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Sample Track 1:
"Kothbiro" from Real Vocal String Quartet
Sample Track 2:
"Green Bean Stand" from Real Vocal String Quartet
Layer 2
Real Vocal String Quartet,  2011 US Tour From Sahara Trance Bluegrass to Re-Imagined Brazilian Choros:
The Un-Chamber Music of Real Vocal String Quartet on Tour

The classically-trained players of the Real Vocal String Quartet have lost it. As can be witnessed on their most recent debut eponymous recording and in concert, they bang on their violins, stomp their feet, and allow African trance music to influence their take on old timey standards. It's not their sanity that's missing; what RVSQ has lost is the ability to abide the constraints of either the old school classical world, where musicians must frequently forsake their creativity for the overall sound of the orchestra, or the often unapproachable reaches of the contemporary classical world. “There is a perception that ‘new music’ for classically trained musicians needs to be difficult or inaccessible,” says Dina Maccabee, a violist in the group. “We are all totally into challenging ideas but we also like pop music. And we feel like just because you have a highly trained skill set doesn’t mean you need to play obscure music.” Their simultaneous singing and stringing—a barrier buster in itself—may just be the perfect combination for straddling these musical worlds. Catch them this October in East Coast cities including in Washington DC and New York City

Irene Sazer—an original member of the acclaimed, genre-bending Turtle Island String Quartet—founded Real Vocal String Quartet, but is swiftly moving to make the new endeavor a collective one, a mode that flies in the face of the soloist- and conductor-centric classical world as well as the frontman-centric rock band universe. “There are many neuroses that come with being a classical violinist; perfectionism among them.” explains Sazer, who’s a regular fixture in the San Francisco Bay Area’s classical, jazz, and American roots music scenes. “Often in the pedagogy, there’s a real meanness. There’s a good and a bad, a right and a wrong. You succeeded, you failed. It’s a very restrictive box that I’ve been working on breaking out of my whole life. One of my goals and needs in life is to create an ensemble where there is room for everybody both personally and creatively.  Key to that is ample room for exploration.”

Inside that space the all-female Quartet embraces the influences of four radically diverse musicians, who've cut their teeth individually on every kind of string playing from Balkan and circus-klezmer to West African and bluegrass.  The Quartet is rounded out by Alisa Rose, violinist and fiddler extraordinaire, from49 Special and Picasso Quartet, and cellist Jessica Ivry who has been heard on a hip-hop retelling of Dante’s Inferno and playing with jazz vocalist Nneena Freelon among other things. Sounds and songs inspire the Quartet from every which way. All four players add their mad improvisation skills and vocals to the mix.

The diversity of the four players’ experiences reverberates through their latest album.  For instance, “Talking Strings, Talking Drum” imitates on Western strings the totally unique sound of the African talking drum. “I find myself most fascinated and soothed by rhythmic texture these days,” said Sazer. “I was listening to these intricate rhythmic sections and the scintillating vocals of African music.” “Talking String, Talking Drum” exemplifies the breadth of influence in the group as well as their desire to work outside the norm. The Quartet makes use of the talking drum in an undeniably unconventional way and it works beautifully.

“Kothbiro,” the jaw-dropping first song on the album was composed by Ayub Ogada, a Kenyan artist who’s known for entrancing vocal melodies accompanied on his nyatiti, plucked lute, on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. In Irene Sazer’s meticulous arrangement, the Quartet sings Ogada’s lyrics phonetically—just as his cult following audiences did on his rare U.S. performances—without speaking the language, and their violins, viola, and cello transform as they take on the swirling and rhythmical melody of his lyre.

The Quartet’s global influences run through their music, often sneaking into unexpected places like the group’s take on the bluegrass standard “Kitchen Girls.” Dina Maccabee was digging deep into the roots of Americana when she wrote this song. She’d been taking fiddle lessons and wanted to push this song beyond the typical groove expected in a bluegrass tune. Meanwhile, she’d been listening to “Amassakoul” by Tinariwen, a musical group from Northern Mali’s Sahara. Tinariwen are known for their invigorating fusion of trance with electric rock guitar. “I was looking for something that was more unexpected,” Maccabee recalls. “So while looking for a way to play ‘Kitchen Girls’ in a new way, I found this kind of groove from Tinariwen. That’s how my musical life works. There are always these different influences.”

“We’re playing all these Western classical instruments and we are all like Jewish girls,” Maccabee laughs. “But there is something about that combination… It’s a little bit trance and really rich in rhythm; if maybe more simple in terms of harmony. Things don’t move around a lot. The richness is in the timbres and the rhythmic element and we all want to explore that. Rather than a jazz tune with one hundred million chords which is a different kind of complexity. Strings and voice and hands and feet. It’s all about layers of sounds and the color of sound.”

West African rhythms aren’t the only global sounds to bounce across the quartet’s bows. Latin influences dance through songs like “Guitara,” a meter-hopping tune originally played by Sazer’s rock group. The group also found inspiration in Afro-Brazilian music. “Fontana Abandonada-Passatempo” is a medley of two songs from the pre-Samba era, written by Pixinguinha, a revolutionary flutist who changed Brazilian music when he helped turn the nation on to improvisational jazz music. Sazer scrupulously transcribed the songs for the quartet and wrote new solos for the cello and viola, a transformation from the piece’s original instrumentation. “It fits like a glove though. It plays easy,” Sazer explained. “Not that it’s all that easy to play.”

Though they are not hesitant to draw on their technical skill of transcription and arrangement, Real Vocal String Quartet is not locked into their conservatory-trained method. At every performance, including their studio recording for the album, they dive into the unpredictable when they play “Now,” a group improvisation that changes every time. No one, not even the person who initiates the piece knows what she is going to play, but that all changes once they get going. In the studio, tapping their feet on the hardwood floors at a house show, or bowing their strings beneath vibrant stage lights, Real Vocal String Quartet show their playful side conversing only with their instruments reacting to their moods, the room, the audience. They bounce rhythms and melodies off one another, gradually learning the moves of one another until they’ve built something entirely new, surprising even themselves. “Sometimes, it will get really funny and we have to stop and laugh. All of the sudden, someone will be playing some disco riff—something from the seventies.” Sazer laughed. “But we always turn it into something. We call it ‘Now’ at every performance, because it’s happening now, right now, in whatever place we are in.”

The Quartet’s tight bond is only helped by being an all-women’s ensemble. “I feel like I’m playing with my friends,” says Sazer. The fact that every member in the band is a woman is not entirely an accident.    “Many of the groups we’ve played in the past with have been mostly male,” said Maccabee. “I think in some ways this could be in reaction to that. I think we just enjoy working in a space away from the ‘dudeness of band practice.’”  More precious than their femaleness is the mutual desire to work together collectively and to explore string and vocal music.

Wherever they began individually, together, the players in Real Vocal String Quartet have gone somewhere entirely new. Their chemistry as a musical group has become a catalyst for a creative explosion. They’ve taken their classical and jazz training, and combined it with their talent and other forays for their debut album. African, Brazilian, Balkan, Bluegrass: they’ve stretched beyond the conceived limits of string music. It may seem like they’ve absolutely lost it, but it doesn’t take an expert to see that they’ve known where it was the entire time. 

<< release: 02/09/10 >>