A: The idea for the group came from an experience Johanna had as part of a music ensemble which performed during a medieval culture workshop at a monastery. The women of the ensemble sang a short Marian devotional service in the monastery's chapel which was so musically effective and so moving that Johanna was inspired to experiment further with the idea of women singing medieval repertoire. (Most of the repertoire up to the 14th century is for equal voices and works just fine for a group of women; there is indeed evidence from the Middle Ages that women sang complex polyphony as well as chant). In the summer of 1986, we gathered for a reading session. This went so well that we decided to put together our first program, "Legends of St. Nicholas." For that first gathering, we needed at least four singers, since medieval music is usually written in one to four parts. We've also found that on tour, 4 is the perfect number; we only have to get one rental car!
For many years, we spent all our time exploring the vast treasury of music from the Middle Ages. But we eventually expanded our repertoire to include Renaissance music, contemporary music, traditional music from the British Isles, and, most recently, American shape note tunes, gospel songs and folk songs.
Q: Why do you call yourselves Anonymous 4?
A: When we were first searching for a name, Susan suggested it as a joke. A number of treatises on music have survived from the Middle Ages, many of them unsigned. In the nineteenth century, a musicologist edited and published them, designating the anonymous ones as Anonymous 1, Anonymous 2, Anonymous 3, etc. Anonymous 4 is the most important of these treatises, as it not only describes compositional style and music practice during the golden age of music at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris around the turn of the thirteenth century, but it also gives us the names of master composers Leonin and Perotin, and attributes individual works to each of them.
Q: Where do you find the music? How do you put your programs together?
A: Because most of the music that was preserved from the Middle Ages was found in monasteries and abbeys, it was predominantly sacred music that survived. Quite a bit of it, particularly the polyphonic music, has been edited and published in scholarly editions available in university libraries. We often make our own transcriptions, especially of chant, from facsimiles or microfilms of original manuscripts. We are also lucky to have a network of helpful musicologists, whom we consult when we find ourselves in a particularly obscure corner of the repertoire.
Our ideal medieval concert program is not too long (just under an hour and a half), without intermission, unbroken by applause, and held together by a single theme: a saint, a feast day, a liturgical service, a single manuscript, or a literary idea. We interweave chant and polyphonic music, as well as spoken or sung narrative, to create a dramatic unity from many short works.
Some of the music for our British Isles Christmas program and the music for our American programs comes from 18th-20th-century tunebooks and hymnals, and from folk song collections. Versions of many of these tunes appear in collections that are easily available today. But we trace those tunes which have appeared in print to their earliest print appearances. We’ve found rare copies of early American tunebooks in libraries scattered around the country, and have had wonderful help from scholars at county historical societies on the other side of the pond, as well.
Our American shows are much different in mood than are our medieval programs. They are much more “outgoing” in nature. We encourage applause
Q: Is your music authentic: that is, does it sound the way it sounded in the Middle Ages?
A: No reputable performer or scholar would dare claim to be truly "authentic" because no one can know, with certainty, what medieval vocal music sounded like. In fact, the most informative documents usually complain about the bad things that singers did, for instance warbling ornately like birds, or singing high like women (this was directed against the male singers in a cathedral). We sing with our own natural vocal production, which doesn't have very much vibrato, and work on a good blend and accurate tuning, with unity of musical intent. Elements like tempo, dynamics (loud and soft) and expression are not indicated in medieval scores -- they must be determined by the performer. From the very beginning we let go of all theories not explicitly described in medieval documents and, with time and work, let the music and our own intuition teach us what to do.
Interestingly, elements like tempo, dynamics and expression are also not indicated in the scores of those of our American tunes that appear in print. We don’t know exactly how our oldest tunes would have sounded in the 18th or 19th century, but as most of the tunes we sing are still being sung in traditional circles, and have been much recorded as well (both field and commercial recordings are easily available), we do have the opportunity to hear modern-day performance of much of the music we sing.
Q: Would women have sung this music?
A: While women were not allowed to sing in the public cathedral and therefore would not have been "professional" soloists of sacred music, within the confines of their convents they would have sung chant just as men did in the monasteries. Certainly the virtuoso chant of the twelfth-century Hildegard von Bingen would have been sung by the nuns in her charge. Both medieval chant and polyphonic manuscripts have survived in convents; from this we can infer that women sang polyphony as well.
