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Sample Track 1:
"Machine" from Four Little Sisters
Sample Track 2:
"Homage to Oumou" from Four Little Sisters
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Real Vocal String Quartet, Four Little Sisters Trusting the Muses:
Classical Skills and Indie Thrills Abound on Real Vocal String Quartet’s Four Little Sisters

In a Bay Area rehearsal room, four musicians are finding each and every sound their instruments can produce. One classically trained but pop-minded string player grabs her phone and records the sound of a bow tapping the violin tailpiece, then running sideways over the cello fingerboard.

This is no new chamber piece or avant-garde excursion, but extended technique in service of the perfect string quartet arrangement of the Regina Spektor song “Machine.”

For Real Vocal String Quartet, this kind of exultant exploration comes with the territory. Whether crafting a moving homage to a favorite Malian diva or creating a new version of an old Cajun chestnut, the Quartet finds new entry points and new expressions based on years of dedicated training and eclectic listening. Coming out of recent work with Feist, the improvising, singing string quartet shines on Four Little Sisters, a lush collaboration between four distinctly skilled musicians and arranger/composers.

Always listening for the classical resonance in pop, jazz, and traditional music—and for the indie delights hidden in seemingly straight-laced instruments—the Bay Area quartet has further blended their styles, playing, and voices, for a decidedly accomplished follow-up to their striking debut. They harness the richness of technically stunning and passionate string performance, with the airy resonance of four perfectly melded voices, in pieces that are evocative and quirky, lyrical and percussive by turns.

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As listeners from Coachella to concert halls have discovered, RVSQ’s voices may be sweet and light, and their playing inspired and precise, but their repertoire is refreshingly unexpected.

Their work is full of swinging honey bees and stealth-classical Brazilian gems (Gilberto Gil’s “Copo Vazio”); Racy Louisiana folk tunes (“Allons a Lafayette”) and the greatest hit of George Washington’s favorite dancer—composed by a German dwarf (“Durang’s Hornpipe”); covers of Dirty Projectors (“Knotty Pine”) and Swedish fiddle music with a little twist of klezmer (“Falling Polska”).

“Because we do our own arrangements and it’s so open, I always have one antenna up, wondering if this or that song or tune would work,” explains violist Dina Maccabee. “Whenever I hear something that’s rich harmonically, I file it away.”

For the players, it’s a unique forum for musical ideas and pieces they’ve loved for years, pieces that engage their classically honed ears yet offer other expressive horizons at the same time. “I’ve lived with certain favorites for years and years” notes violinist Irene Sazer, an original member of the Turtle Island String Quartet, who arranged the classic Blue Note track “Sweet Honey Bee” for the new album. “Duke Pearson’s piano swings so hard and is so pristine and clear at the same time. It just blows me away. It’s just such an iconic and beautiful tune. We do some improv at the end, and everyone gets space to do it.”

This improvisatory spirit—mixed with the group’s uncanny ability to sing evocatively while playing at a high level—guides the ensemble’s ongoing evolution. Founded seven years ago to perform compositions by Sazer (whose original “Homage to Oumou” pays her respects to the Malian singer), RVSQ has morphed into a collaborative effort, united by a shared ethos of close listening, exploration, and even a curious coincidence: the women of RSVQ are all youngest sisters (hence the album title). The group has broken away from the more hierarchical patterns typical of classical ensembles to become more like a band, with each musician obsessively imagining and working out ways to play a deliciously diverse repertoire with a serious penchant for folk idioms, as well pop and indie rock.

“I am a big pop music fan so I want to bring more of that to the band,” cellist Jessica Ivry recounts. “For whatever reason, I was obsessed with The Dirty Projectors’/David Byrne song, ‘Knotty Pine,’ and I was listening to it in the car constantly. One night I came home and though it was late, I decided I was going to figure it out for string quartet.” Ivry did, and with help from the rest of the band, even came up with a way to capture the challenging feel of the drums using rhythmic chops.

These innovative solutions and ideas unfold in long, thoughtful rehearsals, where the players push each other and their instruments and voices to find both pitch-perfect precision and the right, wild and edgy moments to do their diverse material full justice. This time together—and the back and forth it engenders—has created one tight ensemble.

“We’re more of a coherent group now, and we put in a lot of time rehearsing,” says violinist Alisa Rose (who arranged “Machine” and composed the bluegrass-inflected “Elephant Dreams” for the album). “The pieces are very much in motion, and we always want to rearrange things, not just rehearse them. Pieces continue to change and evolve, which is an interesting aspect of our quartet.”

“We trust each other’s muses,” Sazer smiles. “We really live up to that trust.”

<< release: 10/11/12 >>