Ethel at the Met

For February I saw Ethel perform at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ethel is an acclaimed string quartet that was founded in 1998 and based in New York City. Its members are “Ralph Farris (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Kip Jones (violin), and Corin Lee (violin).”  Ethel plays both new and old songs and plays music for free every Friday at the Met.
I arrived at the museum around 5p.m., around the start of the concert, and this was my first time at the museum. The stairs leading up to the building and the museum’s interior set the stage for the music I was about to hear. When I asked where the concert was, I was surprised to find the open setting of the music-playing. They were playing at the Balcony Bar, in front of people enjoying food and having conversations. By the time I got there the seats closest to the band were already filled up, but I had no problem hearing their music.
The instrumentation included a mixture of the oboe, English horn, clarinet, Native American flute and the piano. More specifically, the music I heard was a low note being played and held, while the higher notes (the flute and piano) played a melody. When the first section of the song was finished, the song switched in that the high note was now being held (flute) over the lower-note melody being played by the horn.
Throughout the piece were moments of quirkiness, where the piano would play an ‘untraditional” riff, but the feeling of the music stayed constant throughout: it, to me, was ambiance-setting music. The best words to describe the piece are slow-paced, and smooth-sounding.  There were not many dissonant parts to startle the patrons;  instead, the music served as a background to the museum, the paintings, and the art. In fact, a line from the Met Museum’s website tells us to “[r]elax and enjoy cocktails and appetizers while looking out over the majestic Great Hall” while listening to Ethel’s music, which is exactly what people did.
Also, to me, the music seemed to incorporate the patrons themselves, through their talking. Usually, when a performer performs a work, the audience may be silent and take in the music (depending on the performance). Here, it seemed almost as if the patrons, and their talking, became part of the music themselves. I’m not sure if this effect was intentional, but it made for a very interesting sounding piece altogether. The music seemed light, and appropriate for the setting of the Met museum.
Apparently, the music I heard is notably different from the music they are known for. A review of Ethel’s third album Heavy, by Jayson Greene of, reads: “Ethel function as a living affront to the misconception that chamber music is polite, white-napkin stuff.” Here is one piece of music that Greene refers to:

Also, Ethel’s website lists other sources such as the New York Times and the New Yorker to attest to Ethel’s visceral, non-traditional sound.
These reviews demonstrate to me how versatile Ethel is, to play the soothing-sounding music, and then to also play the edgier music as well. The music I heard at the Met was not ‘white-napkin,’ but it was in no way intimidating to its listeners.

Ethel’s music provided a cool juxtaposition to the other music I heard outside of the museum. As I left the museum I was greeted with the sound of a blaring saxophone. Right outside was a man in a suit playing music, alternating between the saxophone and the oboe. This music sounded louder, even though he was playing alone and there were many more instrumentalists playing inside the museum. The sax player’s music was  more arpeggiated, and he sang as well. He evoked a jazzy sound with his instrumentation, whereas Ethel’s music had a more classical sound.
The environment outside the museum was also different: some people were walking past, maybe going up the grand stairs; some were walking past him on the sidewalk, maybe not walking at all; others were sitting down on the stairs, to talk, or to hear his next song.
The music outside and inside the museum were very different, but I found their similarities to be much more interesting. Both pieces had two different vibes, but both were connected through their innovative styles of playing, their ability to captivate their audience, and the sense of calm that both pieces held.
Although  I did not find any outside information for the saxophone player, more information on Ethel can be found here:
and on their website here:

Also, Pitchfork’s full 2012 review of Ethel’s album Heavy can be read here:


  1. Shayna, this is such a sensitive response to music everywhere–you were clearly ready for Cage and 4’33”!
    I’m curious about the inclusion of a Native American flute in this group. Do you have a sense of what sort of musical material it was playing? Was it improvising or playing notated music? Do you think it “worked” in this context (i.e., you can’t imagine any other instrument being used in its place), or was it brought in as a bit of exotic color?

    • Shayna Cody says:

      I think the inclusion of the Native American flute was an interesting touch, and it’s hard for me to say if it was added for exotic flair or not. This group, from what I’ve heard, sounds somewhat experimental, and the flute sounded inprovised. The flute also gave the sound a nice touch!

  2. Hi Shayna, I’m glad you had a good time at the Met, especially since it’s your first time I recommend going as much as you can to look at the artwork. Anyway, I just listened to the video you provided and I it has that mellow, low tone feel but it’s also relaxing at the same time. Were you able to at least see the performers play or was it that crowded that all you could do is listen?

    • Shayna Cody says:

      Hey Amber, from where I was sitting I couldn’t see the band play, but before I got to my seat (as I was walking towards it) I was able to see them. And the artwork was amazing!

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