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September 14, 2006

Just Another Medieval Quartet Crossing Over

New York Times (NY):

They seem like siblings or lovers, they interrupt one another so naturally. The women of Anonymous 4 are neither. Vocal precision and complicated harmonies aside, these women are remarkably unruly in conversation.

“Rumors of our disbanding were greatly exaggerated,” Marsha Genensky said. “Disband is a great news word,” Susan Hellauer said, and continued talking. “Musica Antiqua Köln is actually disbanding,” Johanna Maria Rose said, speaking over Ms. Hellauer and referring to another early-music ensemble.

Such discord is nowhere evident in the singing of Anonymous 4, which, with the release this week of “Gloryland,” an album of traditional American folk music, has again left behind the medieval chants that brought it critical praise and a following well beyond fans of classical music.

The four middle-aged women — three American-born and one, Ms. Horner, from Northern Ireland — were seated in a chilly radio station in Lower Manhattan, in garb less formal than the long dresses of their pre-Americana concert days. Ms. Horner wore a black lace top and swapped puns with Ms. Hellauer, in colored eyeglasses and jeans. Ms. Genensky, who had on black slacks and matching Keds, had let her hair down. To her waist. Ms. Rose, in a denim jacket, was the most subdued. Then again, she was fighting a migraine.

In 2004 the group announced it was not splitting up so much as pursuing individual interests. The women wanted more time for solo work, family and relationships, and Ms. Genensky’s move to California complicated the rehearsal schedule. After nearly two decades of 40-hour rehearsal weeks and months spent touring in the United States and abroad, they decided to come together only for special projects.

“Gloryland” is a return to the exploration of Americana they began before their hiatus. Their 2004 album, “American Angels,” surprised many when it rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Classical Albums chart; it remained on the chart for 76 weeks, selling more than 80,000 copies.

How does an album categorized as Americana top the classical chart? It seems no one was sure how else to categorize an a cappella group known primarily for medieval fare. Then again, what exactly is Americana? Even Jeff Green, executive director for the Americana Music Association, finds the category nebulous. “Generally, people are referring to alternative country when they talk about Americana,” he said, “but because it has bluegrass, some folk, blues, Texas swing, country, rock. There’s a lot of diversity. It’s a hodgepodge, a melting pot of American roots music.”

For Anonymous 4, at least, Americana is folk songs, religious ballads, gospel hymns and shape-note singing. Shape-note singing originated in the early 1800’s to teach congregations of mostly unskilled singers how to sing the same notes by sight. The term refers to the shape assigned each syllable associated with a pitch: fa (triangle), sol (circle), la (rectangle) and mi (diamond). There is a medieval link: Guido d’Arezzo, an 11th-century Benedictine monk, is said to have invented six syllables to teach sight-singing. And that gave Anonymous 4 a hook.

“Its harmonic context reminded me of the medieval stuff,” Ms. Genensky said. But the group’s shape-note singing is not like the rough-hewn music audiences may recall from the soundtrack to the movie “Cold Mountain.” “When I first heard the shape note recordings, I ran screaming,” Ms. Horner said. “It’s a gutteral sound, very raw.”

Beth E. Levy, a musicologist at the University of California, Davis, said the group’s polished vocals might give pause to some who know the form. “If you stop to think about it, it’s more than a little ironic to hear Anonymous 4 singing with such exquisite shaping and diction the solfège syllables (fa-sol-la),” she wrote in an e-mail message. “But if you don’t stop to think about it, then it’s just that glorious, quasi-cathedral sound that we all love.”

With “Gloryland,” on which many songs are accompanied by traditional stringed instruments, the four seem to be capitalizing on the interest in Americana that has continued to grow since their last album. It started with the rootsy soundtrack to the 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which won two Grammy Awards and sold millions. Today about 70 radio stations play music they define as Americana. (The most played artists last week were Todd Snider, Johnny Cash and Old Crow Medicine Show.) “This term wasn’t on the radar several years ago,” Mr. Green said. “Now it’s got a Grammy category, and more radio stations are programming it.”

The members of Anonymous 4 will try to woo station programmers with their first appearance at the Americana Music Conference this month, before their fall tour. “We and others are in the midst of a moment,” Ms. Hellauer said. “The distinctions are starting to fall apart,” Ms. Genensky said. “Before, Amazon didn’t know how to double-market us.” “We used to call it old-timey music,” Ms. Rose said. “Ye Olde Music,” Ms. Horner said.

Anonymous 4 came together in New York in 1986. The group’s first performance was an informal concert for a dozen people. Critics often refer to Ms. Horner as a recent addition but she replaced a founding member, Ruth Cunningham, in 1998. The name is a wink to music theorists: Anonymous IV was the name scholars assigned to the unknown author of a significant 13th-century treatise. Its debut, “An English Ladymass” (1992), and each of its next 15 releases on Harmonia Mundi have appeared in the Top 15 on Billboard’s Top Classical Albums chart. Total sales are nearly 1.4 million.

Although they usually collaborate on an equal footing, Ms. Genensky has taken the lead on the Americana albums. Because she now lives in Menlo Park, Calif., and the others in different cities in New York State, Ms. Genensky mailed her “Gloryland” arrangements in advance to reduce rehearsal time. Once in rehearsals, the women reverted to their leaderless habits, experimenting with bending pitch and altering phrasing and color to make the sound their own. Decisions were made by consensus. “Or fisticuffs,” Ms. Rose said, in a joke belying their harmoniousness.

Posted by acapnews at September 14, 2006 12:19 AM