Choosing an Ensemble Name

Picking the right moniker can be a tricky business

Kronos. Turtle Island. Emerson. Eroica. Ethel. Five chamber groups named respectively for a Greek Titan, a Native American creation myth, an American poet, the German word for heroic, and… Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, from the film Shakespeare in Love. They are among the biggest names in chamber music.

And I do mean names.

Of the many string quartets, trios, and other ensembles making music, these five have achieved a high level of success, not just by being consummate musicians playing accomplished music, but also by having first-rate names by which to market themselves. While a name may be little more than icing on a tuneful cake, icing should never be underestimated. In the highly competitive world of string music, choosing a name that is clever, provocative, classy, and memorable is vital. After all, a name is the first thing most people will know about you. Your name has enormous power, as it can shape an audience’s perception of your group before a single note is played.

“There are a lot classical musicians out there who would tell you that your success is based mainly on how well you play, with the name of your quartet way down on the list of importance,” says Sarah Grote, of the Oklahoma City quartet known as the Stringents. “For me, I’m all about how you market the group. Your name is important.

“Your name is who you are.”

Yet, 99 percent of the time, a name is literally the last thing a group of young musicians worries about when it comes together, at college or conservatory, to form a brand-new chamber ensemble. In the earliest days of forming a group—those heady, hope-filled, adrenaline-and-music-powered days—all that matters is the camaraderie, the sound, the blend, the vibe: the music. At the beginning, it’s what a quartet, quintet, trio, or duo can do together, the way theysound that is important, not what handle people will someday be calling them by.

And that’s fine—at first. After all, the vast majority of new string groups never get past the sitting-around-playing-together stage, and no one needs a name to do that. But if a quartet does miraculously gel, if the players successfully nail all the hard work of melding their talents into a tasty-sounding unit, and if they are then given the opportunity to perform outside the studio or dorm room, then, all of a sudden, selecting a name becomes a major decision.

A Few Considerations

“Your name, as a quartet, is very important in reaching out to your potential audience,” says Grote. She believes that music can touch people deeply—if you can just manage to get them into the seats in the first place. “Your name can either reach people or be overlooked by people,” she says, “so you need to be very smart about it. We thought that just the one word Stringent or the Stringent String Quartet just wasn’t as cool or as appealing-sounding as the Stringents, which sounds more like a rock band, which is important, since we primarily play quartet arrangements of classic-rock songs. Our name, with the pun and everything, communicates that right from the start.

“I was very, very insistent that it was our name that would bring people out to see us, if they saw it in our local newspaper and had no idea who we were. I felt like a good, strong name would get people into the hall, and it’s been working really, really well.”

When the hard-rocking members of the Stringents perform from the classical repertoire—something they regularly do for weddings and special events—the group appears under the more sedate name of the Metro String Quartet, an admittedly innocuous name that still manages to stand out from many of the other quartets in Oklahoma City.

Says Grote, “It seems like everyone around here is the Oklahoma City String Quartet or Oklahoma Strings or something. Everybody’s named after something about Oklahoma. I think that’s great, but it’s not the direction we were looking to go in.”

And what would Grote say should one of her past students approach her to ask advice in naming their own trio or string quartet?

“First of all, I’d tell them to stay away from ‘name’ names,” she says. “I don’t like it when groups name themselves after someone in the group. It makes [the person] sound egotistical.”

Surely she’s not talking about Romania’s Balanescu Quartet (named for founder-composer Alexander Balanescu), the Belcea Quartet (founded by violinist Corina Belcea-Fisher), the Austria-based Hagen Quartet (named for the four founding siblings, Lukas, Angelika, Veronika, and Clemens Hagen), or the pioneering Spencer Dyke Quartet (popular in the 1920s, and named for its founder, Spencer Dyke).

“My best suggestion,” she continues, “is to name your group something with a good story. People love the names of bands, and they are always going to ask, What’s your story? How’d you come up with your name? So, I would say, look for a creative name, a strong, memorable name—but make sure it’s a name with an interesting story.”

