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Interview with Anonymous 4


Quatre dones es van reunir per a una sessió de lectura de la música, una tarda a la primavera de 1986; volien sentir com sonaria el cant medieval i la polifonia cantades per quatre veus femenines. Trenta anys més tard, Anonymous 4 ha actuat per al públic de tot el món i han aconseguit el reconeixement internacional de la seva reeixida obra interpretativa. Ens han donat un llegat extraordinari.
Arran del seu concert a Girona, al festival d’estiu Nits de Clàssica, vàrem tenir l’ocasió de poder parlar emb elles: Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Marsha Genensky. Uns moments inoblidables.
Girona, juliol de 2014- © Sonograma Magazine

Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham,   Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Marsha Genensky ©Anonymous 4

Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Marsha Genensky ©Anonymous 4

Maria Ivanova: Could you tell us how and when did you start as Anonymous 4?
Marsha Genensky: We all met while singing in different Renaissance vocal music ensembles and we decided. This was before Jackie started.
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek: I’m not from America, I’m actually from Ireland so I was not one of the original members.
Marsha Genensky: She didn’t even live in America yet at this time. So it was in 1986 when we were singing in a vocal ensemble and we decided – oh let’s just experiment and have a reading session to see what medieval music sounds like in female voices. So we had a reading session and we thought, “Oh, this is kind of nice, maybe we should do a musical programme.”
So we made a musical programme and when we initially performed I think we had twelve people in the audience – they were family members, and after that we said, “Oh, that was nice, let’s do another one,” and it started from there, really.
Ruth Cunningham: Because at the time only men sang the chant of the medieval music.
There were some European groups of females doing medieval music but apart from Discantus group they were all performing as a part of other organizations.
Marsha Genensky: I don’t think Discantus had even started yet.
Susan Hellauer: Maybe Godly Voices came out in 1982 – so it was not unheard of but it was unusual to have female ensembles.
Marsha Genensky: And there was a conception in the 20th century that women had not sung chant and polyphony in the Middle Ages.
Susan Hellauer: Well, not the chant definitely because of Hildegard, but the complicated polyphony was considered only a male domineering territory then you had the Helghast Codex which continues to argue this to the present day – but it didn’t matter. We just liked how it sounded and we liked not having a conductor, and above all, we like the process of having an idea, finding the music to fit that idea and presenting it as a unified programme of one manuscript, one type of music, one saint, one feast, very tightly organized with a short storyline.
So we like the process as much as we like the sound of the music.
Marsha Genensky: We also like the fact that because there is no other indication in the music that comes down to us – other than some notes – sometimes we don’t even know the rhythms of the notes and there is an aspect of recreation and an aspect of a new creation. There is a responsibility to try to go back but there is also the freedom to create something new because we don’t have all that information. We enjoy that as well.


M.I. – Why did you choose the name Anonymous 4?
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek: I think that was Susan’s idea again, I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard the story of where it came from.
Susan Hellauer: Yes, so about one month prior to our first concert we had already done our first public performance in August 1986 during a church service. We had no name then and it didn’t seem to be necessary at the time – but when we were to do an actual evening performance of “The Legends of Saint Nicholas” – we needed to publicize it and therefore we had to call ourselves something. So we all looked around all the different kinds of Latin names and cute saint names and I had spent a long time at a graduate school studying medieval music and the name Theorist that you translate as studying is called anonymous four. So the theories that you spend the most time on reading and translating is the forth anonymous and I believe in the Gerbert scriptoriums – a collection of medieval manuscripts, most of which have no name associated to the author, and the fourth anonymous has the most information for us naming Léonin and Pérotin and connecting pieces with composers, so that was always in my mind. I did a big project out of it, and I said, “How about Anonymous 4 for a name?” -and two liked it and the other two really did not like it all. As a result we launched a campaign to find a better name but with the time running out we had no choice but to adopt the proposed name as a group. We paid 150 dollars to have someone draw a logo and that was it: we had invested our money and there was no turning back. And it is very good to name your group with the letter A because you come out first in a list.


M.I. – What attracts you to this kind of music?
Susan Hellauer:
I think the initial members who got together to read music, it was the intention of reading the medieval music mainly because there was just a love for it individually, but it worked out because the polyphony in the 13th century is mostly equal voice so you don’t need soprano alt and tenor base, it’s very tight – the lines are on top of each other and it just works really well for any set of voices that is the same. In female voices you hear the lines more clearly than you do the same with four – three tenors and a baritone – it could be very beautiful but you don’t hear the etching, the clarity, the lines.
Ruth Cunningham: And I’ve always loved the medieval times and from young age I’ve really loved the middle ages and I have always loved this music and loved singing it.
Marsha Genensky: We also really love just singing chants together, singing something in unison and deciding how it goes together and making it flow, so that as people used to later describe it became four heads one voice and that process was very exciting for us, to get the process…
Ruth Cunningham: And also the chant again was often in renaissance; often the chant we’ll just sing that and then we’ll get to the polyphony… with this group we really spend a long time with the chant instead of just an afterthought.


M.I. – I think that for the audience listening your music is a very spiritual experience
Marsha Genensky
: Many people report that, yes…
Susan Hellauer: We are not thinking about it, but as a group we could hear a piece, we are not thinking of necessarily communicating a spiritual feeling but if we are true, if music is expressed to the best of our ability then whoever hears it is going to be able to take what they want.
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek: There is a lot of love for the music and attention to the music and I think that does communicate.


