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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 23, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Campus Art Song Crucible
With the sureness of a circus horseman riding two steeds
bareback at once, Anonymous Four, the a cappella quartet, pursues
a double task in Toni Morrison’s Princeton University Atelier. Invited
by Morrison to participate in her innovative workshop, the four sopranos
are shaping their new program, "American Angels," for both
live performance and recording. They are, simultaneously, monitoring
students to create their own parallel program.
The world premiere of Anonymous Four’s "American Angels" takes
place Tuesday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Admission
is by free ticket obtainable through the Richardson box office. The
program focuses on rural, sacred music of the Anglo-American tradition.
Formed in 1986, Anonymous Four (A4) grew its reputation for more than
a decade with music written before 1400. During the last five years
they have expanded into music written since medieval times. Their
repertoire extends to commissioned pieces. The group takes its name
from a major treatise on music by an unknown musicologist at Paris’
Cathedral of Notre Dame at the turn of the 13th century. The manuscript
was designated "Anonymous 4" in the 19th century.
The typical A4 program lasts less than 90 minutes, has
no intermission, is unbroken by applause, and pursues a single theme.
Meticulously grounded in musical, literary, and historical scholarship,
an A4 program weaves together music, poetry, and narrative, presenting
the results with fashionable costuming and staging.
Members of the ensemble are Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline
Horner, and Johanna Maria Rose. The personnel of the group has been
stable. Horner, the newest member, joined in 1998. The group’s scholarly
bent does not impede a sprightly, contemporary outlook. Describing
their first gathering a spokeswoman says, "We needed at least
four singers, since medieval music is usually written in one to four
parts. We’ve also found that on tour, four is the perfect number:
we only have to get one rental car."
A4 is a return visitor to Morrison’s Atelier. During its first visit
it worked with medieval musicologist Peter Jefferey, a MacArthur Fellow;
and Princeton Music Department choral director Richard Tang Yuk on
the preparation of an 11th-century text, the "Sponsus" play.
The idea for the Atelier came founder Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winning
novelist, in 1991, when she wrote the lyrics for a piece composed
by Andre Previn and sung by soprano Kathleen Battle. The resulting
work, "Honey and Rue," was the result of a Carnegie Hall commission.
Morrison said that it taught her to "stretch and freshen"
her writing skills. "It was such an extraordinary experience for
me that I wanted to have it again, and I wanted somehow to pass it
on to students."
Morrison has been the program’s fund-raiser. Initial funding came
from the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation. The chief donor is Peter T.
Joseph, Princeton ’72, who learned about the program when the
Atelier sought out the American Ballet Theatre, of which he is chairman,
The first Atelier, in 1994, joined the efforts of Morrison, choreographer
Jacques d’Amboise, novelist A.S. Byatt, and Princeton poet Paul Muldoon,
winner of a 2003 Pulitzer. It resulted in a new choreographic work,
"A Sacred Place" for the National Dance Institute’s children’s
Morrison sees the Atelier as a crucible for collaborating and experimenting.
She calls it "an opportunity to get all of the parties into a
situation where one person doesn’t know everything, to see what will
happen." The Ateliers are both free-wheeling and highly-organized.
Morrison warns students, "It’s going to be very, very disciplined
and very messy."
Anonymous 4’s Marsha Genensky says in a telephone interview
from her New York home, "Our lesson plan for the Atelier included
the material of `American Angels.’ To give the students background,
we brought to the Atelier experts, scholars, and performers. In the
classes information was given out, plus there was a lot of singing.
The culmination for the students is a performance of their own where
they choose the music and prepare a concert with our help and guidance."
In addition to the material of "American Angels," the student
performance also incorporates an African-American component. "For
A4, including African-American music would have made our program too
broad. The students do the same kind of background research on the
songs that we do," says Genensky. "The goal is to learn about
the various song traditions, not just to say, `I like this piece;
let’s sing it.’"
Beyond simply singing an appealing piece, A4 aims to teach Atelier
students to question. Genensky lists several avenues of exploration:
"When would the song have been sung? In what context did it come
into being? What might it have sounded like? If it comes from an unfamiliar
tradition, how can I enhance my understanding of the tradition when
I sing it? It’s about learning about the singing, not just doing it.
