“We want all the music we play to feel accessible to anyone — because when you are playing music by women, it is even more important that anyone can connect to it, not just classical audiences.”

Nadia Eskandari, Vulva Voce

Trailblazing all-female string quartet Vulva Voce are a genre-defying, UK-based ensemble focused on bringing music composed by women to dynamic spaces and venues beyond the concert hall. Consisting of violist Nadia Eskandari, cellist Lucy McLuckie, and violinists Julia Sandros-Alper and Georgina MacDonell Finlayson, the quartet’s mission statement is to break away from long-held conventions of classical music and the string quartet, informed by their eclectic interests in folk, jazz, improvisation, contemporary, and experimental music-making.

In the two years since Vulva Voce’s formation at the Royal Northern College of Music, the quartet have been taking the classical music world by storm. Highlights of 2023 have included include winning Nonclassical’s Battle of the Bands, releasing their debut single ‘Smeòrach Chlann Dòmhnaill’ in August, and embarking on a sustainable European tour to sold-out crowds throughout the summer; the quartet also regularly perform around the UK at chamber music festivals, open mic nights, and unconventional venues, recently curating a series of pop-up performances around Manchester for International Women’s Day.

We caught Vulva Voce at one of their many open mic appearances this year in London, where we sat down and spoke about the quartet’s formation, women composers from across the centuries, grooves, playing with expectation, and more…

Vulva Voce, live set with The state51 Factory.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Vulva Voce — thank you so much for chatting today! From the outset, it seems your name has caused quite a stir in some classical music communities — how did the name Vulva Voce come about?

Georgina MacDonell Finlayson: The name was actually a joke, at first! That Lucy and I had in lockdown on our sofa.

Julia Sandros-Alper: It was our group chat name for a while. We first started playing together in September [2021], and we’d been playing a piece by Jessie Montgomery called ‘Strum’, that we absolutely loved working on — still love, definitely present tense — and we also started playing a folk piece that Georgina arranged. We had this little “mini-set”, and got asked to do an International Women’s Day event. We’d be saying [the name] as a joke for such a long time, and then we were like “well, isn’t this actually who we are?”

Lucy McLuckie: We kind of canvassed it with the audience, and they were like “yeah, why not?” So we were like “okay, we’ll go with it!” — and from then on, we’ve gone with it.

Nadia Eskandari: We were in a conservatoire environment, and felt it was a controversial thing to do. We were concerned that people would think it’s a bit of a gimmick rather than a seriously-intentioned quartet. But the name has allowed us to propel ourselves forward — and try and do more and more — because of what it means.

Julia: I also think that as we try to step out of the purely-classical box a little bit, the set of parameters and expectations [are] different. In a nonclassical framework, if anything, the thing that’s more controversial about us is that we’re a string quartet. -laughs- If anything makes us a bit more appealing in a pop context, [it’s] our name!

In terms of your formation – did you all know each other from the conservatoire environment? How did you get together?

Nadia: We kind of knew each other in the first year of our Master’s. We met in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music. I was craving playing in a group that did music that aligned with the more contemporary stuff I wanted to do. I had the idea that these guys would be cool and work together well; so we set up a group and started playing around with some things. But we figured out pretty quickly that we all had the same musical values. We made a little playlist of music we wanted to play — we aligned with the idea of playing music by women.

Your sets tend to vary wildly through genre and period, bringing in elements of Renaissance music, jazz, folk; what kinds of repertoire interest you and why?

Lucy: I think we often choose things that have a good groove. Then what genre it’s actually in comes after that. We tend to enjoy the same kind of music, regardless of whether it’s jazz, classical, folk.

Julia: Movement [is] such a big part of our performances. That’s where the groove comes in, and even in pieces that don’t have such a direct rhythmic drive, it’s about finding the movement and flow, and strong sense of narrative.

Georgina: The first time we played through anything together, we got out Haydn — because we felt kind of obliged to play through Haydn, that’s what quartets do when they first meet — but we also got out some Caroline Shaw, and some Vasks. We were really interested in playing nonstandard quartet repertoire, and that was always there from the get-go.

It’s really exciting having a bracket you’re looking within: music by women. It’s all out there, [but] it’s not the most well-known stuff. Then you go hunting, and you find all this really cool rep. I mean, Jessie Montgomery is quite a big name now, and the same with Florence Price.

Nadia: I remember the first time we played through the Price. We all had quite an emotional reaction to it. We can all really identify with this piece, especially when you know the context. We’re all previous academics, so we want to know the context of what we’re playing, we want to know what was going on around the time. What was their situation. I think that’s why we also find all these different periods of music interesting. Women, and underrepresented composers, who weren’t as played at specific points in history — they all had different struggles. We really connect with that music, being an all-female quartet.