M.I. – Do you have any criteria when you choose what to publish?
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek:
I’m not sure that we ever put together a proper way of thinking about – oh this would be a great recording, this would make a great programme… it should appeal, we like this music, we want to put it together and we are very lucky to have a very supportive recording company who are very happy to record what we bring them because they trust us.
Marsha Genensky: This is also another advantage of medieval music because not that many people know very much about it, even though that our record producer is very educated musically, she doesn’t really know about medieval music specifically, so she has to trust us, so they never tell us what to do. But I think they would have trusted us anyway, they trust their artists and it’s a really lovely way of working together with them.


©Anonymous 4

©Anonymous 4

M.I. – After recording Gregorian chants, and newly polyphony music and the greatest composer Hildegard von Bingen, you have also recorded Christmas Hungarian music. What is the thing that captivates you about Hungarian medieval music, what do you like the most?
Susan Hellauer:
That was a mistake, I was looking for a specific book about Hildegard to take it off the library shelf, it was the Christopher Page edition I just wanted to consult it and I picked off the shelf a book of Hungarian, it was next to the Hildegard, and actually fell onto the floor onto my foot and I picked it up and I looked at it. I was in two different groups that had done Polish music – medieval and renaissance and I just remembered the different sounds, just another world beyond the medieval world, even more different, and so I just sat down with it and I did not know the Hungarian repertory, I knew the Schola Hungarica – chant recordings, but I didn’t know this polyphony that was in this book. You might have heard of László Dobszay the great conductor so I just sat down and really studied it and I said – “I think we need something different”, and Hildegard is very, very difficult and it was a natural thing that we would have made our first concert programme the Hildegard – “A feather on the breath of God” came out in 82, but we really consciously did not want to be labeled as women’s music group so we avoided any female associated anything. So that I’d just looked at the Hungarian and in fact there are a lot of Hungarian pieces in Polish manuscripts, so we just transcribed, I just copied some of it and we just read it and we just really liked it, just different. The chant was even different – ornamental, a little bit eastern-sounding and singing in Hungarian, we needed a coach. So we put Hildegard aside yet for another year.


M.I. –What is more difficult to perform – the medieval music or the contemporary music?
Marsha Genensky
: That depends on the piece.
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek: Actually it is interesting because around the time that I joined we commissioned the American composer Steve Reich to write a piece for us – “The world is above you” I think it’s called and to get him to hear our sound we sent him a piece…it sounded modern and I think he actually wrote back to us and said – “Why do you need me?”. So there are a lot of parallels between really having to listen when the harmonies are very, very close together to really find dissonance and you find that comes out in some of the contemporary pieces, that we have commissioned to perform, and also clarity of tone so that you hear the distance, you hear the complex harmonies – they are all obscured by too much hallo in the voice.
Ruth Cunningham: And a lot of composers like Steve Reich loved Pérotin well before us and expressed fascination with the medieval music especially the kind that’s really fazed, it moves in big slow harmonic blocks with repetitive melodic patterns.
Marsha Genensky: And it does seem that just about all of the contemporary composers we have worked with have definitely listened to a lot of medieval music, they don’t compose in the medieval style but they have the sound in their ear. Some of the contemporary music that we have sung is not very hard to sing and some of it is very hard to sing.


M.I. – And referring to Steve Reich music and David Lang how did you take the step from medieval music to the music of these composers?
Marsha Genensky
So the way that we really formally got started with working with contemporary composers apart from that little thing that I forgot about – “Тhe voices of light”, in the mid 1990s we were invited by the composer Richard Einhorn to participate in a multimedia project. He had written music to accompany the film “The passion of Joan of Arc” – it’s a silent film from the 1920s and he had written an oratorio to accompany the film called “Voices of light” except instead of our being the voice of Jesus we were the voice of Joan of Arc, so everything that we sang was to represent the voice of Joan of Arc. We recorded that and toured with it with a chorus and an orchestra and the film, so that was our first major entrée into contemporary music and from there we started to do occasional commissions.
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek: My background before I joined Anonymous 4 actually was primarily in contemporary music from Europe and then when I moved to New York I almost exclusively sang music from the 20th and 21st century and I really only started singing Baroque music when I moved to the States, so I love it when we do new music.
Susan Hellauer: And we have never been a group that says we are medieval, only medieval, always medieval…
Ruth Cunningham: And we now of course include American music as well as traditional music.


M.I. – How have you managed to be such a stable group? You have been working together for more than 30 years.
Marsha Genensky
Well actually it’s been a really wonderful thing to be so stable with just this one change in personnel even though it happened in two stages by one different person. In all this time it has afforded us the opportunities to work so closely and so deeply together that although very early on it could take us days to decide how does this piece go, how does that phrase go, how does that section go, now we have an instinct together to do a piece from the beginning because we have worked together for so long and there is also the business of it, if the business is stable it affords you the opportunities to work so closely.


M.I. – We have heard that after 2015-1016 concert season the group will be dissolved. Is this true?
Marsha Genensky
Yes, it is true.
Almost 30 years…!

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