It started as a strand of melody, and then was joined by the bass notes of a cello, and some rhythmic tapping on a violin. The four musicians spun harmonies on top of each other, weaving in and out of this groove, locking together, and then drifting apart. It might have gone on for a minute and a half.
I was observing a Nebulous Quartet rehearsal and asked, “What was that one?”
Everyone laughed because it wasn’t a song, “just something that we do,” cellist and vocalist Kely Pinheiro said.
“These are all grown out of free improvs,” added violinist Claudius Agrippa.
The rehearsal continued as the group worked out their setlist for that night’s show, which would be at a DIY venue in Allston.
“I think we should designate leaders for sections of the piece,” Agrippa said after running a tune. “When you’re that person, just let the group know what you’re feeling.”
The members of the Nebulous Quartet are all classically trained musicians who found each other at the Berklee College of Music. On violin there’s Fabienne Jean, 25, from Dorchester, and Agrippa, 22, from Brooklyn, who also sings. Noah Leong, 23, from Detroit, plays viola. Pinheiro, 24, the cellist, is from Rio de Janeiro.
The group began as a directed study in early 2020, Agrippa said, under Grammy-winning cellist and Berklee professor Eugene Friesen.
“Eugene played with us,” Agrippa said. “Eugene was a member and an active player, at least for rehearsals, just for developing our sound throughout our inception.”
The band rehearsed once a week with no material prepared, just improvising for two hours.
“Eugene would always start something, some cool idea, and we’d play over it,” Leong said. “What ended up emerging wasn’t something that was super jazz or super classical, it was a conglomeration of everything that we listened to.”
They had to take a break once COVID hit but reformed in 2021, with Pinheiro taking the place of cellist Freddy Renaud, who was moving to San Francisco. The group started to look for gigs and recording opportunities.
“We are the Nebulous Ensemble,” Agrippa said to the crowd at the Allston venue. He was wearing the same Ray Bans and gold shirt he’d worn at rehearsal. “We are a string quartet that makes music you probably haven’t heard before.”
Much of Nebulous’s sound comes from experimentation with electronics, a key interest of Leong, who majors in electronic production and design at Berklee. They run their instruments and mics through the music production software Ableton to add a myriad of possible effects, and some members keep a pedalboard at their feet for easy access. They’ve also got a Novation Launchpad, a MIDI controller that connects to their Ableton effects.
“We put this at the front of the audience and have someone in the audience come up every minute or so and, without knowing what anything does, spend 30 seconds messing with the contours of the sound,” Agrippa said. “We’ll have an interactive concert.”
“Portuguese song,” someone yelled from the audience, referring to the songwriting of Pinheiro, who started creating tunes during COVID.
“I was always scared of starting something out of nowhere,” Pinheiro said, “but then I started writing those lyrics as a way of practicing everything that I was feeling during those dark months.”
Along with playing live, which can just mean rehearsing in a park, the Nebulous Quartet try to record as much as possible, Agrippa said.
“Our first collaboration, our first album release, was with that artist Mei Semones,” Agrippa said. “The album is really indicative of Nebulous’s sound and how much greatness can be achieved just off of instinct and natural expression.”
Semones, who just graduated from Berklee, said members of Nebulous played regularly with her band before going into the studio to record her May EP “Sukikirai.”
“I would describe them all as very melodic, very expressive,” Semones said. “I don’t know any other groups around here that are doing anything like what they’re doing.”
The quartet has a busy summer ahead, with plans to put on a free concert series and record their first album. Up first is a free show Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. at the Institute of Contemporary Art. They’ll also be playing at the Mission Hill Arts Festival on July 23 (tickets are available at eventbrite.com).
The group just received a $10,000 grant from the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture Opportunity Fund, plus $5,000 from the same program that Agrippa received as an individual.
“The majority of the money is going to go towards setting up free concerts in Roxbury and East Boston, neighborhoods where members of the quartet actually live and grew up,” Agrippa said.
Agrippa added that Nebulous is working with the city to set up free summer workshops in Boston schools.
“The hope is to inspire, more than anything,” Agrippa said. “As a young string player, I boxed myself into what I thought was possible, and to hear people doing some really cool stuff that is modern and maybe songs that I’d recognize, I feel like it would be important.”
The quartet played four songs at that DIY venue to a packed crowd of college-aged listeners who cheered after every tune.
“We all are strong by ourselves, and creative by ourselves,” said Jean. “I can think of this creative line, and Noah would flip it, and then add to it, but then two other people do that same process, and then the end of that is what our music is.”
Sam Trottenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.