The Berkeley-based Real Vocal String Quartet is made up of four women whose music is hard to pigeonhole. You can hear the influence of jazz, classical, country, bluegrass, rock and more in their music. In addition, all of them sing, which is rare for string quartets.
The Real Vocal String Quartet wanders all over the musical map and all over the globe. They've just returned from a European tour -- part of the State Department’s American Music Abroad program with concerts in Azerbaijan, Latvia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lithuania.
They stopped by this week with their instruments: Irene Sazer and Alisa Rose on violin, Jessica Ivry on cello and Dina Maccabee on viola to talk with host Scott Shafer about their music and their month-long tour that ended this week.
SCOTT SHAFER: How did you study up before you left Dina? Did you learn about all of these countries and musical traditions?
DINA MACCABEE: We actually decided to arrange one traditional piece of music from each of the countries we were going to visit, so that we could perform it there and have that kind of bridge with our audiences in each country. So that was a real crash course. Once we found out where we were going, which wasn't in all that much advance, then we each took on one of these songs and brought it to the group. And so that meant learning how to sing a few words in Azeri and a few words in Macedonian language, so we definitely did our homework.
SHAFER: And what were you thinking about as you arranged the different arrangement for each country? How did you adapt it to each country?
MACCABEE: We were thinking 'We hope they don't hate this.'
SHAFER: Was there something about the country that somehow influenced the arrangement?
MACCABEE: You know what we tried to do to be honest is find out like what was the turkey in the straw of each country, so that we would go in knowing we were going to play something that as many people as possible, hopefully everyone knew and could relate to.
SHAFER: Jessica, it sounds like you didn't know which countries very far in advance, where did you imagine you would be going? And how did this match up with that?
JESSICA IVRY: Well this was a program where they say you can go anywhere in the world, so we did have our fantasy destinations including parts of Africa, parts of South America and we found out we were going to Eastern Europe. It's funny because even though we are incredibly grateful that we went to these counties, it was like 'wait they already have a high string tradition there, why are they sending string players', but of course it did make a lot of sense because we're classically trained and we are bringing our brand of string playing, which is not classical music, to a high level classical string program in these countries. So in the end it did make a lot on sense that we were sent there, although maybe not in the winter.
SHAFER: May would have been nice.
IVRY: Yeah, May would have been nice.
SHAFER: Irene, What do you think they learned from you? That's part of this idea that there is a cultural exchange.
IRENE SAZER: Absolutely. So I think the biggest thing that they learned from us, aside from what nice people we are, is that many if not most of the people we interacted with, the students, didn't probably know you could do so many things on string instruments, that you could sing while you're playing and not just be a classical player because you play an instrument that is traditionally a classical instrument.
SHAFER: I've read that you improvise while you're performing, how does that work Alisa?
ALISA ROSE: Well in some songs we have open sections, like a jazz tune might have, but they're usually shorter. And in some performances we also include a part of the show we call 'In the House', that is totally open improvisation. And it's great to be able to do that with a string quartet because we have a lot of the same sounds in our ears from playing classical music, from listening to rock and pop and folk and all the different things we listen to. But you don't always get the chance to play with other string players who like to improvise.
SHAFER: Irene how do you think the music has evolved over the years? How long have you all been together?
SAZER: We've been together about seven years.
SHAFER: So how is it different now do you think?
SAZER: Well it's quite different in that, when the group first started I had a large pile of material that I had written, but the vision that I always had, I think we all had, was to be a collaborative group, which is reflected on our newest CD. And that's been the biggest change, everyone is an avid writer and an avid arranger in this group.
SHAFER: So there's no leader?
Real Vocal String Quartet: No, we're each the leader. We are.
Real Vocal String Quartet: We have a lot of opinions. That's why we're four little sisters.
SHAFER: I have to ask you about the album cover. All four of you are, it's not a photograph...it's a drawing and you're wearing what looks to be a Girl Scout uniform, most of you and you're playing around the campfire. Were you all girl scouts?
ROSE: I was Brownie and a Girl Scout.
MACCABEE: I was.
SAZER: You know the idea, we were brain storming for the concept of the cover and we also have some photos of us in those costumes too, that was the photo shoot. But we're explorers, musically.
SHAFER: I want to thank you all for coming in and good luck in the new year.
ALL: Thank you so much.
SHAFER Before we say goodbye it would be great to hear one more piece from you and I think you're going to play Machine? Is that right Alisa?
ROSE: Yeah. This is a song by Regina Spektor, who is a terrific musician. And in this arrangement you'll hear we use a lot of different sounds on our instruments to make machine noises, etcetera. And it features Dina Maccabee singing.
SHAFER: And once again Real Vocal String Quartet is Jessica Ivry, Dina Maccabee, Alisa Rose and Irene Sazer. Thank you all so much.