Acclaimed string quartet, guitarist make their tour’s first stop

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String quartet Ethel and “Guitar God” Kaki King kicked off their tour “… And Other Stories” at Tyler Hall on Wednesday.

The two celebrated musical acts came to Oswego State through Artswego. The tour is a follow-up collaboration for the string quartet and the guitarist hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as a “Guitar God.” Ethel provided strings on Kaki King’s 2012 album, “Glow.”

Ethel was founded by violist Ralph Farris and cellist Dorothy Lawson in 1998, and current violinists Kip Jones and Tema Watstein joined  in 2012.

King has performed with Foo Fighters and Timbaland, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work on the score of Sean Penn’s “Into The Wild.”

Ethel took the stage first on Wednesday, opening with selections from Phil Kline’s “The Blue Room and Other Stories.” The piece featured piercing violins -resembling Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir on parts of its arrangement – and deep cello baselines.

Ethel ended the piece by gradually removing instruments – first the viola, then cello –closing with the high notes of the violins.

King joined Ethel next for “The Fire Eater off the Glow” album. An incredibly beautiful song, the arrangement is a give-and-take between the low notes of the guitar and the echo of strings.

The first world premiere performance of the night, Ethel and King combined for Jones’ work “Seong Nyun Sa.” Jones plucks his violin like a guitar, which gives the piece a contemporary sound. Watstein leads the performance with her violin “vocals”–every note spoke the words of “Seong Nyun Sa”–and Lawson adds a perfect dig to the underbelly of the song.

Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov has worked with Ethel and Kaki King over the years, and composed “Logbook” specifically for the group to perform on the “… And Other Stories” tour. One of the standout songs of the night, the composition is Vrebalov’s way of summing up war-time Serbia: a place ravaged by violence, and yet so beautiful – called home by so many.

Lawson prefaced to the audience beforehand that “Logbook” contains some of the most terrifying music they play, but also has moments of innocence, such as imitating crickets chirping in a field. King opens the piece with soft guitar accompanied by strings.

With a flick of a guitar string, however, the humming of reverb opens the door to chaos.

Intense dissonance between the strings hangs over a maniacal melody. The song builds to a roar, only broken up for moments at a time by sudden pauses that King occasionally fills in with more echoes from the guitar’s reverb.

“Walk the Cat,” a piece written by Farris, was a crowd favorite. As Farris explains, it is about his father’s struggle with dementia leading up to his death, and Farris composed the piece so that the cello represents his father’s odd habit in later life of walking the family’s cat. Throughout the piece, the strings pull and make a sound that strongly resemble a cat hissing. “Walk the Cat” is very bluesy. The cello baseline is very much “going for a walk.”

The five performers ended Act 1 with a re-imagined, contemporary version of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.”

King came on stage to open Act 2 by herself, playing songs from past works. Her three original pieces, including “Fences,” were showcases of her mastery of the instrument. King has a distinct style, using the entire guitar to produce sounds. Her fingers often climb up the neck instead of picking solely in the heart of the guitar.

King then welcomed Ethel back to the stage, and let them have their own solo performance, which ended up being one of the most popular performances of the night.

John Zorn’s “Cat of 9 Tails,” which Watstein describes as having 12,000 stories to tell, is a loud, comical, piece that includes allusions to cartoon themes, westerns and (as the title suggests) the lives of nine “cats.” (Lawson believes that there are nine “cat funerals” within the piece as well.)

The show ended with two different types of performances by Ethel and King. The world premiere of Parts 1 and 2 of King’s “Trying to Speak” is a layered, beautiful selection. The concert concluded with “Great Round Burn.” The performers referred to it as the “single” of their tour – which includes impassioned strings and feels heavily rock influenced.

The “… And Other Stories” tour left Oswego for Los Angeles on Thursday morning, as Ethel and King performed together at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall Friday night.

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