It’s developing an awareness of the richness of the material."
All 18 interested students enrolled in A4’s Atelier. Genensky estimates
that four or five are music majors. Students had to apply for acceptance
to the Atelier, but did not have to audition. "We considered auditions,
but once we saw the applications and what the experience was, we decided
it wasn’t necessary. All 18 of the participants are experienced singers
who have sung in a cappella groups. Some of them have done music arranging.
We were amazed at their curiosity, competence, and willingness to
"American Angels," the A4 program developing in the Atelier,
is atypical for the ensemble, Genensky explains. "Susan [Hellauer]
thought we should do the program. She had a great title, but no idea
of content. That’s very unusual for us. Normally, we have a particular
repertoire or practice or saint in mind."
Genensky’s training as a folklorist is a key in shaping
the "American Angels" program. "It’s not medieval or classical,"
she says. "It comes from folk traditions. Some of it was carried
on through oral tradition since the 18th century. Even the printed
editions of the pieces we’re using mirror oral tradition. The pieces
are sometimes published in hymn books. But the next compiler might
change the tune, or the harmony, or the texts. Mostly, the tune keeps
its integrity, but changes occur from the smallest things to the largest."
Genensky earned a bachelor’s degree in music and folklore at Scripps
College in Claremont, California, and a master’s degree in folklore
and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania.
She grew up in Santa Monica, where her father, now retired, founded
and directed the Center for the Partially Sighted. It was the first
establishment of its type. "It was the first place where people
who are legally blind, but sighted, could go for help," she says.
"It was a place where you could learn how to cook when you couldn’t
see very well. The idea has now spread to other parts of world."
Genensky says that her family was not particularly musical. Her sister
is a computer programmer in northern California. Genensky is married
to Ernie Rideout, editor of Keyboard Magazine. The couple has a cat
named Emma. Indeed, cats are the default pet variety of A4 members.
Pet photos are included on the ensemble’s website, www.anonymous4.com
A4 plans to record "American Angels" next month at the soundstage
of Skywalker Ranch, the post-production film facility owned by George
Lukas of "Star Wars" fame. Genensky is enthusiastic about
the facility, where A4 has made several of their dozen recordings.
"It’s very easy to work at Skywalker," she says. "There’s
no outside sound. When we use natural spaces, like a church, there’s
a lot of outside sound. The in-house staff at Skywalker is talented.
It’s a beautiful place on a mountain in Marin County. There are llamas
nearby, and cows and horses."
In a flurry of activity, A4 released two recordings
on the Harmonium Mundi label just before the new year. "Wolcum
Yule," released in December, contained traditional British carols,
some accompanied by Celtic harp, and included pieces by cutting-edge
British composers Jocelyn Pook and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
"La Bele Marie," issued in September 2002, assembled songs
to the Virgin Mary from 13th-century France. The ardent rhetoric of
the songs was inspired by troubadour poetry. The album is typical
of the A4 sound, capturing a sleek and simple beauty that reminds
listeners of the ongoing connections between our time and a period
800 years ago. Listening is a way of overhearing history.
Anonymous Four has sold over a million recordings. The present-day
success of a quartet of four women singing primarily medieval music
is something of a mystery. Genensky labels the conundrum "an interminable
question with interminable attempts at answers." Offering a few
answers of her own, she says, "Hopefully, it’s because we sing
well. Our audience is extremely diverse. There are a number of explanations:
We’re a girl group, and girl groups are always popular, in pop music,
as well as classical. Then, our music requires a lot of mental focus,
like the kind you need for meditation. It’s person-quieting."
Despite their following, Anonymous has decided to bring down the curtain
on their long-running act at the end of the 2003-2004 season.
"Instead of keeping A4 as a full-time ensemble, we’ll disband
and take the opportunity to pursue other things," Genensky says.
"For 17 years almost the only thing we’ve done is A4. We want
to find out what’s going on in the outside world. We’ve loved working
with each other. If a special project comes up we’ll probably get
together. Our breaking up is absolutely amicable. There are no problems
and no illnesses. We’re just waking up and asking, `What else is out
there in the world?’"
— Elaine Strauss
Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Free tickets at the box office. Tuesday,
April 29, 7:30 p.m.
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