Medieval magic

Their voices mingle so exquisitely that the result is ultimately voiceless, a lone divine note that sounds almost unattributable to human effort.

But Anonymous 4 — an all-woman a cappella ensemble formed to explore medieval chant and polyphony as sung by higher voices — actually toils harder than most musical groups to produce its unearthly sound.

“It’s rare to find voices that can work so [closely] together, and once you find them, it’s rare to find people [who] can work that hard,” affirms Susan Hellauer in a recent phone interview. She’s a founding member of the group,.along with Marsha Genensky and Johanna Maria Rose; newcomer Jacqueline Horner completes the foursome. “Our goal is not to do tons of stuff, but to do it very well, to create a [vocal] blend so that our [individual] voices are not heard … you hear the music instead,” Hellauer explains.

The group takes its name from a designation given by musicologists to an anonymous 13th-century Englishman who, as a student in Paris, wrote about the vocal polyphony then being performed at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Anonymous 4 admits to backing its inspired tones with a wealth of formal education: Most members have advanced degrees in musicology or related fields. But even the research they undertake to enrich their performances with historical accuracy is not always preordained, notes Hellauer.

“The field is so obscure that sometimes we have to ask for advice,” she admits. “When I was doing research on Hildegard von Bingen, a book [was] stuck to the back of the binding of the one I wanted, a [collection] of Hungarian chants. I opened it up and was just fascinated by what I found out. You’d think you’d run out of revelations [in the genre], but you don’t,” she declares, confessing excitedly, “I’ve got ideas to last well past the millennium.”

Hildegard von Bingen — a 12th century German nun and visionary whom the group celebrates by performing her work on their new CD, 11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of Saint Ursula (Harmonia Mundi, 1998) — has long been favored among feminists for her seeming imperviousness to women’s largely silent role in the 12th century. But Anonymous 4 likes to point out that, although medieval women were not allowed to sing in the public cathedral, surviving musical manuscripts show that polyphonic hymns were just as often offered up in convents as in monasteries. Hellauer presents a fascinating portrait of the feisty German seer.

“She took her vows when she was 10 years old, and eventually became the head of her convent, which was attached to a monastery,” Hellauer explains. Although Hildegard claimed to have had the gift of vision since childhood, the nun’s spiritual acumen did not resurface with any regularity until she was in her 40s, at which time her visions appeared so abundantly that she became one of the few officially recognized, Pope-certified mystics.

“She was very active and assertive, traveling a lot,” Hellauer continues. “People see her as a feminist, but she didn’t question women’s place in the scheme of things. … She just did what she wanted.”

The music that Hildegard “saw” was never written down by the nun herself, Hellauer relates. “She dictated the music, which came to her in visions, and it’s not related to any other kind of chant or style.”

What’s most remarkable about Hildegard’s hymns is that they exist as musical “dead ends,” the singer says, explaining, “You can’t place her music in a progression — as in, her sound was influenced by ‘A,’ and passed along to ‘C.’ She doesn’t sound like anyone else. … Her pieces stand alone.”

In Asheville, Anonymous 4 will present “A Lammas Ladymass” — a program based on the Celtic feast day of Lammas, which honors the Virgin Mary during harvest time. The singers will perform “A Lammas Ladymass” in the traditional Latin, but audience members who have trouble absorbing the chants’ fertility-laden themes, due to the language barrier, will benefit from the thoughtful padding of narrative sequences.

“We use [English] poetry and narrative to give people’s ears a rest, because [the intensity of the chants] is a lot to hear all at once.”

The sudden, widespread interest in the chants of Gregorian monks, a strange fad that surfaced in the early ’90s, is often heralded as the primary resuscitator of medieval music — but since Anonymous 4 has been together for more than a decade, Hellauer offers more likely explanations for this obscure genre’s recent popularity.

“The most we can do is guess,” she points out, “[but] the whole classical music [renaissance], even from the ’70s, opened up to a broader definition, adding more elements of world music. And then, there’s always a general revival in spiritual seeking at the end of a millennium. After a concert once, someone said to me, ‘I love your music because it creates a space for contemplation.’ Although it’s very high art, it is simpler, calmer and less cluttered than other types of music, and people respond to that.”

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