I took a rare trip up to the Upper West Side on Saturday night for the Ecstatic Music Festival, which featured a collaborative performance from Kaki King, composer John King, and string quartet Ethel. The festival began in mid January and runs until April the 16th and has included the likes of Helado Negro and Julia Holter.
This was my first time at the Merkin Concert Hall, and it’s a lovely setting for a show like this, although the front row (where I ended up finding a space) was probably not the best view, with the monitors blocking some of the view, and the stage being fairly high.
Ethel kicked the show off with Hardwood, a piece written by John King and the reason why Ethel formed as a group. It was a bit hard hearing them talking about how long ago the piece was written, because I don’t want to think that the 1995 was twenty years ago! The two original members of the group, Ralph Ferris on viola and Dorothy Lawson on cello, are joined by Kip Jones and Corin Lee on violin.
Before each piece, the composer had a chance to talk about it, and John King was up next to explain Huzam and Khan Younis from his latest work, Free Palestine. On these he played the oud, which I’m not sure I’ve seen played live before.
Kaki King took centre stage for a couple of pieces from her most recent release, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, which I saw performed in full last year and was blown away. A large part of that show is the visual element so while that was missing we did have the advantage of seeing Ethel perform their parts live (they are on the record), a nice contrast. They also performed Great Round Burn, from Kaki’s album Glow, here is a rehearsal recording from last year.
If anything, Kaki’s role in the evening was fairly restrained compared to the rest of the players over the course of the night, switching instruments around where appropriate, including bass on one of her pieces with John King, Space Baby. In any case, seeing Kaki play is a thing of beauty, she has a natural feel and style that sets her apart from most.
A stage like this is really set for the bowed instruments to make their mark, though, and Ethel are not just great players, but they also know how to perform, and it was a joy to watch them play. What almost made the night even more enjoyable was the range of styles on offer, one tends to conjure up a certain sound and aesthetic when thinking of string quartets, but those were turned upside down here.
The performance was streamed live, and should also be available Q2 music in the near future.
Kaki is back in New York on the 21st of May, performing The Neck is a Bridge to the Body at Rough Trade. Tickets are still available and I highly recommend going, I have not seen a show like it. The visuals are stunning, the interaction is wonderful and Kaki’s playing is a joy to behold.