In the 25 years that they have been performing together, and the 20 years they’ve been recording for Harmonia Mundi, the four women of Anonymous 4 have enriched our lives with an impressive discography of rarely performed music written between medieval times and the present day. In this extended interview, two of the a cappella quartet’s founding members, Susan Hellauer and Marsha Genensky, discuss the genesis of the group, their performances then and now, as well as their 25th Anniversary retrospective concert program.

Celebrating 25 Years with Anonymous 4

Jason Victor Serinus: It’s great to speak with you again. How long have you two known each other? Where is everyone in the group from?

Susan Hellauer: We two have known each other for 26 years. I was born in the Bronx, and currently live in Nyack, New York. Marsha hails from Santa Monica, and lives in Menlo Park/Palo Alto. Ruth Cunningham lives north of New York City near Poughkeepsie, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek is also here.

JVS: May I assume that your name, Anonymous 4, refers to all those pieces of medieval music that were written by Anon.?

SH: The name Anonymous 4 is a musicological joke. Among the medieval musicological treatises that are the most important for learning about 13th century polyphony, there are a number written by anonymous theoretical writer/ reporters. These were collected by musicologists in the 19th century, who numbered the anonymous writers as Anonymous 1, Anonymous 2, etc., up to the teens.

Anonymous 4 was an English student living in Paris, probably in 1280, who wrote about the theory of the music, and also named names. It’s only because of him (we think) that we know about Leonin and Perotin, who were the creators of Notre Dame polyphony.

When we first performed in 1986, we needed a name to use for our concert. Because I have the musicology degrees, I said, “How about Anonymous 4?” Everyone laughed. One other person liked it, and two hated it, but the search for another name came up empty. So the date arrived, and we were Anonymous 4. And once we paid $150 for an artist to make a logo for us, that was it; there was no turning back.

Plus, if you’re in an artist’s list and you start with A, you’re at the top of the list. In Roadrunner cartoons, whenever Wile E. Coyote gets any gadget or invention to help him trap and kill the Roadrunner – remember this was the time before political correctness –  the package was always marked “Acme.” So, when all is said and done, we came from Acme.

JVS: What is it like for you to rehearse, given your geographic distance from one another?

SH: It takes a lot of planning. We plan rehearsal camps, and we just work a little differently than before in terms of the pre-preparation. Pieces are voiced ahead of time, and we also assign parts in advance and then sort it out. In other words, we tighten it up ahead of time.

Whoever picks the music has a little more leeway for executive decisions. Marsha usually comes into NY because the rest of are here, and we spend 5-7 days getting the program together. Because know our style and we know our approach, we can talk about the music in shorthand rather than longhand.

JVS: Do you record yourselves as you rehearse so you can critique what you’re doing?

Marsha Genensky: We don’t record ourselves often when we rehearse, because we respond more by feel than by sound. Usually, if it feels right, it’s going to sound better, because the combination has a nice balance and we can hear each other well.

JVS: How many of you teach? What do the others do? When do you travel? What does part-time mean?

SH: When we performed full-time, we did 70 concerts a year. Since going part-time, we do maybe 10-20/year, although for this anniversary year it’s looking like 40 concerts.

When the NEA was cut so terribly in the late ’90s, it made it very hard for small presenters to invite anybody from out of town because they didn’t have the funds for transportation. Some groups managed to get corporate funding and private funding, but in general, everybody stays home more. That’s helped people like us to slow down.

Now we focus on the prime touring. This coming year, we’ll perform the love fail project, which is the David Lang piece he’s written for us, and that is taking over the shape of the year.

When Marsha sends me an email that we’re going on tour, I go to the airport and pack for as many days as she says we’ll be gone. We obey Marsha. She’s like a tour manager, and acts as a liaison with presenters.

Our big thing for our 25th anniversary is the David Lang commission. We’re premiering the whole thing in June in New Haven. It’s staged, and calls for lighting, stages, and costumes. We don’t really run around. We stand some, and sit some. The costumes will be clothing we buy; it’s not going to be like the Martian Divas or anything like that.

In terms of what we do when we don’t sing, Jacqui has a very active and growing private voice studio. Her students are doing great things. One is a new member of Western Wind. She also presents a lot of choral workshops that function like master classes for chorus.

