Mu­sic for an old mil­len­nium

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week -

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.”

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