Record Review - 2 October 30 2003

Most Atlantans probably don’t know Ethel, but the hip, amplified string quartet from New York just released its debut. Simply titled Ethel, the CD is the latest from Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe Music label.

Ralph Farris (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Todd Reynolds and Mary Rowell (violins) are the musicians, whose range of professional experience runs the gamut from playing with groups like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Steve Reich Ensemble to backing up pop performers Sheryl Crow and Roger Daltrey. While this is Ethel’s debut CD, the foursome has tracks on an earlier Cantaloupe recording of Julia Wolfe’s string quartets. The new all-Ethel album features music from a similar slice of New York’s avant-garde: John King, Phil Kline, Evan Ziporyn (who guests on bass clarinet) and Reynolds himself. While comparisons to Kronos Quartet are inevitable, a more accurate comparison may reference the Soldier String Quartet (founded by neuroscientist/composer David Soldier).

Ethel pushes the rock edge, and they have a genuine ability to dig into hardcore blues, as particularly evidenced by the third movement of John King’s Sweet Hardwood, titled “Shuffle.” Both subtlety and sheer visceral exuberance are found in this recording, and the CD’s close-mic production values further energize the music. It’s an exciting debut CD from the downtown Manhattan/Brooklyn music scene, and a “must have” for new music fans.

Ethel plays the Schwartz Center Sat., Nov. 1. $15.