Ruth is a church musician on a higher level; she’s a master improviser who will take the text and a mode and improvise. She sings at St. Mary the Virgin at 47th St. right off Times Square.

Ruth also goes to hospitals and hospices, where she helps people express themselves through music in order to deal with issues in their lives. Her work is becoming increasingly important with people with psychological and brain issues, Parkinson’s Disease, and stroke. She’s been getting people who can’t speak to speak. Her focus is on emotional issues especially.

JVS: Why did you all switch from full-time to part-time?

SH: We had a desire to explore other things individually without Anonymous 4. I was investigating teaching on college level. Marsha was doing more with American music and teaching at Stanford and doing traditional music, which is her love. Jacqui was working on expanding her solo performance gigs, mainly in contemporary music as well as in Bach and Mozart. The ink is not dry on that one.

JVS: Last year, you led a chant workshop at Stanford University.

MG: We like to do 10-15 a year. Their shape and nature depends on the audience. The one at Stanford was the largest I’d ever run – it had 50 to 60 people.

I also do them privately. I don’t usually have Anonymous 4 with me, so I usually do myself in CA I do them with me. We’re lucky that we have a built-in audience of Northern California choruses. This particular chant workshop involved all of us, and included speakers from Stanford. It had a lot of singing, and was like a hyper-chant camp.

I try not to talk too much. We learn a nice piece of music, and make the lesson come to life right away. I insist on doing a lot of singing by ear, because in the Middle Ages, most people did not read music. Most of your choristers in a cathedral choir would sing from memory. People learned by rote, then sang from memory. I believe we use our eyes too much and our ears not enough. We want to give people the idea of what it’s like with no notation, no keyboard, and learning from the choir director singing to you.

Staff notation was invented around 1000, but until the Renaissance, there was usually just one book of chant to a choir that was not shared around. Fifty people sang in unison without needing to be conducted.

In the workshop, we said the texts and sang phrases to the participants, and they sang them back. It was monkey hear, monkey sing, because that’s how it was learned in the Middle Ages. Everybody moved exactly together. It’s phenomenal. If you learn the music with your eye – corporally – you don’t need anyone waving their arms at you. People are astonished at how they’re all singing together after spending 20 minutes on the piece, and no one is waving arms at them, because they’re singing shapes and gestures, not just dots. I learned all that from being in Anonymous 4.

JVS: How has your group changed over the years?

MG: There’s really only one new person, but we’ve had two personnel changes. Ruth left in 1998, and was replaced by Jacqui. Then Johanna left in 2008, and Ruth came back.

JVS: Why did Ruth leave for a while?

SH: We didn’t actually intend this to happen, but our music started to be used for healing purposes and for times of change, like childbirth, death and all kinds of intense healing or passing experiences. Ruth became positively obsessed by this, and wanted to pursue studies in music and healing. She came back because, in more recent yearsm we are a part-time ensemble rather than full-time. Singing with us did not prevent her from doing the other, so she can do both.

JVS: You once announced that you would retire. You never did. What happened?

SH: We needed to take a little break, and probably made a bigger deal about it than we should have. While we were getting ready to take the break, our album American Angels came out and, surprise surprise, it made it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. We had fallen in love with all that music, our record company had, and obviously our listeners had too. So we thought, we have to make another record; we can’t wait until after we have a hiatus to make another one. So Marsha and I immediately started to work on making another CD. After about a year of quiet, we were back on the road, but on our new part-time basis. That’s worked out really well for us.

JVS: How are your voices doing after 25 years in this ensemble, and prior singing in others?

SH: Well, we don’t sing opera. A concert is a lot of work, but it’s not at such an intense level. So it’s not so hard to keep our voices healthy, especially since our concerts are fairly short.

One thing we don’t do is use extremes of range. That’s not just to keep our voices happy; it’s actually because we like to singe more in the speaking range so audiences can understand the text better. So the demands we put on our voices are moderate. And we don’t sing in venues that require us to throw our voices through a big hall.

