Darol Anger is nothing if not ambitious. And adventurous. And curious. He s also fascinated with new musical paths and hybrids that just seem to demand further exploration.
Hence his decision to make a record with the all-female classical vocal group Anonymous 4. It’s a bit of a departure for Anonymous 4 as well. For many years, the critically lauded and remarkably talented group has functioned as an a capella classical quartet, specializing in European liturgical music.
Lately, however, the classical quartet has expressed an interested in traditional American music. Their 2004 release, American Angels, was a collection of American folk and gospel songs that was a big hit on the classical charts, and their 2006 follow-up release, Gloryland, was a similarly rustic affair
But this time out, Anonymous 4 felt they needed some instrumental accompaniment to flesh out the sound and make a stronger connection with the music s rural origins. That s where violinist Anger came in.
For more than two decades, Anger has been pursuing multiple musical genres — bluegrass, newgrass, new-acoustic, classical, jazz, pop — sometimes separately, sometimes hybridizing them to yield new possibilities. Anger s various claims to fame in the roots/classical communities include stints with the David Grisman Quintet, the classical ensemble Turtle Island String Quartet and the new-acoustic group Psychograss.
Given his restlessly eclectic spirit, it should be of no surprise that Anger would be picked by Anonymous 4 to provide a rootsy backing to Gloryland. Anger, along with frequent collaborator Scott Nygaard, are not only backing Anonymous 4 on their current tour, but they ll also be “scattering some of our instrumental bits throughout the show,” says Anger.
“We’ve integrated the whole thing so that it s one complete show,” he adds. “The group does a few things by themselves, Scott and I do a few of our instrumental pieces, and we back the group for several pieces. But we’re basically all on stage at the same time.”
It didn’t start out that way, however. Initially, the idea behind the tour was for Anger and Nygaard to do a opening set, then join the group later for their own set. “We’ve tweaked it a few times, so that now the idea is to have everyone involved, and make it a complete experience. Now it s sort of a travelogue through a particular period and style of American music.”
This unusual communing of talents was initially inspired more than a year ago, when Anonymous 4 and Turtle Island String Quartet were both performing on a radio show, and Anger had a chat with Anonymous 4’s pristine-voiced Marcia Genensky.
“Both of our groups were trying to do something different from the mainstream classical music experience, and we talked about how we each had an affinity for what each other was doing,” recalls Anger, during a phone interview from the road. “So when [Anonymous 4] put this project together, doing traditional American music, they decided they needed some instrumentalists, and she gave me a call.”
“It s been great fun, for all of us, and a little bit of an adventure,” says Anger. “Obviously, they can stand alone, they don’t really need instrumentalists — they have their own pacing, their own rhythm. So at first, for Scott and I, it was more about us trying to fit into what they do, and adjust our phrasing and rhythm to them. But as the tour has gone on, they’ve started adapting to what we re doing as well, so it s turned into a really nice exchange of musical ideas and styles.”
One aspect of the tour that has forced Anger to hear the music a bit differently is that many of the shows have been in venues “we ordinarily wouldn’t play, like churches — so we re not using microphones. Typically, with Republic of Strings and my other groups, we’ve used amplification, so it s been fun to adapt and re-calibrate our approach to playing without the mics.”
But back to Anger s eclecticism, which he attributes it to some of the same impulses that inspired other newgrass artists, like Alison Brown, Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan. “Scott and I both spent a lot of time on the west coast, and especially in California, just like those artists did. So we all took a different approach to bluegrass. It was music we loved, but out there, it just seems like artists want to pull other styles into the mix, so you get this newgrass or new-acoustic sound. I feel a real affinity for all those folks, and I do know we all have pretty high standards about we re trying to do with this music.”
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at KevinRansom@comcast.net.]
Darol Anger and Scott Nygaard open for the Anonymous 4 at the Porter Center for the Performing Arts in Brevard on Tuesday, Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m. $25. 884-8330.