The string quartet Ethel refers to itself as a "band" and uses amplified classical instruments and improvisation. It's called a "post-classical" ensemble, and the group has toured with Todd Rundgren and appeared on guitarist/songwriter/singer Kaki King's 2012 album Glow.
Ethel is the very definition of "crossover," and if all that doesn't scare you, try this sample from Pitchfork.com's (strongly positive) review of Heavy, its 2012 record: "The violins peel off into glass shards, and the cello starts moaning. It's a relief from the opening melee, but only insofar as scalp-prickling fear that there is a serial killer lurking in your home is technically preferable to the certainty of being stabbed to death."
At Ethel's April 12 performance at St. Ambrose University, don't expect quite that level of eclecticism. Or violence.
But the Present Beauty program Ethel will play still covers plenty of territory on the theme of "what it is to experience beauty from different angles," said violinist Tema Watstein in a phone interview last month.
The centerpiece is a string-quartet arrangement of Philip Glass' score for the movie The Hours, which Watstein called "meditative." At the other end is "Early That Summer," by Bang on a Can Co-Artistic Director Julia Wolfe; it's "the most high-impact, high-intensity piece on the program. It's very visceral and strident," Watstein said. Pitchfork called the program's "Wed" - by another Bang on a Can co-artistic director, David Lang - a "reflection pool of harmonies ... [with] hints of emotional disturbance pulling in the harmonies, lingering doubts that never dissipate."
Pitchfork's summary judgment of the ensemble is "infectiously visceral," and Watstein said something similar, but in terms meant to be more welcoming.
"Our music tends to err on the very friendly side," said Watstein, who joined Ethel in July. "It's music that is very listenable, pleasurable to listen to, immediately engaging. We try to give the audience a really fun, enjoyable experience that's not too cerebral or academic."
Amplification, she said, serves multiple purposes and "brings in a whole different color palette to the sound possibilities": "It certainly gives us the ability to rock out very heavily when we want to, which we frequently do. It also gives the ability to add effects, like ... very heavy reverb that really helps create an ambiance or sound world in certain pieces [as in Lang's 'Wed']. ... It [also] allows us to play very intimately but have that intimate playing projected to the audience.
"The amplification most of the time is not very heavy; it's subtle. But it gives just a little bit of a consonant edge to the sound."
The group also makes an effort to put pieces in a context that will help audiences approach them. "We always talk about the music we play from a very personal perspective on stage at each concert," Watstein said.
While Present Beauty has relatively little improvisation, the emphasis is on "relatively" - for Ethel. Watstein said that at the extreme end is flutist Robert Mirabal's "Run to the Sun," part of the ensemble's Music of the Sun program: "The way it's written out, it's just kind of a sheet of paper that says 'opens with sunrise,' and then 'begin running,' 'continuing running vigorously,' ... . That is the whole piece." It moves from calm to frenetic to calm, but beyond that basic shape it's different each time.
"It's so much more fun to improvise with a group than by yourself," Watstein said. "When you're by yourself, you have complete autonomy over where things go. ... [In a group setting,] you're kind of riding a wave and going along with things that everyone else is setting up around you."
Ethel is clearly riding the wave of Kronos Quartet in obliterating the staid image of classical music. In addition to championing the work of contemporary and young composers, both ensembles refuse to recognize boundaries between genres. (Unlike Kronos, Ethel performs works by its members.)
As the New York Times noted in a 2010 profile of Kronos: "Surprisingly, Kronos has spawned relatively few imitators. ... [But] the New York quartet Ethel has emerged as a true heir in its omnivorous appetites, collaborative breadth, and creative use of multimedia."
Ethel was formed in 1998, a quarter-century after Kronos, and Present Beauty includes two composers whose work is also often performed by the forebear: Glass and Terry Riley. (The program includes Riley's "Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector," which was written for Kronos.)
Watstein and violinist Kip Jones auditioned together and last summer became members of Ethel, joining co-founders and artistic directors Ralph Farris (viola) and Dorothy Lawson (cello). (Watstein was about 10 when Ethel was formed.) "It's been a little bit of baptism by fire, in that Kip and I both had to learn a tremendous amount of repertoire very quickly when we joined" - somewhere between eight and 10 full programs, Watstein said. "It was a very intense first two months on the job for sure."
Ethel will perform on Friday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m. at St. Ambrose University's Rogalski Center Ballroom (at the corner of Ripley and Lombard streets in Davenport). Tickets are $5.
For more information on Ethel, visit EthelCentral.org.
Ethel is appearing as part of Quad City Arts' Visiting Artist series. For more information, visit QuadCityArts.com/VAS.asp.