You're not allowed to compare them to the Kronos Quartet; you're supposed to think of them as a band, not a string quartet; you don't know whether they have started playing already or are still tuning; and the number one word used to describe them is eclectic. On first sight, they look no less the part of a string quartet than, say, the Brodsky Quartet on a casual Friday (though they sit down for their performance)... were it not for the second violinist, who looks as though straight from a Twisted Sister video. The sound is amplified, and they are self-consciously dismissive of all things that they associate with "classical music" (their quotation marks, presumably) - which gets old before it even started... because from classical music they came and back to classical music they will eventually be drawn - even if they've made a career out of being its teenage rebels.
This is Ethel. I say all that (and it sounds less kind than I feel about the group and their music), because their audience is - and will likely always be - a classical music audience. Everyone needs a point of reference in musical taste and exploration - the idea of sui generis music is an illusion - and Ethel's point of reference is avant-garde classical music.
Avant-garde in their case is a matter of style, moreso than the music itself, because for all its electronic enhancements, prerecorded tracks, and turning the instrument bodies into percussion instruments, the musical vernacular is easily digested by anyone with even a half-open mind. Turned on or off as you may be by their artificial reverb gone wild, the underlying tunes are as beautiful (soothing sometimes, rousing frequently, moving always) as a surprisingly good film score.
Ethel String Quartet
The other group in attendence is substantially older and feels equally good about going to a performance so irreverent as the Ethel's, because it lends them the air of still being somewhat with the times. Perhaps to impress their hipper, better half or young spouse or teenage kid. Whatever the reason: God bless their hearts. It's a deuced bit better than becoming a sulking musical conservative, sneering at anything after middle-period Beethoven. Half of them or more don't really like the music - but usually say that it was "interesting" or "nice" or perhaps that they "didn't quite understand all of it."
If I weren't too young for it, I'd probably belong in their group. Finally, there are a few people who actually wanted a subscription to the WPAS Hayes Piano Series - but that popular program was sold out so they got one to On the Edge, not exactly knowing what they got themselves into (at the Kennedy Center on January 18).
The performed music, meanwhile, was energetic, full of driving rhythms, tuneful for the most part and throughly enjoyable in a carnal way... that is to say, unreflected, left alone from analysis or intellectual tinkering. The less was said about the music, the more I found the pieces to work for me. A Scott Johnson piece, The meaning of things, of which Ethel presented four excerpts, was one of the musically most appealing and successful works. Played alongside spoken words and aligned with its pitch and rhythm, it was intriguing, with surprises around every corner as well as an inherent logic. It breathed with life and sounded good. That the text was unholy 1980s nonsense - intellectually pretentious with dangerously naive environmental visions and that 'know-all' tone of someone explaining to you the solutions to all our ills as he unfolds information before you that is supposed to be new to our ears, startling but revealing. While it is true that "time is running out on the Universe" (in the several-billions-of-years sort of way), the universe - I have this on good authority - does decidedly not think that we (humans, presumably) are the problem for it. That is mostly because the 'Universe' does not care, or think, period. Nor do humans and their antics matter to anyone consciously but us. Anthropomorphizing 'Earth' is one of my pet peeves and the well-meaning 80s version seems quaint and antiquated. The whole thing felt like a sequel to Angels in America gone Greenpeace, gone Danielle Steele. (The Angels in America similarity had actually occurred to me from the first piece, Todd Reynold's Uh... it all happened so fast onward.)
John Zorn's Cat O'Nine Tails delighted the audience with its wacky, over-the-top humor (including premature ovations and hollers), but I found it terribly contrived, campy, unsubtle, and affected. Ironically it was, in its own way, the most bourgeois and conservative work of the program with its safe, neutered, suburban, middle-class rebelliousness. Like a raunchy Robin Williams standup performance where he talks for hours on end about cunnilingus. Sticky stuff - but it's coming from Mrs. Doubtfire and Peter Pan, so it's OK to laugh, even for the in-laws.
Ethel is sound designer Joe Elf(?), Ralph Farris (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Todd Reynolds (violin), and Mary Rowell (violin). See Gail Wein's review for the Washington Post.