Julia: Definitely. Renaissance madrigals was one of my favourite modules at university, and I became really obsessed with the genre — and not once during that course was I told there were cool women writing madrigals as well.

Nadia: Let alone the first woman to have ever published music.

Julia: Maddalena Casulana — in Venice. It’s kind of crazy to think about. With all the women whose music we play, there are so many universal themes. Maddalena Casulana was writing to Isabella de’ Medici, talking about how there shouldn’t be any difference between men and women writing music.1 I like to think about these women, in whatever period or geographical location, and think about what it would have been like for them at the time.

Vulva Voce, live at Nonclassical’s Battle of the Bands 2023.

And in terms of how you present this work — how does your identity factor, as both a quartet and an all-female ensemble, and how did that develop?

Nadia: In terms of our identity — and especially in terms of our business model — we treat ourselves like a band rather than a classical string quartet. We’re doing an open mic night today; every time we’ve done an open mic, people are like “this is the first time we’ve had a string quartet in.” Even on BBC Radio Manchester, [that] was the first time they’d had a string quartet in to play ever, which is a bit more surprising. We want all the music we play to feel accessible to anyone — because when you are playing music by women, it is even more important that anyone can connect to it, not just classical audiences.

Lucy: I think the fact that it all has a story — and we know the stories behind the music we’re playing — means that people enjoy it regardless of whether they normally listen to classical [music] or not. We take typically “classical” stuff to spaces that aren’t classical, and people realise that it’s just good music. That’s what connects it all.

Georgina: Throughout education, getting taught all this music by men, and doing it all in very conventional formats… it just feels like it’s not living in the same way music should be, and it does feel at times quite elitist. So many people out there don’t hear classical music, or string quartets. It’s just brilliant music that needs to be heard. A lot of women wrote brilliant music that doesn’t get heard, full stop.

Nadia: A massive part of that was the entrepreneurship competition at RNCM. We applied for it on a whim, and it forced us to write up our business plan, and really set our priorities straight. They were very encouraging of us. They gave us an excellent mentor — David Taylor — he’s really helped us a lot [to] define our vision, how to market ourselves, and how to break through. In those early days, we were really feeding off the positivity we were getting — and having won that competition, I think that’s when people took us a bit more seriously.

Lucy: That’s the first time we realised we had to run a business, as well as having great music. -laughs-

Julia: Also, thinking about the RNCM and Manchester as a place — if you look at Abel Selaocoe, or Manchester Collective, Solem Quartet — it’s really cool to see these kinds of things are possible.

As a string quartet that’s at home in nonclassical spaces — what kinds of freedoms do you feel that provides for you?

Julia: We get to play a lot with expectation, and convention. We always go into these kinds of things — like open mic nights — and you have no idea what’s gonna happen.

Georgina: Within the last year, we’ve decided to do most of our repertoire — if possible — from memory. That’s a long-term goal [for us]; it takes time to build up an extensive rep list. Just being able to walk into a space — you, and your instrument — and to make music; there’s something really genuine, honest, and free about that. There’s no music stand between you and the audience, between you and the other performers. Other musical traditions have that — folk traditions from all over the world — nobody turns up with music. A lot of the time, they’re just jamming it out; they just follow whatever kinds of forms and structures that exist within that tradition.

Nadia: And in the pop industry — all of the mainstream genres…

Georgina: Because either it’s been written collaboratively, in the moment — nothing’s been committed to paper — or it’s within the tradition. To do that immediately opens up a space between audience and performer, and also amongst performers. It’s not about you reading something from [a] sheet, and giving it to the audience, because that’s removed. You’re just making music. It doesn’t feel predetermined.

Nadia: I’d say that in terms of our repertoire — of course we’re keeping the classical [pieces], and we love integrating it, but we’ve put more of a focus on creating our own music, as well. Composing collaboratively, in the group, and doing more improvisation. You know, it’s normal for pop groups to write their own songs — they don’t do covers their entire lives. And as a group of all women, we’re promoting our own voices as well as the voices of the past, by writing our own material, using our own influences, putting our own ideas into things. In the same way that we put our own ideas into music that already exists.

Vulva Voce, excerpt from ‘Smeòrach Chlann Dòmhnaill’ (2023). trad. arranged by Georgina MacDonell Finlayson.

Of course. It feels so important that the boundaries, or binaries, between “performer” and “composer” aren’t static.

