‘New music’ quartet ETHEL teams with musician Todd Rundgren
The music of the 1970s wasn’t just about the Bee Gees and disco dancing, or David Bowie and glam rock.
There were also rock musicians such as Todd Rundgren, who composed hits that included “Hello It’s Me” and “Bang the Drum All Day,” as well as experimenting with synthesizers.
Meanwhile, some classically trained composers were writing minimalist pieces in the 1970s being played today by new-music groups like the string quartet ETHEL.
Based in New York, ETHEL is teaming with Rundgren for a tour that includes a visit on Sunday, Oct. 28, to College Park, with a performance called Tell Me Something Good, celebrating music of the 1970s.
The musicians will be performing in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the University of Maryland campus. ETHEL will perform first, followed by Rundgren singing some of his music self-accompanied on piano, guitar and a ukulele. (He currently lives in Hawaii.)
ETHEL and Rundgren will then perform together at the end of the concert. “[It’s about] a pop singer and how he interacts with a string quartet,” says Rundgren about the unusual and interesting mix of styles.
Founded in 1998, ETHEL currently includes two of the founders, Ralph Farris (viola) and Dorothy Lawson (cello), and two new members, Kip Jones (violin) and Tema Watstein (violin). ETHEL and Rundgren worked together in 2004 when they met through a mutual friend, the British composer, singer and musician Joe Jackson.
Jackson and Rundgren, who were getting ready for a performance at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park, needed an opening group. Jackson was aware of ETHEL because its violinist and one of its founders, Mary Rowell, had played on some of Jackson’s albums.
“Joe already knew us, and Todd trusted Joe,” says Lawson about the resulting joint performance that led to a tour of the U.S. and Europe with Rundgren and Jackson in 2005. “It was generated by his and Joe’s reputations,” she says about the tour. “They were so hip and strong, and we were this funny, funky string quartet.”
The like-minded musicians also performed George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 2005.
When ETHEL began thinking about a tour celebrating music from the 1970s, members thought of Rundgren, who by now was an “old friend and somebody that we wanted to work with,” Lawson says. “He’s a brilliant man, and his music works well with a string quartet,” Lawson says.
For the Clarice Smith concert, ETHEL plans to perform an opening set that will include the first movement of American composer Lou Harrison’s 1972 “Quartet Set.” Harrison, who died in 2003, was known for using microtones and for incorporating non-Western music into his work. “The whole piece is an exploration of other times and places,” Lawson says. “He was exploring music from the Asian world. He was a very heartfelt composer. People really love his music.”
ETHEL also plans to play its adaptation of “Spiegel im Spiegel,” a short minimalist piece written by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 1978. In addition, the quartet will play a piece it commissioned from New York composer Judd Greenstein called “Octet 1979.” “He’s very bright, deeply rational and enthusiastic,” says Lawson about Greenstein, who writes for ensembles, solo performers, orchestras and multimedia productions. “Octet 1979,” which refers to the year Greenstein was born, incorporates synthesizers from the 1970s that interact with ETHEL’s cello, viola and two violins.
“It’s a double quartet, with the four strings of ETHEL and with that track of four period synthesizers,” says Lawson. “It’s a very identifiable, nostalgic type of sound,” she says. “The music is bubbly, fun and smart ... with its instruments and colors. It’s a piece we’re very proud of.”
Rundgren, meanwhile, says he won’t decide until the night of the concert at the Clarice Smith Center what he will perform from his 45 years of work. “I don’t go on to the stage with a set list in mind,” says Rundgren, who says he likes to get a feel for the audience and a sense of his own mood before deciding what to sing.
Rundgren started with rock in the late 1960s, becoming well known songs like “I Saw the Light” and “Black Maria” from his 1972 double album “Something/Anything?” that he wrote, produced and performed himself.
Later he would produce the work of other artists, including Meat Loaf and Grand Funk Railroad, while continuing to evolve in innovative ways.
He formed a progressive rock band called Utopia and continued to release more albums, including a 1993 album called No World Order, which one fan called a mix of “hip-hop beats” and “techno pulses.”
“Once your oeuvre gets to be a certain size, the greatest danger is repeating yourself,” says Rundgren, who recently toured with Ringo Starr and also sang with the Metropole orchestra in the Netherlands, which performed arrangements of his work.
“Of course it’s thrilling,” he says about the Amsterdam concert. “Many musicians never have the opportunity to experience [that].”
He also recently developed a cabaret-style performance of entirely improvised music called “An Unpredictable Evening with Todd Rundgren.”
Rundgren says he is working improvisation into a new album he expects to release in the spring, which has a working title of “State.”
“I’m trying to create an environment that allows me to incorporate a degree of improvisation in the creation of the music, so that when I perform it, that possibility is built into the music,” he says.
“I’m trying to leave myself a lot of room to work with,” says Rundgren.
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