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Todd Rundgren and Ethel: Reimagining the ’70s

By Charles T. Downey,

Did anything good come out of the 1970s? Music of all kinds was composed, and that was the focus of “Tell Me Something Good,” the latest venture off the beaten path for the string quartet known as Ethel. The group is on tour with ’70s rock musician Todd Rundgren, and they appeared at the Clarice Smith Center on Sunday evening.

The ’70s were my first decade on this planet, and none of Rundgren’s songs stuck out in my memories of childhood. Now in his 60s, Rundgren vocalized in a mixture of singing, wheeze and growl, with the high range of his voice often in tatters. Still seeking new sounds, he has reconceived some of his old songs in unusual ways, such as accompanying himself on “Bang the Drum All Day” (from 1983) with a ukulele, and the partnership with Ethel yielded some fun twists, as in the rock-patter piece “The Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song,” originally by Gilbert and Sullivan.

For its part, Ethel surveyed the other side of ’70s experimentalism, from the groovy minimalism of Terry Riley (“Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector,” played with edgy brashness) to the holy minimalism of Arvo Pärt (a dreamy but not too slow arrangement of “Spiegel im Spiegel”). Judd Greenstein’s “Octet 1979,” named for the year of the composer’s birth, was a frenetic duet for string quartet and recorded synthesizer sounds. The musicians of Ethel play on amplified instruments, which magnify every scratch and intonation lapse (you do not want to hear sketchy viola harmonics that closely).

Downey is a freelance writer.

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