Music Review: Ethel brings its amplified sound to Oz Nashville

ethel2Ethel stands apart from much of contemporary music.  As an amplified string quartet that plays contemporary chamber music, they perform with a unique palette. This weekend, they are presenting two programs of adventurous, energetic string music at Oz Nashville.

Friday night’s performance of Ethel’s Documerica was superbly performed. Ethel often performs sans vibrato and in unison. This is the holy grail of string ensemble work, and it succinctly demonstrates their prowess as an ensemble. Quite frankly, amplifying these unisons resulted in a strident tone that seemed unnaturally intense.  It left quite an impression.

Documerica is a multi-media work drawing on the vast library of images collected by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s.  Ethel commissioned composers to create works to accompany these images, and the result is 75 minutes of music accompanied by several thousand images that together paint a picture of the beginning of post-modern America.  The images and mood document our recent history, meditate on aspects of our distinct Americanness, and foreshadow our collective future.

Far beyond a slideshow, the images were shown on three vertical screens, and they often flew by while the ensemble played a dizzying flurry of sixteenth notes, Other times, the “Ken Burns” effect was put to use to create cinematic moments with pans and reveals. One pattern that emerged a few times was close-up images of American pastimes, like two kids swimming outside. Then the wide shot was included, and you could see the powerplant next to them.

These juxtapositions served an editorial role; placing in stark relief our relationship with ourselves as Americans, and a silent commentary on the many contradictory forces that inform our national story. The dark destruction of coal mining, for instance, was paired with the nobility of workers and their families; another series showed churches, and when the camera pulled out we saw oil wells in church graveyards. I’m still not sure what those images meant to the creators.

The musical vocabulary lacked contrast. There was too much postmodern string writing, in which four quasi-independant parts with similar timbre and rhythm sawed away while hints of melodic fragments flew past unnoticed. Often, I wasn’t sure where to be listen.

Amplified string quartet is a unique beast: the full aural spectrum is present and crystal clear, but it comes across with equal volume from high to low.  I wonder if some of these works would have communicated more clearly in a fully acoustic presentation. One of the reasons I raise this point is that very few moments of Documerica made use of the boutique timbres or special effects that are only possible on amplified instruments.

The program is a series of independent works commissioned from four composers (and another four written by members of Ethel).  Surprisingly, a few gestures managed to be overused.  Any time  industry (coal mining, interstates, powerplants, cars) was depicted, the music supported these images with marcato stabs. Any time humanity was contrasted with industry (the coal miners, children swimming, parades); the music included ninths, sixths and other diatonic consonances.

On Saturday night, April 12, the virtuosos of Ethel will be joined by Nashville string students from W.O. Smith Music School and the Croft Middle Design Center alongside celebrated instrumentalists Jay Sanders and Muriel Anderson.

This is great music of a sort that is rarely performed in Nashville, in a manner which is even more rare.  In a town that’s used to seeing fiddles plugged into guitar amps, this distinctly American approach to chamber strings demonstrates what amplified strings can accomplish on their own.

The number of foundations in this town commissioning original works for chamber ensemble is not that large, and OZ just joined the list, co-commissioning Documerica.  In commissioning new work, bringing in world-class innovators, and offering local ensembles to share the stage, OZ is filling a vital gap in our artistic landscape.


Ethel performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 12 at Oz Nashville, 6172 Cockrill Bend Cir. Tickets are $50 and are available here.

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About Kyle J. Baker

Kyle J. Baker is a Nashville-based composer and impresario most known for directing Nashville's Soundcrawl Festival. He composes for acoustic and digital forces with a recurring emphasis on rhythmic post-minimal structures. Classical in heritage, but vernacular in vocabulary, his music has garnered such attention as 2008 Belmont University Composition Prize, Honorable Mention in the 2008 Pathways Young Band Composition Contest as well as distribution by, His notable teachers include Ken Read, John LaBarbara, Delfeayo Marsalis and William Pursell. Born in Scotland and raised in St. Louis, Baker holds an M.Mus from Belmont University and makes his home in Cane Ridge, Tenn. with his wife Joy and cat Lili.