Ethel, a string quartet unlike any other, performs Saturday at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.
Ethel, a string quartet unlike any other, performs Saturday
at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. (Photo courtesy Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center)

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Yes, Ethel looks like a string quartet.

In instrumentation -- Ralph Farris, viola; Dorothy Lawson, cello, Kip Jones and Tema Watstein, violins -- it is a string quartet. But, if you have not encountered this arresting foursome before, give them a listen Saturday evening at 8 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, and your horizons of music, and string quartets specifically, will be broadened significantly.

Unlike most other string quartets, Ethel plays with amplification, and integrates improvisation into its performances as well.

And, most important, it plays the music of contemporary composers.

The first ground rule when the group formed in 1998: "We knew that we wanted to serve the community of brilliant composers who we had all been working with, benefiting from their genius and their energy," explained Lawson, a founding member.

"They were the ones putting the effort into raising money, arranging concert opportunities. Composers need live advocates," she added in a telephone conversation from New York, to which she referred fondly as "a hotbed of energetic, talented and ingenious people."

Lawson said the group's performance repertory is by "composers we know and love -- the music of our time -- and we have allowed ourselves to be guided by our own taste. We recognize that there is a universe of colors out there; we won't try to express all of it.


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If you go:

What:"Grace"

Who: Ethel

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $30

Info: (413) 528-0100; mahaiwe.org

A basic underlying Ethel credo: In complex, stressful times, and in a world overwhelmed by seemingly irreconcilable differences and challenges, music provides both an immediate tonic of relief and a medium to long-term healing and understanding.

Saturday's concert is titled "Grace"

" ‘Grace' starts a conversation, a set of personal musings," said Lawson. "The word ‘grace' itself has a wide variety of meanings: blessing, elegance, economy, redemption. What we found is that we can bring that word into association with the various composers we are playing, and it illuminates something about each of them."

Vijay Iyers' "Mutations" is illustrative of this, observed Lawson.

"It's an observation of how seemingly effortlessly this man's genius can dance with an extraordinarily complex set of mathematical and geometric processes that he is using on the themes he is working with," she said. "It comes out sounding dazzling."

The title piece, "Grace," was by Jeff Buckley, the iconic singer who drowned accidentally 20 years ago, after release of just one record, "one that was so energetic and intoxicating," Lawson said.

Ethel also is including something by Nico Muhly, one of the hottest young composers around.

"His first string quartet, ‘Diacritical March,' is a work in eight movements," explained Lawson. "But all he is writing is his own appreciation of how these tiny little marks affect the nuances in the sound of the whole language."

The centerpiece of the concert is Ennio Morricone's score for "The Mission," a nominee for an Academy Award and winner of the Golden Globe in 1986, from which the quartet has selected excerpts.

"The film is about redemption and all the religious zeal that drove the Jesuits to the Amazon," Lawson said. "There's something about the quality of universal toil. Morricone's music is devastatingly beautiful."

Amplification seemed a natural tool for Ethel, Lawson said.

"We began as a low-profile ensemble performing for a very local audience, and local need," she said. "We began in very offbeat places, in alternative clubs and remote concert halls that were not even visible at street level, and amplification made it easier in unforgiving rooms that did not have ideal acoustics.

"It also allowed us to bring noninstrumental sound into our work. We started early, working with elements that had already been recorded, or other instruments, like guitar."

As noted, Ethel members write a considerable amount of their material. "We also are composers -- that was one of our early decisions as well, not to have just one composer in the band, and we all enjoy it, each of us in our own ways," said Lawson.

"Kip Jones is a very accomplished jazz player; the rest of us have our own variations on those things."

As to the group's ever intriguing name, "we wanted a pleasant, nostalgic, non-threatening name," Lawson said. "Having come into our role as a quartet at the end of the 20th century, we saw such a lot of baggage around the institution of string quartets -- music they would play, how they would look -- and we were eager to disassociate from that.

"We noticed that rock bands at that time started taking a name. And one evening some of us were watching the movie ‘Shakespeare in Love,' when suddenly the name hit us."

Inspiration arrived during a scene with Christopher Marlow, Shakespeare offering the title of his, as yet, unwritten play, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter."

"We looked at each other," Lawson recalled. "You can't call a quartet ‘Ethel,' someone said."

"Why not?" wondered someone else.