Ethel Continue a Tradition of Cutting-Edge Adventure at a Venerable New York Institution
String quartet Ethel – violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kip Jones – are unique in the world of indie classical and avant garde music in that while they commission and play all sorts of interesting and tuneful new works, they seem just as comfortable with music from decades and centuries past. They’ve had a more-or-less ongoing Friday evening residency, with the occasional special guest or two, at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art starting a little after 5 PM. It’s a chance to discover new music and possibly old favorites as well, all of it awash in rich natural reverb in the high-ceilinged stone space at the top of the stairs looking down on the museum entrance at 85th St. and 5th Avenue. The performance is free with museum admission; the waitstaff are friendly and laid-back. If you’re looking for low-key afterwork ambience in a neighborhood where that’s awfully hard to find, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Ethel’s latest album, Documerica, is streaming at Spotify. It’s a characteristically relevant collection of new works inspired by a massively ambitious documentary photo project springboarded by Richard Nixon’s newly formed Environmental Protection Agency in 1971, to collect evidence of how pollution damages every sector of society. While a case could be made that the funding for the project could have more wisely spent on shutting down nuclear plants, for example, there’s no question that the vast archive – shelved during the Reagan administration – offers valuable documentation of everyday American life in the pre-Instagram era.
The album’s tracks include works from inside and outside the group, with commissions from the harrowingly cinematic Mary Ellen Childs; jazz drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.; Chickasaw Nation’s Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate; and guitarist Kimo Williams.
Lawson’s Epic Soda, with its fiery mashup of damcing blues and fiery bluegrass cello (!!!) kicks off the album. Swaying of the Trees, the first part of Owens’ suite The Simplicity of Life, opens as a stark, potently brooding, understatedly polyrhythmic stroll with subtle call-and-response that rises to an anguished, swirling peak. The quartet follows that with Jones’ Shout-Out. a pulsingly anthemic maze of echo phrases, descending gracefully to a windswept neoromantic vista and back. Then they make their way through the suspensefully wistful intro of Williams’ Into the Liquid, jaunty folk dance motives alternating with more wary, airy phrases, an explosive surprise about midway through. and then an even more unexpected salute to an iconic dark rock epic.
After Tema Watstein‘s fluttery miniature, Interlude 1, the group returns to Owens’ suite with the sternly leaping oldtime gospel number Revival Crusade. The next segment, The Simple Things explores nebulous, slowly swaying resonance. The group concludes the suite a little later on with a baroque-tinged lullaby.
Factions, by Farris inventively blends stark blues with a red-planet Gustav Holst aggression. Tate’s epic Pisach (Reveal) shifts between fluttery horizontality, frantic chase scenes, a quasi-dirge and a stabbing cello solo: it’s a wild ride. Watstein’s ephemerally swirling second miniature offers some calm, but the apprehension lingers.
The concluding piece is Childs’ triptych Ephemeral Geometry. The opening section, Arcs, rises and falls uneasily, followed by Points, with its balletesque pizzicato, and then briskly pulsing, acerbic Lines, a cleverly deconstructed Balkan dance of sorts. Even with all the pioneering work that Ethel have done over the years, this might be their best album ever. And right now the Met Musem is the only place in New York to see them, considering how much time they’re spending on the road this year.