ALBANY — ETHEL, one of the edgiest string quartets around, was in top form Thursday night at the University at Albany’s Performing Arts Center.
This year, the group is touring its “Documerica” — a multi-media show inspired by the 22,000 pictures that 70 photographers took in the 1970s as part of the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency’s Project Documerica.
The photographers fanned out across the United States and snapped pictures of landscapes, people doing everything from sports and playing games to quilting, gasoline shortage signs, boats, controlled burns, aerials of traffic patterns and suburban developments, Mass at southern churches, and the ravages to the land of surface and below surface mining.
ETHEL asked composers Ulysses Owens, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, James Kimo Williams, Tema Watstein and Mary Ellen Childs to write pieces from photographs that inspired them. ETHEL’s own violinist Kip Jones, cellist Dorothy Lawson and violist Ralph Farris also composed pieces. Corin Lee is the other violinist in the quartet.
ETHEL is a very now group. All their instruments are amplified; they all “read” tablets rather than sheet music, which is a good thing since they play non-stop and wouldn’t have time to turn pages. Three stand to perform; the cellist sits.
On Thursday, the quartet played continuously for 90 minutes. Pitch settled as their instruments warmed up. The screen was directly behind them.
While the music from all the composers usually reflected the images, it also tended to sound the same. There were bits of pastoral lines, lots of agitated playing with fast scales and hard-edged attacks, close harmonies and only a few solos. Volume was often at full tilt. There was a bit of blues, much funkiness, occasional syncopation, country western hints, or just downhome kind of folksy-ness. Plucked or snapping strings, harmonics, stomping feet, a few yells or shouts added their own colors.
Occasionally, ETHEL stopped long enough for the small crowd to clap. Mostly, they just kept moving ahead with intensity and frequent brilliant technical displays. Some of the more interesting images were those of the Southwest for Tate’s “Pisachi,” which had several Pueblo Indian themes and rhythms to match the fascinating landscapes. The dots and lines added digitally to flowers along with wild geometrics in Childs’ “Ephemeral Geometry” were almost psychedelic.
As an encore, the quartet whipped off Navaho composer Rodney Yazzie’s “Possessed by Obscurity,” a furiously intense, unrelenting, rock/popish number.