At Joe’s Pub, the night was all about breaking strings and breaking boundaries. Under the moniker Ethel, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violist Ralph Farris, and violinists Jennifer Choi and Cornelius Dufallo turned the “genteel string quartet” into a fierce aural army, unafraid to snap a few bow strings if so compelled. The latest to sprout from their edgy hands is Heavy, an album that grasps the ears and never quite lets go.
Without a word, all four musicians took the stage, immediately immersing the senses in a pungent velocity. Choi’s quick bow slides swooped into Farris and Dufallo’s intense streams, all three nearing their peak as Lawson urgently tapped at her cello. At a single note’s notice, Ethel stopped in its tracks, met first by stunned silence – and uproarious applause a few seconds later. Once the room wound down, Lawson explained the feisty piece, “Arrival”: “It’s an announcement of what we are.”
Ethel expanded upon that announcement on “No Nickel Blues” and “La Citadelle”. Founding band-member Mary Rowell graced the stage as a special guest on the former tune, scraping her bow across the violin to seep out long, stark notes. The surrounding band (also featuring Kenji Bunch as guest violist) flooded the desolate ambience in plucks, taps, and maraca-like notes. Dufallo especially rejuvenated the air with an upbeat, folksy solo that might have elicited some dancing, had it extended longer. Rowell launched into some down-home fiddling of her own, offering a smooth melodic contrast to Bunch and Farris’ percussive plucks.
“La Citadelle” was the evening’s most outspoken work, and one look at the album track list yields no surprise: the composer is dubstep pioneer Raz Masinai. His eclectic brilliance flourished as Choi sped out one bundle of notes after the other, Farris interlacing with needle-thin accents. The scene soon evolved into a synth-rock-jazz hybrid à la Daniel Bernard Roumain.
Ethel did soften its stronghold for a few introspective moments, poignantly in David Lang’s “Wed” and Mark Stewart’s “To Whom It May Concern: Thank You”. Both pieces were curt and compelling, elegiac yet hopeful, and searing but soothing before skidding to a halt. And it was in these ephemeral and bittersweet interludes that Ethel shone most, delving in, delving out, and striking the deepest of heartstrings along the way.