NEW YORK — By now it's clear that even if most of the classical music world will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, that's not true of the string quartet. The orchestra may look like a counterexample to Darwin, but string quartets evolve. Already we've had string quartets with drummers, string quartets who play jazz, even quartets with weird outfits and spiky haircuts. And now we have Ethel, who will make their Los Angeles debut Saturday at the Southern California Institute of Architecture as part of Chamber Music in Historic Sites.
Yes, Ethel is the quartet's name (we'll get into that later), and don't dare call them "the Ethel String Quartet." They're just Ethel, and they represent perhaps the most radical redefinition of the medium yet. It's not just that they play all new repertoire. It's not just that they usually play with amplification, though that's true too. It's not just that they improvise. Other quartets have done these things before.
What's most subversive about Ethel is that they're breaking down the traditional lines between composer and performer and between performer and technology.
The group consists of violinists Todd Reynolds and Mary Rowell, violist Ralph Farris and cellist Dorothy Lawson. None of them started out as composers, but they all compose now, and they compose for the quartet. When they're not playing their own music, they're generally playing music they commissioned, by composers they know, and most of what they play allows for some degree of improvisation. They've played several pieces that involve electronics, and they use microphones and loudspeakers not just for reasons of acoustic convenience but as integral to the collective sound they want to make.
Also, as Reynolds says from his home in New York, "the amplification allows us appropriateness in any venue. There's no place we can't play. You learn what's possible by watching rock 'n' roll groups over the last 15 years. You'd have to be a fool not to make yourself able to address any possible audience if that's what you want."
What all this adds up to is a different string-quartet sound. The players are more part of the music, and their playing isn't glued to the page: If a passage suggests bluegrass or folk fiddling or electric-guitar pitch-bending, they feel free to swing with it. And their use of amplification takes them outside the polite, carefully balanced sound world of traditional chamber music. They own their music, and when they want it to roar, they roar.
An earlier trailblazer
From its origins in the 1750s until 1973, the string quartet was a pretty sedate medium, a symbol of elegance and gentility. But in '73, San Francisco's Kronos Quartet started commissioning new works and turning the quartet from a porcelain museum into an electrified generator of new sounds and a fuser of intercontinental influences. For every quartet since that has wanted to make an unusual mark, the Kronos set the standard.
"The Kronos question comes up a lot," Reynolds acknowledges. "They were our 30-year-old model." But to distinguish themselves, he says, the members of Ethel "made a choice not to play music they had played before."
Says cellist Lawson, "We admire the heck out of them and enjoy them, but we didn't design ourselves in relation to them. We were following a trajectory and opportunities that were original. We express a different creative aesthetic: lighter, looser, less process-oriented."
"And more improvised," adds Reynolds. (The Ethel performers have one thing in common with a classical quartet: They talk in fluid counterpoint.)
Post-Kronos, unconventional string quartets sprang up in the 1980s in other cities. In New York, the Soldier String Quartet started mixing blues into avant-garde string playing, often adding a drummer. The Turtle Island quartet arose in the Midwest as an improvising ensemble. The Sirius quartet broke off from the Soldier to focus on New York's downtown jazz scene.
Ethel's origins, however, were quite separate. To someone who covers the New York scene, as I have for 18 years, Reynolds and his violin colleague Rowell have long seemed omnipresent. For 15 years, Reynolds has played with the Bang on a Can festival, which has introduced new concepts of chamber music, often located somewhere between classical and pop. Meanwhile, Rowell played in the Sirius quartet and in nearly every other group that needed an avant-garde, do-anything violinist.
Lawson was more "straight-ahead classical," having played with the Orpheus, American Symphony and New York Philharmonic orchestras. And Farris, the violist, was a studio musician with loads of contacts in the rock world.
By 1998, Reynolds recalls, "I had decided that it was time for me to start a band of my own" -- and that's what the Ethel players consistently call themselves, a band. "It seemed to be one of my personal next steps."