Actually a lot of the bigger halls we sing in now have very subtle and effective sound enhancement that you have to use because they were built for it to be used. We used to refuse to use microphones, but now we go in with open minds, because it’s also about the audience. They want to hear us sing, not just see us singing. In the better halls, the more recent systems work very well.

The sonic issue in Stanford Memorial Church, where we’ll perform one of our 25th Anniversary Retrospective Concerts, is the issue of the very long “waaah.” Memorial Church is a very, very reverberant space. If you do anything with very intimate counterpoint, the details can get lost. But if you’re singing something like chant, something that’s not overly rhythmic or fast, then the acoustic loves it.

We also alter our tempos, depending upon the reverberant nature of the place. Sometimes we extend the pauses between phrases, but that’s not something that we discuss beforehand. Usually we send someone out to listen to one of the three-part pieces as a scout, and we go from there.

JVS: What percentage of the music you sing was written for women’s voices?

SH: Chant is equal opportunity, because the monastic culture really cultivated and protected chant and transmitted it. It was sung in secular cathedrals as well, but it was really the monastics and the liturgy of the divine office where it got sheltered and grew. In those places, there were equally male and female houses. Women couldn’t be celebrants, although there were a couple of exceptions, mainly in the Carthusian houses.

Early polyphony is more controversial. The Secret Voices recording we just did is music from the Las Huelgas Codex from a convent in 13th century Spain, and there’s some controversy about who would have sung the complex polyphony. Some of the pieces are self-referential, where the nuns say, “Now it’s time to practice, you’d be silly not to practice because you were born to sing polyphony.” Other pieces are more complex. Scholars disagree a little, but I’m pretty convinced the women would have sung most or all of the polyphony.

JVS: Susan, you write all the notes?

SH: I write the medieval notes.

Anything that was polyphonic that was written for a non-monastic institution would have been sung by men. Outside of Las Huelgas, that means most everything else. Most of the English polyphony we’ve sung would have originated at one of the big institutions. The same with the French medieval polyphony; it came from Cathedrals, where the singers would have been male clerics. But there has to be a “yentl moment “somewhere in there, where some lady got dressed up as a man. You can quote me, but don’t take me seriously.

Men who were very talented singers auditioned for the jobs, and then had to take some form of holy orders – usually minor orders, such as educated clerics – to be able to sing in those choirs. Most of the men would have sung only chant, and a select group, usually only four, would have sung polyphony. It was very specialized, one on a part, and not for the general choir to do until the late 14th-15th century.

JVS: How many of you in Anonymous 4 are practicing Christians?

SH: When it comes to religion, I’m getting very alarmed that in American culture, religion has becomes a sort of benchmark of who you are.  We sing sacred music because our word “clerk” comes from “cleric” – those were the monks, nuns and others who could read and write – and that’s why the choral polyphony that survives is mostly, until well into the 14th century, sacred music, because it’s the nuns and monks who could read and write. That’s why we sing sacred music. We’re not a religious group in any way shape or form.

Hence, I prefer really not to say anything about the religious part of it. We’re an art music group. It’s just that so much sacred music happened to get written down – a lot of fabulous stuff – and a lot of the secular polyphony from the 13th century has fizzled away because the secular musicians were not musically literate. Theirs was an oral tradition entertainment. It’s like today, when a lot of incredibly talented singer songwriters do not read music. It’s not something new. Nor does reading music make you a good musician.

MG: I like Susan’s answer. We were asked in Spain once if we were all nuns, because they couldn’t believe we could be singing this music and not be nuns. But the answer is exactly what Susan has said. There’s this incredibly beautiful music, and you do feel the power of the faith of the people who made it. You can feel it even today, no matter what your belief is. We’re very moved by this music; that’s why we sing it. We just love it, and it’s a spiritual practice in itself to sing the music. But we’re not nuns. Particularly in my family, there would have been great surprise if I would have turned out a nun.

SH: I’ll tell you, there are moments when the music is really cooking when you  – it’s like when I went to Catholic School – ooh, I said what I used to be – they call it the Communion of Saints. What it really means is that people whose lives don’t overlap at all, over a long span of time have something in common, and when they access that common thing, they make one community over a huge span of time. Definitely that feeling does present itself at certain moments, above all with especially moving beautiful pieces that seem to have a timelessness about them. They sound mediaeval, but they are not stuck in that time.

