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Friday, February 04, 2005
A weekend with Ethel

Last weekend the New England Conservatory Preparatory School had its 15th annual new music festival called "Today's Youth Perform Today's Music." Since this was an important anniversary for the festival it was decided that we should invite many of our illustrious alumni back to have works performed. This is where Ethel comes in.

Ethel has as their violist, Ralph Farris, an alum of the NEC Prep. Ethel is a very unorthodox string quartet consisting of four classically trained string players who love to play the blues. As a group they only played once last weekend at NEC, but it was quite memorable. In the middle of their composition master class they took advantage of a lull to play a kind of blues-shuffle that had been written for them. (I'm sorry I do not remember the name of the composer, but in a sense it really did not matter; see below.)

At the open rehearsal of students playing the music of Ethel's composers, (yes, unlike their rival Kronos, this group "writes" much of their own music) we were struck by their composer/performer musicality and authenticity. So much of their music is either improvised or requires an awareness of an array of playing styles that is not quite accurate to say that they "write" music, at least not in the traditional sense. In fact the whole experience of listening to them play and talk about playing was somewhat communal in spirit.

On the concerts on Sunday we were, once again, treated to Ethel's music as played by the students. Ralph Farris did play in his own work and was a lively master of ceremonies giving verbal program notes and introductions to his colleagues pieces.The whole weekend was a wonderful reminder of the intimate connections between composition and performance.

Unlike the old days where there were lingering questions about who was ultimately responsible for the composition, here the student performers, audience, and composition teachers were too preoccupied to think much about such weighty aesthetic questions; we were all having too much fun.(For more information about Ethel and their (her) activities visit


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