An Eclectic Quartet With Élan
Ebony—ébène, in French —was traditionally used for the black keys of a piano, and oboes and clarinets are still made of that wood. But violins, violas and cellos are normally made of spruce and maple. So why did the members of the Ebène Quartet name their string ensemble after ebony? “Because ebony is used for the parts of our instruments that we touch the most,” explains the quartet’s cellist, Raphaël Merlin, “namely the fingerboards and the frogs of our bows.” (The frog is the adjustable fastening at the bottom of the bow, nearest the player’s hand.)
U.S. tour through April 17
For dates see www.quatuorebene.com
Comprising four young and adventurous French musicians—Mr. Merlin, violist Mathieu Herzog and violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure—the Ebène Quartet clinched its position in the international firmament in 2009, when its recording of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré won Gramophone Magazine’s awards as Best Chamber Recording and Record of the Year. But in addition to gaining a reputation for insightful performances of the core French and standard classical repertoire—from Haydn and Mozart to Bartók—the quartet enjoys a place in the sun as a jazz combo.
The Ebène Quartet’s latest release, “Fiction” (Virgin Classics), documents just about everything these four musicians like to do in jazz—from accompanying soprano Natalie Dessay’s vocals in Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to producing funk and wah-wah guitar effects on 17th-century Italian violins while zipping through the “Ocean’s 12″ theme with drummer Richard Héry. With their ear for atmosphere—and boyish sense of fun—these four musicians don’t miss a thing: Introducing their iconoclastic arrangement of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” they incorporate the mechanical sound of an old film projector; before picking up their instruments for their take on the Disney classic “Someday My Prince Will Come,” they sing it barbershop style, en français.
While in New York one recent Sunday afternoon as part of a 12-city U.S. tour that ends April 17, the Ebène Quartet played Mozart, Bartók and Debussy to a large and enthusiastic Town Hall audience. You never would have known that they had just come off a disagreeably turbulent prop-plane flight from Syracuse. As an encore, they offered what is fast becoming their signature tune, the Klezmer-like “Misirlou” from the “Pulp Fiction” film soundtrack.
“I can’t say we knew from the very beginning that we wanted to form a quartet,” Mr. Le Magadure notes. “We came [to the Paris Conservatoire] from four different parts of France, and when we met in 1999 each of us had had different experiences.”
“Our cellist,” says Mr. Colombet, “was a very talented pianist in a jazz quartet, our violist had been playing guitar in a funk music band, our first violin played drums and guitar in a rock group—so we played different styles than classical.”
Mr. Herzog recalls that the groundwork was laid by chance when as students “we joined a little orchestra to play Offenbach, and found playing together an absolute pleasure.” Two months later, Mr. Herzog had put his viola aside to join several jazz, funk and pop bands when Mr. Colombet proposed that he join the others in a new string quartet. The Ebène Quartet was born.
Given that improvisation is at the heart of jazz, the musicians readily discuss how they worked such passages into the song arrangements on “Fiction,” which they wrote themselves. “Basically we follow standard jazz practice,” Mr. Merlin says. The arranged sections, which are about half of each piece, are written out just like a classical score, he explains. “But the completely improvised passages are the most exciting challenge for us to play together.”
Mr. Merlin says this jazz discipline “also makes us a more substantial and coherent classical ensemble, as it forces us to develop mutual listening and strong interactivity on the spot. For example, if while performing a Brahms movement, one of us has the sudden impulse to phrase a passage differently from rehearsal, we can all follow without breaking down.”
In the past, great opera singers like the tenor Alain Vanzo, and chansonnères like Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf and Tino Rossi, used the French language, together with the quality of their voices, to impart an unmistakable Gallic sound to French music. So what technical elements, in the absence of language, does the Ebène Quartet employ to achieve the same effect? “Fauré, Debussy and Ravel were influenced by Impressionist painting, in which one of the most important elements is color,” observes Mr. Le Magadure. “In music, color comes from harmony, and in this sense we deeply probe the harmony in their work and explore their characteristic feeling of fragile and fleeting emotions.”
“Of course,” he adds, “we use this type of work in Brahms, and others. But there are other parameters—the way to press the bow on the strings won’t be the same for every composer, or the way to articulate notes and phrases. And the cultural context where they composed. All these elements we consider.”
In closing, Mr. Le Magadure observes that “a life in music is always a question of chance and of choice. We met by chance. And we made this choice.” And to judge by their work thus far, the musical world is the richer for both.
Mr. Scherer writes about classical music and the fine arts for the Journal.