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ETHEL … Not Your Mother’s String Quartet

I’ve been kicking myself for having missed a number of music events in New York this spring featuring ETHEL, the New York-based amplified string quartet. They don’t do a huge number of gigs—like all working musicians they have packed schedules filled with other musical things, and don’t exclusively devote themselves to ETHEL-ing. So as it turns out, the only performance I actually caught was their world premiere performance—with laptop composer Jay Flower and hyper-accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman—of a new work by Osvaldo Golijov at the April opening of WNYC’s Greene Performance Space.

The latest self-kick came after hearing a stunning new CD called John the Revelator, Phil Kline’s eerie and strangely uplifting modern-day mass, on which ETHEL performs with the all-male a cappella group Lionheart (hear the third movement from John the Revelator after the jump).

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Even if you disregard the intervening fourteen movements, the opening and closing movements, adapted from from two stark shaped-note hymns, “Northport” and “Wondrous Love,” are spine-tingling. (If you want to want to know more about the composer, Phil Kline, there’s a short interview here.) It turns out that on May 31 ETHEL and Lionheart played excerpts from John the Revelator at the Bang on a Can Marathon at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden. For free. (Double ouch.) To make things worse, I’ve been meaning to see Lionheart, too, ever since seeing them perform Palestrina in a Rob Kapilow “What Makes It Great?” episode. Besides, what’s not to like about a group whose website has the words “chantboy” in it?

To get back to ETHEL, this is a group that doesn’t perform exactly what you’d call normal quartet gigs. For one thing, they are composer-performers, more like a band than a straight performing ensemble. Case in point: in June they wrote music that they performed live with Gutbucket as a soundtrack to an old Mexican sci-fi movie called La Nave de los Monstruos that was shown at the Prospect Park bandshell in Brooklyn. Perhaps you were lucky enough to catch that. Or their February performance for the opening of the redone Alice Tully Hall, in which they performed Phil Kline’s 45-minute, site-specific work for string quartet and electronics. (Yeesh, missed those, too.)

From what I can tell, ETHEL’s next New York appearances are in October (Brooklyn Public Library) and December (World Financial Center). After this spring’s many misses, I suppose I’d best put it in the calendar now.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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