Music for an old millennium
Anonymous 4 is a perfect name for an ensemble in which four singers subsume their individual voices into what can seem a single limpid sound. It’s also a wry acknowledgment of the invisibility of women in the music of the Middle Ages, a repertoire the group’s distaff performers have particularly championed. And, for the medieval in-crowd, it’s a salute to an unsigned document, known as “Anonymous IV,” penned around the year 1280, which centuries later would help modern musicians crack the code of medieval rhythmic notation.
Anonymous 4, which performs at Cristo Rey Catholic Church on Sunday, Dec. 6, was distinctive from the first time the singers tried out medieval close harmony in Manhattan in 1986. Three of the original foursome were “early music” people— Susan Hellauer was a musicologist, Ruth Cunningham and Johanna Maria Rose were classically trained singers— while the fourth, Marsha Genensky, was infatuated by Anglo-American folk music. “From that first reading,” Genensky said during a recent interview from her home in California, “we liked the way we sounded, so we put together a program, and exactly 12 people came to hear us. We were all working in nonmusical jobs to support our musical pursuits, but after several years and several more programs, we came to the decision not to freelance in music. Anonymous 4 would be our only musical endeavor. It was a big commitment, but it was the only way we could buy ourselves the time to work together at the level we wanted.
“From that first day,” Genensky continued, “we had two principles in mind. First, we would not have a director. That meant it took a really long time for us to reach decisions, but once we did, it was our decision; all four of us agreed on the shape of every phrase, the shape of every program. The other was that we would do thematic programming, that each concert would have a focus rather than be a grab-bag.” The group became essentially a musicians’ co-op, its four members handling concert bookings, publicity, musicological research, and whatever else it took to keep going through those early years.
René Goiffon, president of Harmonia Mundi USA, the American branch of the group’s label, finds it hard to pinpoint what turned the musicians of Anonymous 4 into superstars, but he knows this: their first release, An English Ladymass: Medieval Chant and Polyphony, a reconstruction of a Mass to the Virgin as it might have been heard in Salisbury Cathedral in the 13th century, holds the record as the best-selling compact disc his company has ever issued. “We brought it out in 1992, when the group was essentially unknown, and then there was this miracle,” he recalled during a recent interview. “NPR did a big piece on them, and when people heard their singing, they just wanted to hear more.”
Anonymous 4 had already gained considerable momentum when a CD of plainchant sung by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos swept the sales charts, becoming an unlikely soundtrack for mid-’90s waiting rooms and TV commercials. “When the whole ‘monk-y business’ started, we were there at the right time, not knowing it was the right time,” Goiffon said. Medieval music was suddenly a hot commodity. Genensky believes another force figured in the group’s success: “Fear of the millennium. People got so spiritual in the 1990s, and they got into the transportative aspects of what we do. They loved being taken off to a very different time and place.”
Success begat success, and the “anonymities” became international luminaries of early music. “We almost literally encloistered ourselves,” said Genensky. “It was wonderful, but eventually we tired of that level of intensity.” When Cunningham left the group in 1998 to establish a private practice in music and healing, she was replaced by Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek from Northern Ireland. The performers considered disbanding five years ago, but after an 18-month sabbatical, they couldn’t bear it. In 2007, Rose withdrew and Cunningham returned to the fold, such that the current foursome includes three founding members, an enviable statistic for any long-lived chamber ensemble. Today the group’s members pursue individual projects on the side. Cunningham is delving into the art of improvisation while continuing her work in healing. Horner-Kwiatek appears as a soloist in Baroque and contemporary music, and Hellauer has established “chant camps” to coach practitioners of monophonic singing. Genensky left her East Coast colleagues to live in the Bay Area, where she began teaching at Stanford University.
Extracurricular breathing room agrees with the group in a way it would not have in the early years. “After 23 years,” said Genensky, “we’ve gotten much more efficient about how we approach a piece. But it’s still always about communicating something. Because most of our repertoire is sacred music, it was written by people of great faith. No matter what our individual religious or spiritual beliefs, the power of those people’s ideas comes through.”
Anonymous 4 has issued 16 “solo” recordings on Harmonia Mundi, not counting collaborative discs and anthologies, and its cumulative CD sales approach 1.5 million. Most of the CDs spotlight medieval music, but in 2004 the group had a go at the American traditional hymns that are Genensky’s particular passion. The resulting release, American Angels: Songs of Hope, Redemption & Glory, shot to the top of Billboard’s sales charts, a success nearly repeated two years later with Gloryland, a celebration of American shape-note tunes.
In November, the group finished recording its latest program, The Cherry Tree, which the musicians present at their Santa Fe concert and which will be released on CD next fall. “Here we make the bridge between medieval musicology and Anglo-American folklore,” Genensky said. “It’s all music on Christmas themes, but it includes both 15th-century English carols and early American tunes. These are very distinct repertoires, but they sound like cousins.” Anonymous 4 aficionados may safely assume that The Cherry Tree will be crafted to offer both insight and entertainment. Genensky summed it up: “Knowing about context, liturgy, social history is essential for us, but after all that’s done it’s still music, and we have to put on a show.”