Making a Name for Yourself

By Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

Dear Edna:

I am a student at a music conservatory in the U.S. with a strong interest in chamber music. This coming year will be my last one at the conservatory. Several friends of mine and I formed a string quartet this past February and we would like to devote serious time to it this coming year, in hopes of maybe entering some competitions. We have yet to choose a name for our quartet. Do you have any advice for us?  —Alison

Dear Alison:

Thank you for submitting this question, which has given me an opportunity to do a little research that I found both fascinating and entertaining.  Hopefully, my explorations will fill your quartet’s minds with many great ideas.

Let’s start close to home (for me) with the Calidore Quartet, which formed at the Colburn Conservatory and a few months ago won the Grand Prize and Gold Medal in the Senior String Division at the Fischoff Competition. One of their violinists, Pasha Tseitlin, told me that he started out by going through a complete list of artists and poets on Wikipedia but any interesting name was already taken. When the group was exhausted from rejecting a massive number of ideas, their cellist, Estelle Choi, came up with Calidore, after reading a poem by that name by John Keats. The group admired the poem and particularly loved the idea that Cali could also be a reference to California,  where they are based, and d’or in French means of gold. (The choice of name seems to have been prescient in light of the recent competition.)

It seems that some groups arrive at a name for themselves rather easily and others agonize over it. If they studied or formed their ensemble in a location that lends itself to an ensemble name, that may provide a simple solution. Examples would be the Juilliard Quartet, the Tokyo String Quartet, the Shanghai Quartet, the Colorado Quartet, and the Borromeo Quartet, who played their first concerts together in northern Italy (lucky them!), where the Borromeo islands emerge from Lago Maggiore. The Jasper Quartet did some brainstorming about things they mutually enjoyed, which led them to the outdoors. Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, brought to mind extraordinarily beautiful vistas. The decision was clinched upon the realization that Jasper contained the first initial of the first names of all of the quartet members!

Sometimes an ensemble has chosen a particularly memorable landmark associated with the city in which they studied, such as the Parker String Quartet, who studied at New England Conservatory and named themselves after the famous Parker House Hotel in Boston. The Pacifica Quartet’s members all hail from the West Coast of the U. S. and explain that they take their name from “the awe-inspiring Pacific Ocean.”  The Amstel Saxophone Quartet met while touring with the Dutch National Youth Orchestra. According to their website, they chose to name themselves after Holland’s Amstel River (not after Amstel beer!) because “it is not only the historical birthplace of the city of Amsterdam, but also an ever-changing waterscape, reflecting the changes in life along its shores. It was an obvious choice for a quartet grounded in the traditions of chamber music but ready to meet new and ever-changing creative challenges.”

Another popular choice for ensemble names has been composers, writers and artists who proved a source of inspiration.  Among such groups are the Borodin Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet, and the Vermeer, Miró, Calder and Rossetti quartets. Often, the work of the artist or writer has particularly resonated with the ethos of the ensemble. The Escher String Quartet’s bio states that they chose to name themselves after the Dutch artist, M.C. Escher, because they “drew inspiration from the artist’s method of interplay between individual components working together as a whole.” Things become a little less obvious when it comes to groups such as the Afiara Quartet, the Chiara Quartet and Imani Winds. The Afiara takes its name from the Spanish fiar, meaning to trust, which they feel “is a basic element that is vital to the depth and joy of their musicmaking.” Chiara is an Italian word meaning clear, pure or light—all adjectives that typify the finest quartet playing. In the case of Imani Winds, their founder, flutist Valerie Coleman, had the name in mind even before the group was formed. Imani  in Swahili means faith. It characterizes the spirit in which Ms. Coleman set about forming the group and the strength of purpose that has guided them throughout the years. Mariam Adam, clarinetist of Imani Winds, told me that “even though people sometimes want to call us ‘Armani Winds’ (keep dreaming!), the fact that the name is slightly unorthodox seems to have been an advantage in reaffirming the group’s slightly off-the-beaten-path angle.”

When a group’s name does not bring to mind any obvious association, it can work to their advantage since they stand out from the pack and may thereby gain a slight marketing edge. Take, for example, the quartet Brooklyn Rider, who explain that “their name is inspired in part by the creators, interests and cross-disciplinary visions of the Blue Rider group, an artistic association comprised of artists and composers including Vassily Kandinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Scriabin. The quartet also draws additional inspiration from the exploding array of cultures and artistic energy found in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, a place the quartet calls home”. The JACK Quartet, who first played together as students at the Eastman School of Music, chose a name that is an acronym for the first letters of their first names. Their violist, John Richards, has said: “There is something so American about it. Four American guys named JACK.”  The name of another individualistic string quartet, ETHEL, was elucidated as follows by one of its violinists, Cornelius Dufallo: “ We call ourselves ETHEL because it’s just a name. When the group started, they wanted to have a name that didn’t put them in a box. They wanted to name it like you name a rock group.”

So, Alison, the totality of names from which to choose is unlimited and ranges from the artistic, to the philosophical, to the whimsical. (Fortunate is violinist Philippe Quint who was able to call his group the Quint Quintet!). In the end, I think it is important to choose a name that is meaningful to your group. It will enhance the quartet’s profile by giving you a story to tell and it might help to distinguish you from other ensembles. Having said that, the most memorable ensembles are the ones who distinguish themselves time and again through their superb playing. The much admired new music ensemble, eighth blackbird, is known for having derived their name from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” which had personal meaning for them, but their true originality and artistic identity have been defined through consistently impressive performances over many years.

If at any point in your quest for a name you still feel you need even more ideas than have been provided above, take a look at Alarm Will Sound’s Facebook post entitled

We Were This Close to Being Called Ear Chow, where you will find a fascinating and even hilarious list of 147 possibiities from which they chose their current name.

Good luck!

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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