It’s like when you hear Louis Armstrong play a great solo from West End Blues or something; it could have been recorded yesterday. But the other guys who are taking solos on that recording sound like they’re from the 1920s. They’re stuck in their time, and he is out of time. A lot of the works we deal with from the Middle Ages have that timeless quality, and you feel like you’re reach back, not in a religious way, but more in a communion of musicians who are not always saints.

I love the great quote from John Cage: I don’t believe, but I believe in belief. To say I don’t believe can mean I don’t believe, or I don’t believe what you believe. But the power of the faith that created that work of art transcends itself very easily.

Celebrating 25 Years with Anonymous 4

JVS: Looking back at these 25 years… how did you two meet?

MG: We met in Pomerium, another vocal ensemble which focused on Renaissance polyphony. When I moved to NY, I joined the group, and Susan was already in it. 

I think it was about six months later that Susan and I and Johanna and another person – it wasn’t Ruth – came together to read some music and see what medieval music would sound like in women’s voices. It was an informal reading session. Ruth joined us very soon after that, almost immediately. She too sang in Pomerium. But she and Susan knew each other before that, from Richard Taruskin’s group Cappella Nova at Columbia, before he became head of the Music Department at UC Berkeley. 

Sequentia’s women’s ensemble had done some all-female Hildegard in the late ’70s probably early ’80s, and Brigitte Lesne’s French group Discantus may have been around before us. But in America, there was no all-women’s ensemble singing medieval music.

Discantus had a very low earthy alto chest voice sound, we just wasn’t our voice ranges. The lowest I go is a D below middle C, and I think about it before I have to sing it.

There were no issues for us. The repertoire we were looking at in the earliest days was 13th century polyphony and 12-13th century chant. In the polyphony, there was no division into SATB; the voices overlap, which makes for the ultimate close singing. It’s even closer than the Andrew Sisters; it is all middle-middle-lowish and crossing. When you sing like this, with all women, the higher voices seem more individually discernible, whereas when you hear the Hilliard Ensemble or Orlando Ensemble, which are mixed male and female, it’s a little harder to pick the lower voices out of the mix. They’re doing a gorgeous job, don’t get me wrong.

It was just a lot of fun to sing the stuff, and it worked really well.

JVS: Where did Jacqueline come in?

She grew up in Belfast and attended Queens University, Belfast. Then she lived in London, then moved to New York having won the Green Card lottery. She’d been here two years when Ruth decided to move on in order to focus on studies of sound and healing. Jacqui was one of the people who submitted audition tapes.

JVS: How did that feel, given that the three of you had come together so organically, to suddenly be holding auditions?

MG: It was pretty wild, but we held what we thought was an organic style audition. Once we had gotten our auditioners down to the few we really wanted to try ourselves out with, we gave them some music in advance, and had they come and rehearse with us and try doing what we do, which is singing different parts with different people. So we tried singing together in a variety of ways, and we also spent a lot of time talking with each other because we knew from our first 12 years together that we were going to have to get along to be able sing together.

If you ask Jacqui, she’ll tell you that we told her that it was going to be really, really awful. Do you really want to do this? And she said yes. We were testing her.

JVS: Switching to your 25th anniversary program, was it hard to put it together?

SH: I considered it my full-time summer job. It was really hard. It was one of the worst things to do because usually you can get an idea and carry it out. But this idea – I think it was Marcia’s idea – originally…

MG: I think I did say, “what if…?”

SH: We conceived it as a 25th anniversary gift to our fans and listeners. The goal was to have at least one piece from each of our CDs, and then add a couple of pieces. We commissioned a new piece from David Lang. We also used a different piece by Richard Einhorn – we recorded his Voices of Light, but there’s no a cappella piece on that that would really work, so we chose another piece of his. We wanted to represent them because they’re living composers we work with.

It was hard to juggle all those thing and make the program cohesive. And we didn’t get the piece by David Lang until very late because he’s a composer and that’s what composers do. That’s just a normal thing. He’s writing us a whole big piece that’s premiering in June.

