Ebene Quartet: Where Personality Thrives

Stephanie Jones on November 7, 2012

Not so long ago, a classical musician playing a non-classical genre sounded so like a fish out of water that people in the music industry coined the term “crossover” to describe it. That seems like ages ago, and now musicians are asserting their right to bend genre categories in the best way possible — by playing all kinds of music with at least some sense of style.

The 13-year old-French ensemble Ebene Quartet rejects the stigma of crossover, an example of the contemporary desire to make traditional categories permeable.

“It's not so important to know what classification we will receive. It's much more a question of quality,” said violinist Raphael Merlin. “We are hoping that our crossover concert could help to reach younger and brighter audiences in order to maybe get to introduced to the string quartet in general and because we think that the string quartet’s repertoire is something which is probably taken too seriously and makes many people shy. They don't even dare to go to a string quartet concert because it seems that it will be boring or [it] is just for initiated audiences,” which we don't really believe. So yes, this crossover image we have, we don't want to assume it because as soon as we can defend it with quality and with love — it doesn't really matter if it is part of the classical field or from another one.”

The foursome, who often plays jazz standards in addition to the typical quartet repertoire, know that recognizable tunes draw people in. But the real payoff is in being open to improvisation and all the good music out there.

“I just mean taking freedom for anything you have in mind. It could be in the middle of a classical piece just for fun, while rehearsing, at the moment where maybe you don't feel perfectly in tune with music which is written there — at that note, just play something else — or sometimes kind of seriously we try to play a jazz standard. Anything which allows [us] to explore the string quartet sound out[side] of the written music. We always enjoy this.”

All this may sound a bit iffy but the group is very much inspired by jazz. Even their name Ebene, which means ebony in French, is a tribute to African-American “jazz men,” namely Davis and Coltrane. At the same time, they walk a very thin line between respecting what is written and throwing it all out the window like many of their predecessors. The trick is being able to do both equally well.

“I think it's very normal to say that [a] musician first is very respectful and, yes, wants to respect as precisely as possible what is written on the music. I didn't necessarily mean that we want to transform the music as it is. We just feel the spontaneity of the interpretation and also we like to improvise more,” said Merlin. “If you compare with formal jazz players, I think it really brings something important to the imagination of a classical musician.”

The quartet — Pierre Colombet [violin], Gabriel Le Magadure [violin], Matthieu Herzog [viola], and Merlin on violoncello — use their own personalities to grow musically.

“I would say the first violin, Pierre, is a very sensitive guy who always gets inspiration from the [harmonic] process of a piece. He's very spontaneous and, yes, inspired by the music and always has many ideas about framing and vibrato and color of the sound. He's the one who likes the most every music possible. He's never tired of discovering new music and listening to many things. Gabriel, the second violin, is much more a calm person. He's very concerned about the sound quality and especially a few end details, the way you would end a phrase, for example. [Gabriel]'s actually a singer who decided to play the violin, said Merlin. “I am maybe the one who has the analytic view of music. I'm a very brainy guy...maybe the good side is it brings balance to the option of interpretations.”

The most recent CD is Dissonances (2011), a selection of Mozart — but the repertoire for the Nov. 8 concert presented by San Francisco Performances will come mostly from their 2010 CD Fiction, named after the Tarantino classic Pulp Fiction.

“There will be also a few pop songs like the Beatles’ Come Together or The Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen and a few soundtracks of great movies, which we did also arrange because at the moment we were very interested about what movie music would really touch [people],” said Merlin. “We did arrange everything on this CD. At the end, it doesn't really make a difference if it is a jazz standard or a soundtrack of a movie or anything else. I think the [common] aspect of these this [pieces] is that it's arranged for string quartet and eventually drums. It's a special sound, which we are all now doing on stage thanks to our unbelievable drum player [Richard Hery]...He really plays the drums like he would play the violin if he was a violin player.”

Ebene Quartet is looking forward to the San Francisco concert not only for the repertoire but also because it is group's only U.S. concert on this tour.

“I want them to know that this is a very easy program...smooth and soft but also moving and also kind of embracing in some aspect. It's very changing. It's not like you would suffer to be in a concert hall and listen to three Hayden string quartets after each other, even if it's just great music,” said Merlin. “On this Fiction program, we did combine a lot of different styles and I think this makes concerts which are absolutely not boring.”