Ethel pushes boundaries of string quartet

Kelsey Burritt

Ethel means nothing.

“It’s just a name. And it’s very liberating,” violist Ralph Farris said. “There are so many groups that are ‘Such and Such String Quartet,’ and then they are roped in to being a string quartet. We certainly are a string quartet. We look like a string quartet, we play those instruments, but at the same time, we have traveled down a slightly different path.”

The only label Ethel fits is “post-classical string ensemble,” a loose term. Beyond that, the sky is the limit. The quartet will perform at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall as part of the Logan Chamber Music Series.

Ethel formed in 1998 with a commission by John King to play at the Philadelphia Ballet. The group took the same piece outside of the ballet setting and onto a concert stage. They have been moving from space to space ever since, displacing traditions and conventions as they go.

Since its inception, the ensemble has gone through several changes, but the group performing tonight will include Farris on the viola, founding member and cellist Dorothy Lawson, and violinists Katie Kresek and Tema Watstein.

Once described as “jug band meets Bartok,” Ethel tries to combine the fun and the joy of the former with the intensity, drive and tradition of the latter. Farris said the group is rather informal in the performance space. Although the musicians’ home is the concert stage, there is no fourth wall between them and their audience.

“We can go and play this relatively traditional show and then be very happily the next day playing in a bar with stomp boxes and screaming electric guitars and oboes,” Farris said.

Farris hinted that the show today in Lenna Hall may be one of their more traditional programs because of lack of amplification and electronics. But “traditional” for Ethel may not be the type of tradition many Chautauquans have in mind.

“Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms absolutely should be played,” Farris said. “But that’s not our mission.”

Musicians living in Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms’ day were performing what was then considered contemporary music. A sudden change in the music world shifted musicians’ focus solely to revering the old masters, considering anything composed up to a certain cut-off point in the early 20th century to be “the only valid music,” Farris said.

“All we see ourselves doing is actually connecting back to a really beautiful tradition of supporting all of the music community around us and playing the music that is going on today,” Farris said.

“Present Beauty” is the title of Ethel’s program today. It is a compilation of modern pieces that explore the experience of beauty as it is expressed through time.

“You’ll have very brief, fleeting experiences of beauty. There’s the beauty of joy, the beauty of pain, the beauty of intensity,” Farris said. “We’ll give you different experiences of time as well, because in a way, we’re equating time with beauty.”

The program begins with a piece by Mark Stewart, who was once musical director for Paul Simon, called “To Whom It May Concern: Thank You.”

“He wrote this piece after his family’s solution for the family grace — his dad was a priest, his mom’s an agnostic,” Farris said. “So mom came up with a family grace that everyone could live with, which was ‘To Whom It May Concern: Thank You.’ ”

The second piece in the concert is the oldest, a piece called “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector” by Terry Riley, composed in 1980. Farris described the piece as modular by nature. Approximately two dozen segments comprise the piece, and they can be arranged by the performers in any order.

“Each member of the quartet is playing their own part that they made up after Terry Riley’s rules,” Farris said. “No quartet will play the same piece.”

Ethel will then give its own special treatment to Philip Glass’ score to the film “The Hours.” The film follows three women from different generations, all connected by Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. The ensemble selected and arranged four movements of Glass’ score.

“It’s really just a gorgeous space to be in,” Farris said. “And the theme of the film really fits very beautifully the theme of the program.”

Following “The Hours” is Julia Wolfe’s “Early that summer.” Wolfe’s title mimics the formulaic transitions in a book she was reading at the time: “Later that winter, sometime that fall, early that summer.” Wolfe was inspired by the inconsequential markers that introduced moments of staggering importance in American history.

“The piece is as if you took a magnifying glass to a really intense moment in a rock song and blew that up and just hung out there for 11 minutes,” Farris said. “This is the example of beauty of intensity.”

Wolfe’s colleague David Lang composed the piece on the program titled “Wed.” Lang hosted a competition online, accepting YouTube submissions of musicians around the world playing their renditions of “Wed.” The winner performed the piece in concert at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City this past May.

“The piece is just astonishing,” Farris said. “A dear friend of his was dying from a brain tumor, and she chose to get married on her deathbed. The piece is a reflection on that moment.”

To close the concert, Ethel will perform Huang Ruo’s “The Flag Project,” a study and celebration of Tibetan prayer practices. Tibetan prayer flags, to which the title refers, are traditionally hung outside and meant to release prayer into the countryside to wash over the people and the land.

The ensemble members will use a variety of Eastern instruments, including Tibetan prayer bells. The bowing technique the group uses on the bells will create the most “electronic” sound in the concert, Farris said.

“It does create the sound that audio specialists actually think is feedback,” Farris said, “and then when they lose their panic, they realize what a gorgeous sound it is.”

In the last movement of Ruo’s piece, the ensemble replicates chanting monks.

“That’s how we send everybody off into the world,” Farris said. “We end the program on this life-affirming unison C that we’ve been chanting for a good period of time, bringing the world back together into the presence of beauty.”