UNCW Presents is a cultural arm at the University of North Carolina Wilmington that presents an intriguing variety of music, dance, and other events. Thursday night’s event was an example of the more adventurous arts programming happening at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium.

The performance was a multi-media event. ETHEL is a New York-based string quartet that has been on the stage for nearly twenty years now. They have premiered and commissioned well over 100 works. As their biography describes them, the quartet is known for “transcending the limits of tradition,” and for “the presentation of virtuosic, boundary-crossing works of musical and cultural diversity.”

This program was their transmutation of a national photographic project titled Documerica. In 1971, the brand-new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, spurred by visions around the country of ongoing environmental degradation, commissioned 100 photographers to capture America’s relationship to its land. In the next seven years, over 20,000 photographs were created. During this time, Documerica photographs were exhibited in a number of cities. But then they languished, until more recently they were digitized and nearly 16,000 of them were made accessible online via the National Archives.

In this event, ETHEL performed works they commissioned against a kaleidoscope of photographs displayed behind them. The first thing that should be said is that the quartet was superb. They played with unbridled dynamism, passion, and rhythmic precision. They were the kind of artists who seem to translate emotion directly into music.

The photographs, shown as they were here on a large screen, with vivid colors, made a compelling visual impression. They were displayed thematically with, for instance, a series of urban or industrial images, which in one sequence were then counterpoised with beautiful natural places lush with full colors, trees, and sunlight. A whole montage pictured what appeared to be Arches National Park; another focused on farms.

Through all of this, the music ebbed and flowed continuously. At times it mirrored the character of the photographs, as when in the first set showing urban and industrial scenes, the music was rhythmic and dissonant, followed by more tranquil music for the natural scenes which followed. At other times, there didn’t seem to be any thematic connection, as in the montage of churches accompanied by a jazzy section with a bit of swing. The music traversed a range of styles, which gave the quartet a large palette to command. There were eight composers represented, four commissioned for this spectacle, and three from the quartet itself; composition is another side of the group’s expressive passion. (Referencing the musical segments more specifically unfortunately didn’t prove possible, as the lights in Kenan Auditorium were all the way down; no program information could be read during the performance.)

The photographs were given sometimes-enhanced treatment. At times they were juxtaposed in triptychs. At other points a photograph was brought into motion, oscillating and creating its own individual dynamic. The hundreds of photos gave a rich panorama of the beauty of America, the character of her people and, yes, the ravaging of the environment which was the genesis of the Documerica project. The regret one might have had was that much of the time they went by quickly; one often wanted more opportunity to look at an image with care and take in some of the detail. Attention to visual detail was, however, not the focus.

The combination of dynamic music, gripping performance, and imposing visuals, created an impressive experience. It called for engaged listeners – arguably the best kind. The concert lasted about seventy minutes. The only break was for a few seconds between sets, so that the listener/viewer could process music and images continuously for all of that time. Much of the music was energetic and rhythmic, which means a frequently high intensity level. In this performance, it was also strongly amplified (arguably more than needed). ETHEL clearly meant to offer both a rich and challenging experience, and they succeeded. No one who accepts the challenge should be disappointed. On the contrary, the richness of the musical performance and the images leaves one feeling enhanced.

There was an engaging question and answer session afterwards, which enabled the audience to connect more personally with the performers. All of them are articulate and passionate about what they do. And for the curious, they also informed the audience that the name ETHEL doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a nice way to personify their collective identity.

This event was a true team effort; ETHEL emphasized the collaborative nature of what they do. A partial ensemble list consisted of director Steve Cosson, with projection design by Deborah Johnson, and lighting design by Christopher Kuhl. This high-powered collective has created a collage which one should make it a point to experience.

The program will be presented in Stewart Theatre at NCSU on Apr. 22. For more information, see the sidebar.