Who, or rather what, is Ethel?
“Ethel is a post-classical string quartet,” founding member Ralph Farris said. “I actually prefer the term ‘alternative concert group.’
“Essentially, we are a string quartet, but there’s a band vibe to what we do. There’s an informality,” he added. “We let our hair down quite a bit.”
Ethel will roam the bistate area next week as part of the Quad-City Arts visiting artist series. The one-week visit will culminate Friday in a concert at St. Ambrose University’s Rogalski Center in Davenport.
Viola player Farris, one of the group’s two original members, said Ethel was begun after four New York musicians were asked to perform a composer’s works in concert. “It was essentially Delta blues for string quartet,” he said.
The players enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to continue performing.
Farris compared the frustration of the players to a surgeon who specializes in heart surgery rather than brain surgery, which that doctor feels is his or her real calling.
“You run the danger of, just for the sake of making ends meet, working within your field and not loving the work as you should,” he said. “You jump on any opportunity because it’s there. That does a little bit of damage to your spirit.”
Ethel concentrates its music on the past four decades — a drop in the time bucket considering the centuries-old pieces that a classical string quartet might play.
“We do play a couple of older things,” Farris said. “ ‘Kashmir,’ for instance,” he said, referring to the 1975 Led Zeppelin rock classic.
“And sometimes we’ll break out a Cole Porter tune,” he added. “But that’s a really rare thing.”
There are still some classical music elements in what the group plays, but with the impact of a more modern group.
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“It will bash you in the head, but it’s set up in such a way that you’ll enjoy it,” Farris said with a laugh.
The first step to establish itself as a group that isn’t classical is in the foursome’s name. Rather than just the “(insert name here) String Quartet,” it went with a more colorful moniker.
Most of the credit for the name, Farris said, goes to the Oscar-winning movie “Shakespeare in Love.” Before being inspired by his muse to write “Romeo and Juliet,” the working name of Shakespeare’s play was “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.”
“We are free to be the chameleons we enjoy being. We can present this relatively standard-issue concert program and the next day we’re jamming out with a Native American flutist,” Farris said.
“It’s liberating to have a name that doesn’t mean anything,” he added.