Don't mention the monks

You're a record producer. Four women pitch you with an idea that'll sell half a million CDs: medieval a cappella. Medieval, schmedieval, you say. Big mistake. By Nick Kimberley
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The Independent Culture
Since their first CD appeared in 1992, Anonymous 4 have had the sort of success that their sisters in the pop world knew back in the 1960s. Half a million CDs sold worldwide in three years is impressive by any standards. Nor do Anonymous 4 occupy the middle of the classical road. Their performances of a cappella medieval music are supported by meticulous research and immaculate musicianship. And it is not a question of riding on the cassock tails of those best-selling monks from Santo Domingo de Silos. If anything, the reverse. Formed in New York in 1986 to discover what this music, traditionally performed by men, sounded like with women's voices, Anonymous 4 had established a repertoire and a following long before the monks chanted their way up the charts.

Yet the combined success of the Spanish monks and of Anonymous 4 suggests an enormous change in audience taste, a change whose long-term effects on the market for classical music can only be guessed at. As Susan Hellauer of Anonymous 4 suggests, "Over the past few years, there has been a broadening of the definition of classical music, so that different kinds of music have become acceptable under that heading. That has helped music of other cultures - and medieval music certainly comes from another culture."

"Audience members," she adds, "have talked to us about the way the music we sing creates a space for contemplation." That remark will cause some to run for cover; others will clearly welcome the possibility, finding here a link with the popularity, not only of Gregorian chant, but of the music of both Arvo Part and John Tavener. These are not symptoms of a mass descent into mindless irrationality, even if it remains difficult to say precisely what is suggested by this music's unprecedented success.

Yet if the work of Anonymous 4 does indeed create "a space for contemplation", it is a rather austere space. At a recent performance at the St Riquier Festival in northern France, the group's first and only direct address to the audience consisted of a firm request not to applaud until the whole performance had finished. The resulting silence lent the occasion an atmosphere somewhere between lecture and act of devotion, and the singers looked none too pleased when there was a little rustling here and there. Although eye-contact is a frequent and necessary aid to precision in such a cappella singing, no smiles passed between the four performers. The songs - 13th- and 14th-century English - were interspersed with readings of roughly contemporary poems in "original pronunciation". Throughout there was the utmost seriousness of demeanour and purpose, yet the final applause was warm and generous, a cue for the singers to relax, even smile for their encore.

Such a performance would once have been addressed to the specialist listener, yet these are the shows that have brought Anonymous 4 their huge success. This sequence of sung and spoken texts, called The Lily & the Lamb (the title of the group's latest recording, minus the poems), is built around descriptions of the Virgin Mary's agony at the death of Jesus. While the singing has a purity almost beyond the physical, the poems display a piercing humanity, so vulnerable as to call religion itself into question: "Ah so, take heed of me, whose son you are, and set me with you on the cross. Stop now, son, being hard to your mother, you who were always kind to all others."

I ask what kind of performance the group see themselves as offering. Devotional? Didactic? Susan Hellauer replies with a hint of asperity: "We don't see it as didactic. We choose to do it this way because it creates a certain sense of theatre, and it encourages a continuum of concentration. That's very helpful when you have a number of short pieces, as these pieces tend to be. It's our way of creating a narrative through the juxtaposition of spoken and sung texts, and we feel it's more helpful than presenting the music in a conventional recital style."

Nor, maintains Johanna Rose, is there any strictly religious sense in which we should take their performances: "We started performing in New York, which is such a multi-cultural society that we wouldn't presume to present the music in any religious context. That's not our interest in it: our interest is musical and historical, and I think that's how it works for the audience. Within the group, each of us has our own reaction to it. Some have a religious affiliation, some don't, so we have to find something meaningful on some level in this sacred music, because that is what there is for us, as an ensemble, to perform."

What is "meaningful" in the sequence The Lily & the Lamb is in part some kind of identification with the figure of Mary, so poignantly presented in the texts, both sung and spoken. As Ruth Cunningham points out, Mary was often worshipped more fervently than Jesus: "She got the best music, and the best poetry. The poetry addressed to God or to Jesus tends to be much more abstract, very much removed: you just don't get all that close to God. So the poetry, and the music, may be very beautiful, but there isn't that extremely graphic intimacy that you get in the work written for Mary."

The recently released CD, Three Sisters on the Seashore, by the UK-based early music group Sinfonye (Lunadisc) consists of songs from the same period as those offered by Anonymous 4 on The Lily & the Lamb, but presented in a different context: Sinfonye performs them with three, not four, female voices, and with some instrumental accompaniment. Yet the most striking difference between the British and American consorts lies in the quality of the voices: where Anonymous 4 achieve an ethereal purity, Sinfonye cut that with some folk-style bends and slurs.

Given that, as one Anonymous 4 member, Marsha Genensky, records in a programme note, she has "experimented with a variety of vocal techniques in order to perform Jewish sacred music, Anglo-American folk-songs, shape- note songs and harmonic singing", I wonder if perhaps their performance- style isn't too "perfect". Might not the original performers of this music have sung less "well"? Johanna Rose flatly contradicts me: "I don't agree. This music is devilishly hard to sing. The original singers, particularly clerics, probably sang every day, were warmed up all day long. For us, it's hard to sustain the concentration, physical and mental, for more than an hour and a quarter. That's probably true for audiences as well."

Marsha Genensky admits that she was attracted to this music "because the sounds are very similar to the sounds of the Anglo-American traditional music I'd collected in Britain, Ireland and the United States. I grew up in the tradition of Jewish chant, and Gregorian chant grew out of Jewish chant. But we were never really jazzers: in some repertoire we will add a descant line, or some other kind of ornamentation or improvisation, but it's usually planned in advance, so that you will hear essentially the same improvisatory line in two different performances."

It's a moot point whether this makes Anonymous 4 more, or less, authentic, but the group makes no claims to "authenticity", even more chimerical a concept in the music of this era than in later repertoire. What matters is that the music touches audiences now, and there is no doubt that Anonymous 4 have renewed the expressive potential of these ancient songs. They are considering the possibility of working with contemporary composers, and there will be many eager to make use of their pristine voices. As a motet from The Lily & the Lamb has it, "Today the congregations are illumined greatly by the gift of glory."

n 'The Lily & the Lamb' is on Harmonia Mundi HMU 907125

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