As Grote has pointed out, the best ensemble names are those that are strong, classy, intriguing—and easy to call to mind. For example, most new groups should be warned against adopting the name of a city or country, and especially celestial bodies or phenomenon. If you do, as with the superb Boston-based Jupiter String Quartet, or the long-gone but still legendary Budapest Quartet—not to mention the Los Angeles-based groups like the wedding-focused Andromeda String Quartet or the raucous, experimental Supernova—you’d better make sure you can live up to your name, and soon.

It’s All About Attitude

Ultimately, your name says as much about you as your repertoire and reviews. According to Rob Moose, first violinist with the experimental New York-based string quartet Osso, a name should mainly operate as an accurate suggestion of your quartet’s general attitude, tone, and musical quality, hinting at its position on the conservative-to-alternative spectrum. Upon hearing a group’s name, you should have a sense of what that group will sound like.

“Choosing a group name,” Moose says, “is analogous to selecting a title for a piece of instrumental pop music. In our case, we wanted our name to feel natural and to generally reflect our sensibility.”

Like most groups, when they finally were forced to name themselves—the same afternoon they were set to appear onstage at the 2007 MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati—it was under duress. “We made lists, discussed, vetoed, and compromised,” he says. Ultimately, the winner was the sleek, offbeat name Osso, which Moose admits is suggestive of the veal dish osso bucco, and might have been subconsciously implanted after months of meeting in restaurants (“Sometimes eating is easier than rehearsing,” he says). The group—which includes violinist Olivier Manchon, violist Marla Hansen, and cellist Maria Jeffers, liked the curvy, palindromic structure of the word Osso, with its two sets of matching letters, mirroring the gender distribution of the quartet’s members: two men, two women. Last-minute as the whole decision was, the name never appeared in the programs for that initial MusicNow Festival, and when they were introduced at the concert, it was as a nameless quartet.

“Immediately,” recalls Moose, “everyone in the group interrupted the speaker to announce that we had chosen a name that very afternoon. Our collective and spontaneous enthusiasm for Osso confirmed that we had settled on the right name.”

Just Osso—not the Osso String Quartet.

“None of us wanted to use the words string quartet,” Moose explains, “because those kinds of names tend to denote a certain convention or aesthetic of which we feel slightly independent. Osso seems to stand effectively on its own.”

Traditionally, chamber groups’ names tend to fall into several distinct categories, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

The most common type are those taken from the world of classical music, sometimes borrowing the name of a notable composer or performer, as with the Borodin Quartet (named for Russian composer Alexander Borodin), the Gabrieli Quartet, the Paganini Quartet, or the Corigliano Quartet. Or sometimes adopting the name of a violin-maker: the Guarneri Quartet, the Stradivari Quartett, or the Amati Quartet, who play solely on instruments made by the Amati family. Some lift a highly recognizable and/or quirky word, phrase, or name from the musical landscape: the Virtuoso String Quartet, the Forte String Quartet—or from their school of origin: the Juilliard String Quartet.

There are the geographical quartet names, scraped from atlases, maps, and street signs. These are usually named for the city, state, region, or geographical feature in or near which the ensemble was formed or resides—the Miami String Quartet (who have held faculty posts in Connecticut and Ohio), the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Canadians named for a famous northern seaway and now in residence at Stanford University in sunny California)—but are sometimes named after a place that figures affectionately in the group’s past: the Tokyo String Quartet, whose founding members met in Tokyo but formed their group at Juilliard (current members now teach at the Yale School of Music), or the famous Endellion String Quartet, named for the small Cornish town where three of the group’s musicians originally met.

Many chamber groups, curiously, are named after painters, including the Manhattan-based, all-female Cassatt String Quartet (named for American impressionist and early feminist Mary Cassatt), New York’s Escher String Quartet (an homage to the mathematically inspired Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher), the Vermeer String Quartet (named for the Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer), and the renowned Miró Quartet (named for surrealist painter Joan Miró).

Others take their inspiration from authors, philosophers, and scientists.

