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A Band of Sisters

The Real Vocal String Quartet is a chamber-jazz group that can sing and perform ‘Turkey in the Straw’ in Macedonian. Scout’s honor

Real Vocal String Quartet

photo: Lenny Gonzalez

"Jet lag! The gift that keeps on giving,” smiles Irene Sazer, unpacking her violin inside the studio at KQED, San Francisco’s largest public radio station. Less than 24 hours after returning from a multi-country Eastern European tour, courtesy of the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad

Program, Sazer and the three other members of the Bay Area-based Real Vocal String Quartet are valiantly fighting the effects of desynchronosis while preparing to tape a mid-morning interview for the syndicated radio show The California Report

“It’s a little surreal, like . . . wait—what country are we in now? Wait! We’re home?” laughs Sazer, as all around her—violinist Alisa Rose, violist Dina Maccabee, and cellist Jessica Ivry—alternately tune their instruments, practice mysteriously varied riffs and licks, and warm up their jet-lagged voices to get them reading for a bit of singing.

That’s right. Singing.

As the name suggests, the Real Vocal String Quartet does more than just play as a chamber-music ensemble. All four musicians sing as well, a mix of world music, jazz, pop, and international folk that’s not just outside the box, it’s outside the box many musicians end up in when they go outside the box.

In the wake of the RVSQ’s second album—the typically adventurous and eclectic Four Little Sisters—the quartet is rapidly expanding its pan-demographic following, attracting fans with the breezy confidence of their playing, along with the skillfully charming command Sazer, Rose, Maccabee, and Ivry maintain over all the moving parts of their ambitious performance style. Only now, as the quartet somewhat sleepily explains to California Report host Scott Shafer, RVSQ’s devoted fan base also includes people in Latvia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, and Azerbaijan. 

According to Maccabee, it wasn’t just their music that won over audiences across Eastern Europe, but perhaps also the group’s decision to learn and play a popular local folk tune in every country they visited.

“That meant learning to sing in Azari and Macedonian,” she tells Shafer. “We tried to find out what the ‘Turkey in the Straw’ was for each of the countries we visited, a song that hopefully everyone in that country knew and could relate to.”

An ability to relate to your audience—that’s something they don’t often teach at conservatory. 

But when making a list of all the characteristics that set the Real Vocal String Quartet apart, it is clear that that this ensemble does bring an approachable, stripped down ability to relate, whether on stage, in a classroom, or in the recording studio.

And jet lag? 

Heck! Joking about it just makes it more real.

Irene Sazer—a founding member of the Turtle Island String Quartet—started the Real Vocal String Quartet after envisioning an ensemble that would meld her passions for jazz improvisation, world music, original composition, and vocal harmonies, but would still follow the chamber-music format she was so comfortable with. 

With the idea that the RVSQ would be a band of equals, she recruited players who were polished soloists, composers, and in-demand performers in their own right, musicians not intimidated by the requirement that the quartet would sing as well as play. Separate and together, Sazer, Maccabee, Rose, and Ivry have traveled the world, recording, arranging, and performing with some of the most influential musicians on the planet (In addition to Sazer’s credits, Rose is a former member of Quartet San Francisco, and all are gifted arrangers, who have contributed arrangements to this publication’s Strings Charts line.) But it is as the Real Vocal String Quartet that they've gained attention as true musical innovators. 

No doubt this was a big part of the reason they were selected by the U.S. State Department to serve as “musical ambassadors,” the lofty and laudable purpose of the American Voices program, which sends musicians of all kinds to countries all around the globe. When the RVSQ applied for the program, they had no idea which countries they’d be sent to, imagining that it might be in Africa or South America. In other words, somewhere warm. Eastern Europe, in the winter, was anything but warm. Not that you’d know it from the glowing praise the foursome lauds on the folks they encountered.

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