David’s piece came late, so we were initially going to stick it at the end of the program. But when it arrived, we realized that it belonged more toward the front of the program. So we were constantly juggling things to try to make something that has a flow, despite CDs that are modern and ancient, chant and polyphony, sacred and secular, all different languages, Christmas and not Christmas.

I think we did a pretty good job. I juggled things around and we tried things. It really seems to flow. We stuck the American stuff at the end. We try to do it without intermission so that we can sing the whole program through in 75  minutes. I organized it into sections that are sort of thematical. Listeners like to have an organizing principle; it makes it easier to hear things, not just as a string of odd beads, but as a shape. That’s always been a thing of ours – no intermission and a shape to the show.

JVS: You made your first recording when?

We recorded it in ’91, and it came out in ’92. It charted in February 1993.

JVS: So this both your 20th and 25th anniversary.

SH: Yes, it’s our 20th anniversary with Harmonia Mundi. They didn’t send us any gold bars or presents, did they Marsha? I didn’t get my diamond broach.

JVS: We talk about how a lot of this early music takes you to another time and other place. It has a transcendent, out of time quality. Do you find that true of some of the American music and shape-shifting music that you’ve recorded? If not, what feeling does it give you?

SH: Most of the time, people will say, “I saw the blessed mother hovering over your heads at the end,” and all I was thinking was, “Gee, I sure hope I get that fifth in tune at the end, or I hope I can remember to make the shapes that we worked so hard at in rehearsal.” I tend to be more technical and try to do my best by the piece. There are certain pieces, like “Shall We Gather at the River” and John Tavener’s “The Lord’s Prayer”  or “The Lamb” that have that special something – that ineffable inevitability that you find in a lot of Beethoven as well. As soon as you sing the first note, it becomes the seed of this fabulous flower that unfolds and it just has to go that way. It’s very heartfelt.

I can find myself getting wrapped up in the moment, but then I can’t allow myself to get that carried away by the emotional content or the beauty, because I still have to work very hard to make it sound as well as it can for my contribution. I’m usually thinking of singing good, and not just vocally but also mentally good –casting the lines of the phrase                                                          and bringing out the text while the people out there are having a very different experience from me.

JVS: What about you ,Marsha?

MG: No matter when and where the music we sing originates, I feel that there’s music that draws you inside to a quieter place, and there’s music that is so extroverted that you can just shout out and reach directly out the audience and they reach back directly to you when you sing it. If you asked each of us which is an introverted piece and which is extroverted, we might come up with different answers, but some of the music is that draw you in music and some is that send it out music. And it overlaps. There’s more medieval music that, for me, sends you in, but not all of it – some of it gets sent out – and conversely there’s more American music that reaches out and is really extroverted, but there’s also some, like Susan said with “Shall we gather,” that draws you in and kind of transcends time.

It’s similar to contemporary music: some of it sends you out, and other pieces send you in.

SH: To me, “The Lily and the Lamb,” “Darkness into Light,” and “1000” are the most send you in pieces.

JVS: If I were to ask you, Marsha, which is your favorite piece on this program, what would it be and why?

MG: Oh my gosh. It changes from day to day. You have to remember that every piece in this program is one of our very favorite songs from a different program. A lot of our personal top hits are in this program. So to actually say, “I like this one or that one the best” is just temporary.

JVS: What about for you, Susan?

SH: It’s the same thing. Some nights it’s the Richard Einhorn piece, and some nights it’s the carol, “Ecce quod natura,” and some nights it’s “Gratulantes celebremus festum.” It just depends on the day. I can only see it in hindsight. While I’m singing it, they’re all my favorites.

There were a couple of pieces that maybe were a little more of a favorite on one record or another, but we already had too many incredibly beautiful slow pieces. You couldn’t have a concert that was all [drawing it out as she speaks] really slow and reflective. We had to have some lively pieces too. It was that negotiation that took all the time. If we’d taken our very favorite piece from each recording, it would have probably ground to a halt…

MG: It would have been very ethereal.

SH: We would have been having a good time, but the audience would have needed a little relief from the ethereality.

NG: I think each of the pieces speaks differently in a different venue. That may be why, partly, on one night one of the really chipper, peppy rhythmic pieces is my favorite. Maybe in a church setting, one of those more languorous, meditative pieces would be a favorite.