Q: Why is Anonymous 4 (and this music) so popular?
A: Although we can't know for sure, we do get some ideas from speaking with and hearing from our listeners. Certainly, people are attracted by the unique sound of the ensemble, but on a deeper level, they may also be drawn to an ancient tradition of spirituality which is the source of much of the music we sing. Many people these days seem to be seeking a connection to the world of the spirit, perhaps as a reaction to our overwhelmingly technological world. It is certainly possible to be profoundly moved by the music of any spiritual tradition, no matter what one's own religious (or non-religious) background may be. And sacred music of the Middle Ages also invites and invokes connections to another age, even an entirely different culture, which can be seen as part of the present-day fascination with world music and arts.
Q: Do you have a leader? How do you work together in the group?
A: One of the joys (and curses?) of our ensemble is that we work by consensus. We have no leader. We have all worked in groups with directors, but when we formed our own ensemble, we wanted to have equal artistic input. This means that in rehearsal we take the time to try everyone's ideas and every conceivable possibility, from who sings what part to exactly how to approach a cadence. Although this means it takes a great deal longer to come to creative decisions (we have four very strong personalities!), it also means that we end up with a very strong sense of common ownership and commitment. We think this comes through in our performances. We do have different functions within the group, focusing on different aspects of our musical activities. Susan is our music researcher and Latin translator, Marsha and Johanna take care of literary and pronunciation research, as well as translating Middle English and French,and Jackie, who has extensive experience in the world of new music, will be researching possible projects with contemporary composers. . Johanna did the research for a British Isles Christmas program featuring both traditional and contemporary music, and Marsha has done the research and development for our two American programs. We also share various (and many) administrative tasks, so we're all kept quite busy.
Q: Are performing editions of your music available?
A: YES! Selections from "On Yoolis Night," “Miracles of Sant’Iago,” and “Legends of St. Nicholas” are available from earthsongs (220 NW 29th Street, Corvallis OR 97330; phone 541 758 5760; fax 541 754 5887.
All of the tunes from “American Angels” are also now available in five octavo sets from a-cappella.com (distributed by hal leonard). Most of the tunes from “Gloryland are available for download from a-cappella.com. We are now working on making more and more of our medieval music available for download and/or in octavos from a-cappella.com, as well. .
Check our publications page for full information.
Q: Do you perform anything other than medieval music?
A: We have performed Renaissance music with
the wonderful six-man vocal ensemble Lionheart,
touring together with programs of 15th and 16th century polyphony.
We've also commissioned and performed contemporary music. We began with the oratorio "Voices of Ligh"t by Richard Einhorn , and WNYC Public Radio in New York City helped us commission another work from him, "A Carnival of Miracles," and one from Steve Reich, "Know what is above you," which were both premiered on "New Sounds Live" in the fall of 1999. British composer John Tavener has written a work entitled "The Bridegroom" for Anonymous 4 and the London-based Chilingirian String Quartet. It is featured on our harmonia mundi cd "Darkness into Light." And a wonderful piece, "A Calendar of Kings," was commissioned from Peter Maxwell Davies for our most recent Christmas cd, "Wolcum Yule."
Finally, our 2004 smash-hit cd "American Angels" features sacred American music in the folk tradition -- colonial, shape note and gospel. Our 2006 sequel cd “Gloryland,” features both sacred American tunes and lyric folk songs. On this latest recording, we are joined by multi-instrumentalist virtuosos Darol Anger and Mike Marshall.
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Discography:   Three Decades of Anonymous 4 1865 Marie et Marion love fail The Drop That Contained the Sea Secret Voices
The Cherry Tree Four Centuries of Chant Gloryland Noel The Origin of Fire American Angels
Wolcum Yule Darkness into Light la bele marie The Second Circle 1000: A Mass for the End of Time Legends of St. Nicholas
A Lammas Ladymass 11,000 Virgins Christmas Music from Medieval Hungary Miracles of Sant'Iago The Lily & The Lamb Love's Illusion
On Yoolis Night An English Ladymass Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light A Portrait of Anonymous 4
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