A Creative Link

Ultimately, a chamber group’s name should be a creative link between the ensemble’s personality—as a group of interacting human beings—and its expressed goals as a musical group. Finland’s Alexander Quartet is one example of this. Playing faithfully classical repertoire, the players wanted a recognizably traditional name that also reflected, somewhat playfully, the identity of the quartet, two of whom are named Alexander.

“The name of a music ensemble has to be human close,” the members explained in a collective e-mail. “What does that mean? If the name sounds too pompous, people could easily overestimate the ensemble. The Finland String Quartet is such. Put another way, [that name] sounds very ‘expensive.’ But the Alexander Quartet is a more relaxed name and it has a bit of humor in it. Somehow it is easier with such a ‘humane’ name.”

Of course, in their case, the Alexanders of Finland have taken a huge risk in selecting a name that is so confusingly close to another, better-known quartet, the California-based Alexander String Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at San Francisco State University.

That’s another pitfall in choosing a name: avoid a moniker that sounds too much like someone else.

In the end, choosing a name is a bit of a game, but an important one, and scoring well can make all the difference in determining your group’s professional future.

As Sarah Grote of the Stringents says, “Find a good, catchy name.

“It’s funny but true—choosing a good name may end up being the most important thing you do.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Every name should have a good story behind it. Here are a few of the stories behind some of the more unusual names in the world of chamber music.

The Attacca Quartet For the Attacca Quartet, composed of students from the Juilliard School, choosing a name was very much a last-minute effort, forcing them to turn to the dictionary, where they discovered the word attacca(pronounced uh-TAK-uh), a little-used musical term meaning to “attack at once,” employed as a direction at the end of a musical movement to show that the next is to follow immediately, without any pause. It was a fitting name for a young quartet about to step out into the world, and it stuck. (There is also a woodwind ensemble in Chicago called the Quintet Attacca.)

The Afiara Quartet: This Canadian ensemble admits its name was a mistake—literally. It started out as a typographical error in an e-mail, when one member, meaning to type the word affair, instead wrote “afiara.” By pure chance, afiara actually does mean something: in Spanish, the word fiar means “to trust.”

The Miró Quartet One of the more famous of the named-for-a-famous-artist quartets, the energetic Miró borrows its hip-and-classy, slightly dangerous name from the Spanish painter Joan Miró, a radical 20th-century surrealist who frequently expressed contempt and scorn for more conventional painting approaches. In interviews, Miró described his ultimate desire: to “kill” or “murder” all contemporary means of artistic expression. The Miró Quartet is similarly committed to contemporary music, as well as more traditional repertoire, though the members have yet to use the words “kill” or “murder” in reference to standard classical repertoire. In fact, they have recently begun recording all of Beethoven’s string quartets.

The Brentano String Quartet The first resident string quartet at Princeton University, the Brentanos, who formed in 1992, selected a name that fuses a great historical mystery with a Trivial Pursuit answer. Antonie Brentano, according to many musical historians, is the mysterious woman whom Ludwig Beethoven dubbed his “Immortal Beloved.” It’s a serious name, but also a fun one, hinting at a sense of passion and power. It’s no surprise that, over the past 15 years, those are exactly the words with which the Brentano String Quartet has most often been described.

The Orion String Quartet The Orion is one of those named-for-the-heavens quartets, but in this case, it hardly seems pompous or over-reaching. Before coming together in 1987, the Orion’s founding members each had a distinguished career playing solo and with other chamber groups. It was truly an assemblage of “stars,” so it makes sense that the super-quartet chose the name of the Orion constellation. It also hints at the celestial heights the ensemble has dedicated itself to attaining with its music.

The Chiara String Quartet Pronounced key-ARE-uh, chiara is an Italian word that means “clear,” “pure,” or “light.” The Juilliard-trained members have been artists-in-residence at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, since 2005.

The FOG Trio This San Francisco-based piano trio is named FOG for two reasons: the group is based in San Francisco, the foggy city itself, and the name is an acronym derived from the musicians’ initials (violinist Jorja Fleezanis, pianist Garrick Ohlsson, and cellist Michael Grebanier). The name suggests a playful sense of fun from three chamber titans who don’t take themselves too seriously.

—D.T.

Comments