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Ethel Concert
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:46 pm - Ethel Concert
On August 13th in the early evening I saw a concert of the Ethel Quartet, a group hyped amply by Time Out as a ďmust seeĒ, billed beyond that by their promoters as the string quartet that speaks for the 21st century. Since we are only three years into this century I couldnít resist showing up to savor a group that claims in its puffs to be champions of our musical prophets for the next 97 years.
I had looking forward to this concert. The Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival usually puts its most intriguing groups at the North Plaza and schedules them at 6:30, away from their more popular shows in Damorosh Park. Last year they had two Siberian virtuosi now living in Brooklyn at this same artificial but oddly pretty stony site and time.
Whether or not Ethel represents the 21st century must be assessed after the century is over. They do play a repertoire of composers who mostly were well known in the New Music such as the Knitting Factory and the Kitchen, the downtown Soho scene in the 1970s and 80s, decades earlier in a century before the 21st. Some of their composers are well by now well into their ripeness. Ethel themselves looks as if they are all around 40 or so.
I donít mean to belabor the banal mendacity of the pitch; I suppose show business always has some hustle or other to bring in the rubes since the traveling circuses dropping by the sandy outskirts of Ur and Sumer. Once one is anywhere, it really doesnít matter what has brought one there unless one is writing oneís memoirs; we all can be grateful for the illusions that have taken us to some improbably pleasant places.
Ethel plays music that is in one sense, the one of transforming exotic folk material to urbane and witty use with much attention to non-Western rhythms though its procedures are rooted in the French aesthetic of Milhaud of such pieces as La Creation du Monde, or Villa Lobosí Bachanaras Brasileiras, both written about 85 years ago. if one is thinking about the procedures they arenít different at the nub than Bachís Choral Preludes, often setting a long essentially rhythmless line against catchy syncopations and ostinati that invite one to shuffle the feet.
Or if one wants to look at the same devices any way, they go back to Frescobaldi, to Josquin, even to Machaut. Perhaps in the view of the kitsch New Music veterans such music comes from Philip Glassís later uses of minimalist to produce a kind of austere and lean romanticism when the romance is metaphysical not erotic.
Since every piece I heard from Ethel on that evening was uncompromisingly tonal and armored with open harmonies if there are to show one is beyond the less immediate past lots of quotes of folksy idioms and salty minor seconds and tritones here and there, itís a direction Ethel has chosen that sets itself utterly against the late German notion of high Art, a remove from the moysome populace, a musical language that aims to be at a large polarity from the unintelligent and coarsely feral.
Ethel pushes composers like sonic courtesans that aim to please, adepts at culling ideas from music from the social bottom of our human society all over the planet; yet, conventional as they are with melody and counterpoint, prone as they can be to Pythagorean open fifths, they as well use the full breadth of dissonances as well when it amuses them as a kind of sonic sauce. Just as a piece with a tinkling Alberti bass defines itself to us if not to other ages as politically correct rococo, even a bagatelle without a minor second is an odium we think of as neo-classical or a less studded set of oddities in a mock gaggle of exotic Jurassic tongues.
Ethel wonít beguile one with the transcendental and dense in the notably hoch German manner; Milton Babbitt might have seen this whole concert as triflingly lightweight. Ethel certainly implies that the music of the future as well as the hapless present is going to be quite different from what Wagner thought it was going to be or should be in 1860, what Schoenberg after his explorations of the ineluctable assumed it would be in 1903.
Ethel is a very informal group visually. They are in street clothes. Their lean program doesn't list their composers or their pieces; they announce them orally from the stage.
Three of them, they say, are Julliard graduates; they donít have any of the uptown formality or the more Germanic-musical taste rife in that sacred institution. Certainly as a group they aim to mirror the populist republican character of he country they come from; they intend to be at least a visual reeve from provincial Europeans.
Todd Reynolds, their lead violinist, is also a composer for the group; his background has been working with Steve Reich and the downtown Bang On a Can Festival. Dorothy Lawson is a studio musician who specializes in Brazilian jazz. Ralph Faris, the violist whom talked with afterwards, is a pleasant fellow who is a violinist and conductor as well; heís worked with BSO concertmaster Joseph Silverstein. Mary Rowel plays at CBGBís where the rockers meet the New Musickers. The Tango Project and two rock groups. They have a web site: ďEthelcentral.comĒ. As a composer with a princely patron is very 18th centra, a string quartet with a web site is very 21st century.
The program included Sweet Hardwood by John King, in three movements, Hardwood, Spiritual and Shuffle, Phil Klineís The Blue Form and Tarentella, two movements from a larger work, the Brazilian Marcello Zaryosí Neponukís Dance, the first movement of a string quartet, Pelimanís Revenge arranged by Ralph Farris, a piece by Evan Ziporan and Julia Wolfeís Third Quartet in one movement.