Georgina: It never used to be that performers weren’t also composers, or that composers weren’t also performers. And they were all improvisers. All of these composers — male, female, people in-between — once upon a time, did both. You weren’t just one or the other. Now, there are more people who call themselves crossover artists — “composer-performers” — and that feels more real. We all spend years learning how to play our instruments, and to be able to play but not be able to express what you think, or you feel, is weird.

Julia: There’s something so bizarre [about it]. You spend years of your life learning how to play an instrument, and then you’re at a dinner, you have your instrument with you, but you don’t have any music with you. And they’re like “oh, can you play us something?” and you’re like “I don’t have any music.” That feels so contrary to everything music is about. It’s just a recent tradition to not have everything [together] — composing, playing… dancing. -laughs- If you think about Hildegard von Bingen — she was a philosopher, artist, composer — I saw an incredible vulva that she painted, representing life.

As an artist, I feel like Vulva Voce is the ideal project for me as a person; it combines everything that I love, and everything that I’ve learned. Georgina and I both come from dance backgrounds. I’ve done a lot of theatre, you’ve [Georgina] probably done even more theatre. When I was growing up, I kind of had violin and dance simultaneously — I picked music, obviously — but it felt sad to drop that entire part of me. Not that I’m doing pirouettes on stage with Vulva Voce, [but] we use a lot of physicality in our performances…

Nadia: There’s a lot of hips.

Julia: A lot of loose hips, shall we say. -laughs- And acting, presenting, the whole thing. I’m also extremely passionate about social activism, and women’s rights; and I can include that in my work with Vulva Voce.

Speaking of activism — I understand you’ve done quite a lot of impact and outreach work with Vulva Voce, as well…

Nadia: We’ve got an educational workshop coming up with a charity in London called Music in Secondary Schools Trust. We’re going to talk to them about chamber music, play them music by women, [and] workshop with them a piece that Georgina arranged. Talk to them about the benefits of doing this kind of music. Quite a few of us work in education, as well. We’re thinking about how we can integrate women’s music earlier on. A lot of the time, I end up arranging things for students, or try to find engaging stuff for them to play that is by different kinds of composers.

I did an arrangement of Georgina’s arrangement for Camden Music Service, which was last weekend! That was for a younger group of kids — from six to ten — and they absolutely loved it, they thought it was a banger! We’re building how we can workshop the things that we do, and teach these principles to younger generations.

Georgina: There’s two things to the way we connect with the people we perform to. A lot of people see a string quartet, and they maybe have preconceptions about what that’s going to sound like before they’ve heard anything — because of what a string quartet means to them. They hear us play, and: for one, they’re delighted that they’ve heard a string quartet play and relate to it. Some of it’s classical, some of it’s folk, some of it’s improv, [but] it’s full of life and energy and it’s not what they’ve experienced before.

And on top of that, it’s all music by women. Sometimes, if we share the shocking statistics about how much music by women has been programmed over the last few years — generally, people don’t know the statistics. It’s not like they’re plastered all over the headlines. People [have said] “I would never have listened to this music otherwise, now I want to go and listen to it again — if it was on the radio, I would have turned it off.” People say it’s like they’re being invited into a game when they watch us play. There’s little stories happening within the performance, and that’s really engaging for people.

Julia: In many instances, when orchestras play music by women, or minority [composers], they kind of throw it together at the last minute, and it’s like “okay, great, we’ve fulfilled this quota on the programme” — but we’ve gone the lengths of performing [these] pieces many times, memorising them, taking them as seriously as we would any other piece. So much of how an audience enjoys a performance is the work that the performers put into it. If you go into a piece [being] like “it’s a bit boring”, that influences how you perform it. It often becomes an afterthought. But we’re very selective about the music that we play, and make sure it aligns with us, as a group.

Lucy: We would never play anything that we don’t love. We pick stuff that we love because we want to play it.

Georgina: The other thing that’s really important in our performances is the chat. In bands, and folk groups, there’s always chat; it’s less conventional in a more quartet-space. I think that connects people with what they’re hearing, because they know the context it’s come from, the person, their life, what they were going through when they wrote it. We did a performance for an Afro-Caribbean care home, and we played music by Black female composers. It was even more impactful than I anticipated. They’d never heard it before, [but] they had so many stories to tell us about what they were hearing in the music that they could relate to. It was an interesting experience, that dynamic; playing to a room full of people who relate, on a different level than we do, to the music.

Lucy: We played some Florence Price, and one woman said “I feel like I was walking on the clouds.”

