Marsha Genensky's heard the question before, and she'll no doubt hear it again. In fact, the leader of Anonymous 4--the chart-topping, all-female medieval choral quartet--is hearing it again right now: Can she possibly explain the continued and apparently limitless success of the Gregorian-chant music made by the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos? "Well," Genensky says without missing a beat, "there's music--and then there's marketing."
Indeed, the record industry's recent promotion of Gregorian chants is one of classical music's all-time success stories. And attendant with that success, there has been a surge of interest in other music from the long-gone Dark Ages. Leading the pack of nonmonk CDs currently scratching the medieval itch are three recordings by Anonymous 4, including the recently released Love's Illusion. The group's other two discs rose to high heaven on the classical-music chart, and now Illusion has hit the Billboard list after only one week in the stores.
Genensky acknowledges that the public's fascination with monks and chants has helped prime an interest in her group's early-music repertoire, but she notes that the Ubermonks of Silos were nobodies back when Anonymous 4 first hit.
"Our An English Ladymass recording came out a bit before the monks," she says. "Of course, the monks actually recorded their music between 30 and 15 years ago, depending on the cut. But the rerelease, which created all the attention, came out while Ladymass had been selling quite well."
The monks' progress subsequently overwhelmed Anonymous 4 and everything else in the classical bins, but Genensky pooh-poohs any competition. As far as she's concerned, modern love of ancient music is an all-encompassing epiphany.
"I think it's all part of the same search for the kind of music that perhaps is spiritual in a not particularly institutional way," she offers. "You don't have to be Christian or Catholic or any particular kind of thing in order to appreciate it or feel how powerful the music is."
Music critics purr over the power Anonymous 4 gives to its medieval renditions. "Surely this is the sound of heaven," gushed American Record Guide. "Sie singen wie die Engel!" screamed a music mag from Berlin. Genensky and her fellow warblers--Ruth Cunningham, Susan Hellauer and Johanna Rose--indeed sing together with striking clarity and precision. The songs may be ancient and sacred, as on Ladymass and last year's Christmas-specific On Yoolis Night. Or they may celebrate more secular concerns, like the pitching of woo on Love's Illusion. Whatever the content, the women's crystalline pipes ring true.
The "sound of heaven" originated in New York City, back in the mid-Eighties. Cunningham, Hellauer and Rose all studied at music conservatories, while Genensky went the folk-singer route. They met through the city's community of Renaissance singers, opting to break off and experiment with ancient music--to see how such material would sound with female voices at the helm. The four women settled on the name Anonymous 4 because of its reference to a mysterious 13th-century author of music and theory at Notre Dame in Paris. The unknown artist's work had been catalogued Anonymous 1, Anonymous 2 and so on, with Anonymous 4 the most extensive of the material.
The newly monikered singers quickly made a name for themselves, generating almost immediate label interest. Of the group's lofty sales figures, Genensky says, "Obviously, the initial shock was with the first recording. Since then, we've learned that you can't be surprised about anything."
Genensky reveals the basics behind the 4's revivalist sound: "For our particular group, which consists of women's voices, we have to stick with things that fall within the range we have; it's a more narrow range than if we had women and men. We stick to chant, which is unison music, and then polyphony [two or more melodies not in unison] that fits within our range."
Genensky adds that such material isn't difficult to find. The oldies on Love's Illusion, for example, are taken from something named Montpellier Codex, a manuscript made up of more than 300 pieces. It's the largest known compilation of French music from the Middle Ages, and it covers the entire 13th century.
"There's lots of medieval music out there," says Genensky. "I mean, that particular period covers at least 700 years. And it covers many different countries. So, obviously, there's a lot to choose from."
As enchanting as most medieval choral material is, it can be difficult to differentiate between the many selections on an Anonymous CD. Most of the cuts sound the same and come and go quickly, often lasting only one or two minutes at the most.
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Yet Genensky explains that there is a way to keep from getting lost among the ethereal sounds of the Dark Ages. She notes that on Love's Illusion, for example, each of the disc's 29 cuts are based on the lowest singing voice. In most cases, that voice itself is based on a pre-existing secular tune or chant that the anonymous medieval songwriter borrowed from someone else and then reorganized. Follow the lowest voice, says Genensky, and the songs assume their own individual identity.
"Then, on top of that," she adds, "you have one, two or three voices, each of which has its own text. Some of the pieces have two voices that are interweaving with each other with basically the same amount of activity. And then there are some of the more complex pieces, where, as you go up to the higher and higher parts, the line gets more complicated and has many more words. So some of the pieces sound very smooth and beautiful and interweaving, and some are faster and more complicated."
While the music may be complex, Anonymous 4's live show isn't. The performances include spoken-word texts that further relate the evening's theme. In the case of the current Love's Illusion program, 4 offers an evening of love and courtship. The corresponding music and spoken words follow the story of a knight who has to perform various and sundry rituals of the heart before he can win his lady's love. The singer's stage duds are dresses on the cutting edge of Middle Ages fashion, and while there's occasionally some movement up there under the spotlight, it's hardly akin to Dance Fever.
Genensky says the group's performances in Europe have made for interesting experiences. Crowds across the pond are generally suckers for Americans doing European music, and have reacted to Anonymous 4's ancient sets with almost rock-level intensity. "There was one person in France who kept standing up and yelling, 'Go for it! Go for it!'" she says, chuckling. "He seemed to approve.