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WQXR Features

Trout Week: Ethel

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What: Ethel Live

When: Wednesday, April 6 at 7 pm

Where: The Greene Space at WQXR; Webcast at

For the better part of the past dozen years, Ethel has been a role model for anyone who believes that a string quartet can also "rock out" like a band. Their contemporary repertoire, consisting of several hundred pieces, is known for its edgy and postmodern veneer as well as the use of amplification and improvisation. They shun classical protocol with their use of choreography, theatrical lighting, and improvised segues between compositions. They've recorded on Cantaloupe, the genre-bending label of the avant-garde collective Bang on a Can. And the members of Ethel have never strayed far from their Downtown New York roots -- even as they’ve embraced a broad mix of American folk traditions.

In 2007 the quartet embarked on TruckStop, a series of extended residencies involving local musical communities around the US. Yet rather than being a one-off touring event, it developed into annual educational visits to the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations, a new album of works by student composers of the Chickasaw Indian tribute, and touring with Robert Mirabal, a Native American flute player. Through its travels, Ethel is increasingly finding common ground between noisy, complex experimentalism and styles from Hawaii to Kentucky, thus breaking down once-rigid walls that separated the two.

That includes deeper forays into straightforward pop music. This season, the quartet is touring Europe and Russia with “Ethel Fair,” a program built on collaborations with folkish singer-songwriters such as Juana Molina and Dayna Kurtz, post-punk guitarists like Tom Verlaine and Patrick A. Derivaz. Meanwhile, in the US, the group is touring with “Present Beauty,” a program built around the quartet’s own arrangement of the haunting Philip Glass score for the film, "The Hours."

“We’ve seen music as a form of communication and connection between people and every time we see a line that people draw in the sand we question it,” Dorothy Lawson, the quartet’s cellist told The Strad magazine recently. “We wonder what would happen if we just reached a little further and let down our guard that much more to work with the people on the other side of that line.”

At The Greene Space, the quartet puts that philosophy into practice with a bracing mix of contemporary works by Julia Wolfe, Dohee Lee, Jacob TV, Pamela Z, Huang Ruo and Anna Clyne.