Susan: I prefer to think of these as our children.

JVS: As your voices have changed and you have changed, are you going back to some of the pieces you recorded a long time ago and discovering that they’re coming out very differently for more reasons than a change of personnel?

MG: Yeah, they’re a step lower and a little slower. It used to be that our voices tended to be on the high side, and Susan was the outsider as the low voice. That has shifted both because of personnel and a voice change. One of us had decided to go in a different direction, and sing mezzo instead of soprano, which changed a lot of things. It’s been partly about individual choices, and partly about that’s just the way life goes, or the way voices go during life.

Lowering the parts makes a different, interesting color, which we’re enjoying. There are a couple of the Hildegard chants that I actually do like lower.

SH: Yeah. The words are important, especially in Hildegard. A step lower puts them more in a speaking range, and I always enjoy that

MG: Yup.

JVS: The criticism I used to encounter of your singing was that the plainchant was “very plain.” Is there an artistic choice you’ve made about inflection or emphasis on certain words? Is your decision based on research into how the music sounded many centuries ago, or is it a lot of it organically who you are and how it comes out?

SH: When I was in Catholic school and we were learning the Solemn, it was very even and equalist, and really ignored anything about the flow of the language. You could have been singing any jumble of syllables. Some notes were two beats, and some one, but basically there was a kind of vanilla beat behind it all. It never struck me as anything I’d want to pursue, except when I was at Camp Marydell on the Feast of the Assumption in the summer, we’d sing the Salve Regina marching around outside by Hook Mountain and carrying the statue of Mary and candles, and then in that song, even though it was sung very equalist and not very emotionally at all, it took on a very special meaning because it was part of this whole curious play that we were enacting. It took its meaning from the outside. But when I was singing chant in these Renaissance groups, everybody rushed through the chant.

MG: They were trying to get to the good parts, the polyphony.

SH: When Anonymous 4 started, we actually took the pledge right at the beginning to give chant equal respect as with polyphony. That also entailed throwing out all of the solemnes, all of the equalist singing, and really taking a hard look at the Latin rhetoric as poetry or prose. We really went for the meaningful word at the end of the phrase, and kept the flow and line going with a lot of energy.

We don’t do the Sequentia kind of thing where they rush through the melismas really fast and sing the single notes longer. We treat it as rolling waves of meaning.

Even the earliest Solemne monks from the mid to ¾ into the 19th century said, “Look, the way to sing this stuff is with the words.” They didn’t have that from historical study; it just made sense. They and we give a lot of respect to the text. It’s one of the reasons that performing the Hildegard down a step is much more exciting and interesting to us.

Medieval music was revived in dribs and drabs. You already had people in the late 19th century who were reviving madrigals, and then in 19teens and 1920s you got into medieval music, first with the musicologists and then with some people looking at Landini and then Machaut. Notre-Dame was a little later, Hildegard was re-discovered and performed the 1960s. Medieval repertoire picked up steam very slowly in the 20th century until you got the New York Pro Musica in the 1960s picking out some medieval favorites, dances, and things. It’s really with them that you get The Play of Daniel and medieval music as entertainment.

JVS: One of the pieces you’re singing is from a Codex that was stolen.

MG: It was stolen last summer, I think.

SH: Yeah, last July. But it exists in facsimile. It’s one of the most famous medieval manuscripts in existence, because it has not only a lot of chant in honor of St. James, but also some of the earliest two and perhaps three-voices pieces. It was written around 1140, and lived at the Shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but it was probably written somewhere in France along the pilgrimage routes and then brought to Spain. It not only contains the music, but also has a travelogue in it

MG: It’s the Frommer’s Guide to medieval life. It tells you where to stop, where to eat the fish, where to drink the water, and where not to drink the water… the whole thing.

SH: And it has miracles ascribed to St. James, and sermons. It’s a very far-reaching compendium. It’s a big book and had been taken out a couple of weeks before it went missing for the Pope’s visit ,and then they put it back, but when they went to clean a few weeks later, it was gone. It’s probably in the basement of some collector, and will never be seen again, like those two versions of the Scream that were stolen.

MG: And they tried to steal all the Toy Story guys too, but they got out.