If I have misspelled any of them, slicha, but itís because Iím writing this information from reading the slightly crabbed handwriting of Ralph Faris, the violist, who kindly afterwards gave me the composers and works on this program. That certainly is an innovation. I guess had the composers written the program they would have left out the performers.
Of this music the most memorable was Julia Wolfeís opus; I thought was a great piece of music in an century. It used materials and methods of exaction very similar to all the other pieces but had a very original sound within that palette of minimalist open harmony, use of open fifths mixed with excoriating clusters of minor seconds; it also had within its sonic language an intellectual discourse that used these devices along with internally voiced tritones at the end to produce real musical discourse with a reason to extend itself besides being there such as one finds in Haydn and Beethoven.
It wasnít just a kitsch piece, a folksy toe dip in the water or a sensual wash of sonic murk that the transcendentalists of the 19th and 20th centuries promoted as dense but profound, certainly one of the great pitches in history after Barnumís this way to the egress.
Well, Virginia, there ainít no Santa Claus; sometimes there ainít nothing but lousy music; sometimes, honeychile, simplicity and transparency with a brain is better than a tepid bath in the sonic swamps. Itís equally true that a little slash in the waters of tepid barracuda infested savage lakes with Hottentots eating raw tiger meat on the shore isnít any more profound that six days and five nights in a tour bus taking in Indianapolis.
Yet in playing only late 20th century music in an informal way Ethel has done us all an equivocal but real service. My rule, especially when attending those free but somehow patrician Julliard concerts uptown is that if one hears one barely memorable piece among the fashionable trash the evening has been a stunning success.
If one invokes the principle of selectivity with which the perished past honors the present one is a happy mourner in a cemetery. Of course, music lovers are bringing greedy fools but with such standards one goes anyhow; the price is right.
As one might imagine with such low notions of what I might be hearing on this evening, I was happily astounded by Julia Wolfeís masterful sonic lecture. One doesn't expect to hear greatness in contemporary concerts; the principle of consigning the wretched and their trash to oblivion hasnít kicked in yet as it has for the Edsel. Wolfeís piece wasnít only memorable; it was great by any standard.
It belongs in the repertory. It has everything including daring, intellectuality and is also botfly written for strings. I want to hear more of her music.
The other pieces, helas, didnít make me feel that sacred frisson, folks. Phil Kline had a nice sound to his violin about atmospheric nuages in the lower rangers but didnít Ernest Chausson do that pretty well in his Poeme written in the 19th centra. Nobody has to do it again. Hadnít Bartok covered that ground anyway with more hot sauce in the harmony in the slow movements of his Second and Third Piano Concerti penned many decades ago?
Isnít that the substance of Charles Ivesí still stunning post-romantic discourse on ego and chaos in The Unanswered Question? In spirit as well as practice nothing else I heard was really new music; it was as Poulenc said about himself, pretty stuff but writing with other peopleís notes.
Hardwood had a kind of John Adams detached propulsive attractiveness that one could forget as soon s it was over like Guy Lambardo numbers imitating the furniture one used to hear at airports. The rest of the music was even more forgettable though it was all amusing in the mild way that doesnít jangle the torpor one may be enjoying as the most civil minimalists always do. Such music is like a Trasylvanian massage; it flatters one vaguely by not being overly intelligent while never making one more alert than celebrating a childís birthday at McDonalds. One should be grateful for brevity in all these pieces; I was.
The worst of minimalist music is not only empty on principle; it stays on the stage like a Wagner opera much longer than is polite. Like the protagonist of The Man Who Came To Dinner, ones experience as a listener is bathos and rage at the lack of civility of the labial composer, not amusement at a shallow farce at oneís expense.
I didnít get the feeling that Ethel was seriously attempting to define the direction of music; they are a quartet of excellent and sensitive musicians playing 1970s derived music with idiosyncratic styles that one wonít easily hear elsewhere, thatís all; itís plenty. It is worth a passing meditation on what if any future in our radically chancing society classical music might have outside a niche in The Egyptian Room next to the mummies and the granite alligators.
I think Ethel is right to feature music that moves away from high art and arcana in the Germanic manner toward some díetente with populism. One step or less from a seeming purely sybaritical concert like this is a sermon of political faith systems and visions we would be foolish to ignore while claiming we are being amused in an abstract sonic mathematics. As I sat listening to Ethel in Lincoln Center on this balmy evening, treated to a sympathetic look at various colonial musical styles of the planet, source materials transmogrified by mostly New York urbane musicians with a cosmopolitan into a palatable Western idiom that insinuates itself like a oleaginous courtesan into the spirit.
I donít mind myself being pitched that I am in the presence of a revolution when I am really eating liver canapťs washed down with eau de vie in a brasserie near the Paris Opera. Lay on, Macduff. Just remember, Mac, I am one of the boys.
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