Julia: There was someone else who said, while we were playing it, she was thinking about Florence, and her life, and what it must have been like for her.

Nadia: That’s how I felt when we were playing it for the first time. There was a lot of beauty, and pain — definitely struggle — but also, so much blues. Someone said the other day how that piece we play sounds like what Gershwin was trying to be like. -laughs-

Georgina: A lot of our music is written by Black women. In 2021-22, it was 7% of pieces played by orchestras worldwide [that] were written by women — but 5% of those [7%] were by white women. Lots of groups like Chineke! are working to change that.

Julia: If you look at the “top 50” on mainstream classical playlists, it’s very specific pieces by canonic composers. The reason why orchestras program those pieces is that people know them, and they know people are gonna come to those concerts. That’s why people are scared of programming things that are a bit different.

Nadia: There’s also a massive issue with publishing; it’s usually so expensive. Because it’s more limited — it’s not as widely available — particularly if it’s music by living composers, as well. There’s so many barriers that exist to making it easy.

Vulva Voce, live showreel 2023.

Where do you see yourselves going as an ensemble, and within contemporary music?

Georgina: We’re not confined by boundaries or labels. I think [it’ll] limit ourselves if we say “we’re only gonna perform in these venues.” We’ve played at a chamber music festival in Lymm this summer — which is more of a “standard” summer festival — but we’re being ourselves.

Lucy: The music stays the same… -laughs-

Julia: I do think that goes back to playing with expectation. Different venues and audiences have different expectations coming in, and the things that are more radical completely depend on where we are, and who we’re playing to.

Nadia: We’ve recorded a few of our songs to be released. Going back to treating ourselves like a band — we want to have a huge streaming presence of our own concept albums, of our own compositions. We want to use that as a place for people to discover this music, and listen to it on repeat; so it’s not just the live performances, there’s all of our recordings, our versions of things.

That’s so wonderful — what kinds of compositional projects are you undertaking?

Julia: I went to an extremely intense techno night last week — borderline gabber — it was tremendous, and wonderful. I love industrial techno, and I also love Renaissance madrigals. So I thought, why not combine these two genres and write something for the medium of string quartet? We’re workshopping it, and we think that would work really well as a companion piece to the original madrigals.

Lucy: There’s no technological element; it’s actually all just strings making the techno sounds!

Julia: We’re hoping to expand that as a project on remixing and recontextualising [this music] — linking the past and present in a very fresh way. That could represent really well what we’re about.

Lucy: Our whole set — the thing that links it is that it’s music by women, but it’s all different genres, it’s all different time periods. Someone last night said that it doesn’t matter that it’s all these different genres, it’s linked by the fact that it’s female composers. It doesn’t feel like a weird mix.

Nadia: A lot of our focus, in terms of picking our rep, is putting a bit of us into it. We’ve got a bit of Julia’s identity in the techno and madrigals, and a bit of Georgina’s identity in [her] arrangement of ’Smeòrach’ with her Scottish Gaelic roots. I’ve got some ambitions to arrange some old Iranian songs from the ‘80s, which have loads of strings in them and are all amazingly done. You [Julia] were talking about some Swedish folk music — and then we’ve got the two Scots over here. In many ways, that adds an element to why we do what we do, as well. A lot of our set is quite folky, because I think we can all relate to that in part of our identity as a group.

Julia: It boils down to [the fact] that Vulva Voce, and everything we put out as Vulva Voce, is us. Celebrating every part of us.

Nadia: It is difficult to imagine replacing someone at any point. Everything we do is a part of ourselves, and very personal.

Georgina: Going forwards, one thing we really want to do more of is take what we do to festivals. As we continue to develop as a band — [as] a mixture of existing music and our own music — we don’t see why this music shouldn’t also be at festivals. They’re bops, you can dance to them! Like, hardcore techno madrigals, next to Florence Price — why not? So if you’re reading this, and we sound cool… You can book us for ’24. -laughs-

Nadia: Yeah. We’d like to be the rogue act at something.

You can learn more about Vulva Voce and their upcoming tour dates at:

Vulva Voce’s debut single ‘Smeòrach Chlann Dòmhnaill’ is now available for streaming and download – you can check it out here:

Those in London can catch Vulva Voce later this month at the following shows:

  • 10 September – The Spice of Life, Soho, London – Tickets
  • 16 September – LOUD WOMEN Fest 2023, Rich Mix, London – Tickets


  1. “[I] want to show the world, as much as I can in this profession of music, the vain error of men that they alone possess the gifts of intellect and artistry, and that such gifts are never given to women.” – Maddalena Casulana

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About Author

Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.

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