WELLESLEY — The photographs, taken between 1970 and 1977 for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project, are grainy, artfully fortuitous, their tone candidly objective. Witnessing “ETHEL’s Documerica” — a multimedia concert designed around those images, curated by the string quartet ETHEL, who premiered it in 2013, and performed it at Babson College on Friday — it was worth remembering that the images’ seemingly inherent qualities resulted from choices, of lighting, exposure, composition, each adding to the projected sense of something authentic.
It paralleled ETHEL’s means of conveying its own idea of musical candor, of authenticity: borrowing from rock’s defiant rawness, the group (violinists Corin Lee and Kip Jones, violist Ralph Farris, and cellist Dorothy Lawson) spikes string-quartet suavity with grit reminiscent of that photographic grain: scraping, vigorous bow attacks, the microtonal friction of bluesy inflections, the slight metallic buzz of amplification. The composers commissioned for “Documerica” (along with the players’ own contributed pieces) reinforced the style: thrumming rhythmic grooves; wending diatonic melodies; feedback-like dissonance; unabashed citations of rock and folk tropes.
Such populist rhetoric, alongside the montage of land-and-mankind visuals (assembled by artist Deborah Johnson), might have turned didactic, but “Documerica” was instead an aesthetic experience, opting for expressive ambivalence. Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s “Pisachi (Reveal)” at first juxtaposed musical serenity with aggressive drive as views of unspoiled nature were gradually populated, before giving those working the land lyrical benefit of the doubt. Likewise, James Kimo Williams’s “Into the Liquid” contrasted underwater realms with human recreation on the surface, but then extended its calm, deep-current harmonies to those swimmers and fishermen seeking temporary escape and solace. The sly understatement of “Swaying of the Trees,” one of four movements of “Simplicity of Life,” by Ulysses Owens Jr., bestowed jazz-tinged elegance on trees and lumberjacks alike. (Some equivalences were more equivocal: former ETHEL violinist Tema Watstein’s two interludes underscored jumbo jets and flyover farmland with similar slow, nervous, disorienting musical haze.)
Other scenes ventured away from nature to more exuberant music. Jones’s “Shout-Out” opened the concert, its jagged bounce of crunchy power chords backed by the nocturnal, constellated illumination of skyscraper windows, the bright smear of nighttime traffic. Churchgoers of all kinds gathered in worship over the thumping gospel hoedown of Owens’s “Revival Crusade.” And Lawson’s blues-rock “Epic Soda,” the evening’s most explicit nod to popular vernaculars, accompanied photographs of music-making: beer-hall singalongs, buskers, big-ticket outdoor festivals.
The final two numbers, though, circled back to landscapes and the idea of authenticity. Farris’s “Factions” shifted from pugnacious, pulsing musical gridlock — illustrated by glimpses of 1970s gasoline shortages — to a kind of requiem for the open (and manufactured) highway. Mary Ellen Childs’s “Ephemeral Geometry” was more abstract: taut, tiled music, visuals overlaid with animation emphasizing natural and man-made symmetries. The contrast embodied the engrossing tension of ETHEL’s style, energetic and purposeful rough edges versus rock-solid, precise performance and pattern-driven music. But it also subtly reinforced how order and disorder are defined through perception, how appeals to that perception are as much artifice as objectivity, how any consideration of nature is, inevitably, also a self-portrait.
“ETHEL’s Documerica.” Presented by BabsonARTS. At Carling-Sorenson Theater, Babson College, FridayMatthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.