The string quartet ETHEL — known for pushing the musical boundaries for the classic combination of two violins, viola and cello — visits the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall at 8 p.m. Saturday.
And true to form, the group will perform an arrangement of medieval music by a noted California composer, a string quartet version of a jazz standard by Herbie Hancock, a haunting arrangement of a spare melody by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt … and a set of tunes by rocker and songwriter Todd Rundgren, who will contribute vocals and electric guitar.
There also will be an original piece commissioned by ETHEL — “Octet 1979″ by Judd Greenstein, written in 2011. According to ETHEL violinist Kip Jones, “the octet aspect comes from the four string parts (performed live) plus four parts for analog synthesizers, which are pre-recorded. The house will hear the strings and synthesizers together. It’s invigorating and exciting.”
Careful listeners soon will realize that while they initially might have thought they were hearing “a bunch of disparate information,” there is, in fact, “a cohesive musical stream” moving through the piece. “Most people really enjoy it,” Jones said.
A late addition to the program is Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” a tune he recorded (in a “hard bop” style) on his first album (“Takin’ Off”) in 1962, and then reworked in a funky style with synthesizers on the “Headhunters” album in 1973.
“We’re taking some North Congolese sounds and translating them to the vernacular of string instruments,” Jones said.
The group also will play the first movement of Lou Harrison’s “String Quartet Set” from 1979. The movement is a set of variations on Walther von der Vogelweide’s “Song of Paradise” (“Nu alrest leb’ ich mir werde”). Walther lived from 1170 to 1228, and the variations are in European-style quintal counterpoint, also medieval in origin.
Harrison, who had a strong interest in medieval music, became interested in the melody in the 1940s while living on the East Coast, and ultimately included the music in his “String Quartet Set” in 1979, by which time Harrison had settled in coastal Santa Cruz County and had become a major voice in West Coast music. These variations were begun in the 1940s when Harrison first encountered the Minnesinger’s lovely melody.
Also in the set will be a string quartet arrangement of Pärt’s 1978 composition “Spiegel im Spiegel,” which was written just as the composer was preparing to leave his native Estonia after many years of clashes with Soviet authorities, and settle in Western Europe. Sparely scored and ethereal, it has become one of the composer’s most performed works.
Pärt visited Davis several times in the 1990s, when conductor Paul Hillier, who recorded much of Pärt’s music with the group Theatre of Voices, was on the UCD music faculty.
The second half of the concert will feature ETHEL in partnership with Rundgren.
“We’ve arranged a number of his tunes for strings — we’re taking the forms from his recordings (originally with rock bands). The keys are all the same,” Jones said. “But I think they’re going different places than the recorded versions. Taking something from an electric bass part or drums, and assigning it to string, different things (in the music) become focal points.
“Someone who knows the recordings will get a lot of hearing how differently they work (with a string quartet), and people who don’t know the recordings will be floored by the energy.”
The Rundgren set will include some of his standards from the 1970s, including “I Saw the Light” and ”Black Maria” (both from his 1972 album “Something/Anything?”) as well as ”Flamingo” and “Zen Archer” — also an adaptation drawn from Gilbert and Sullivan: “Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song.”
And what about the name the string quartet has taken — ETHEL? Does it mean something?
Jones giggled and said, “The fact of the matter is that it’s a Borgesian question, and whenever the question is asked, we make up an impromptu story that makes everybody laugh.” (The reference is to the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, whose riddle-like short stories questioned the nature of reality and memory.)
A pre-performance talk featuring a member of ETHEL will take place in Jackson Hall at 7 p.m. Tickets for the 8 p.m. concert are $35-$58 general, $17.50-$29 students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055.