein the African Grey Parrot, a denizen of the Knoxville Zoo - well known to viewers of the “Pet Star” show on Animal Planet. The track in question, “Also Sprach Einstein,” finds Ethel playing foot-stomping, hillbilly music while the bird whistles and whoops like a demented square-dance caller.

(Soundbite of song, “Also Sprach Einstein”)

WAS: Groups like Ethel and Bang on a Can represent a third rail between the usually distinct domains of serious and popular music, and engender some hope that younger audiences might be attracted to the concert hall for something other than shoe-gazing troubadours and guitar-stranglers. That they just finished co-headlining a tour with Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson, could be a sign that the times, they are a-changing, indeed.

BRAND: Music from the string quartet Ethel. Their new CD is called Light. Our reviewer, David Was, is half of the musical duo Was, Not Was.

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