Their name is Ethel, and they’re not your mother’s favorite handbag or perfume. They’re a distinctly modern string quartet dedicated to promoting the music of our time and bringing the string quartet fully into the 21st century.
The members of Ethel make no apologies for their name, their music or their penchant for amplification. Nor do they make excuses for the fact that, as opposed to San Francisco’s older, genre-busting Kronos Quartet, they’re based in New York City, far beyond the Continental Divide, and also engage in the kind of cross-cultural collaboration that has helped make Kronos a household name in the hippest of households.
The latest project in Ethel’s 13-year history, In Convergence Liberation, is slated for its world premiere in San Francisco. The creation of Bay Area jazz saxophonist, Ph.D. ethnomusicologist and San Francisco State University professor of world music and dance Hafez Modirzadeh, it brings together elements of Persian traditional microtonal music and tunings, American jazz and Spanish-tinged vocals to create what Modirzadeh terms a “chromodal discourse.”
By this, he refers to a quasi-alchemical process in music from various cultures is “composted” — i.e., broken down and transformed into unique musical elements from which new sounds and forms can grow.
“Hafez’s music is very emotional and deep,” says Cornelius Duffalo, violinist with Ethel. “In Convergence Liberation is very rhythmically vital, but there are also moments of free expression and extreme lyricism. That’s because the music is not necessarily about showcasing virtuosity; it’s about pushing the limits of expression through sometimes-exotic cross-cultural communication. Overall, I find it extremely uplifting.”
According to Duffalo, Modirzadeh is searching for the liberation of the human spirit. He’s especially interested in finding the universal through the process of making music, and discovering how it in turn Reflects human interaction and society itself.
Hence, Modirzadeh has enlisted, in addition to his own musicianship and Ethel’s, the gifts of Mili Bermejo, Amir ElSaffar, Amir Abbas Etemadzadeh and Faraz Minooei, putting them together in ways both beautiful and engaging.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts premiere holds special meaning for Ethel founding violinist Mary Rowell. Although Rowell is stepping down for health reasons, and has already been replaced by former Miró Quartet violinist Jennifer Choi, she is traveling to San Francisco to perform one final time in the premiere.
Having helped bring the project to inception, the performance will serve double duty as Rowell’s final send-off. Expect some tears amid the joys of Ornette Coleman-inspired saxophone flights, Persian percussion, Spanish tone poems and Iraqi santur and magma vocals.
IF YOU GO
With Bay Area saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Contact: (415) 978-ARTS, www.ybca.org