A famous musical from 1961 expressed the feelings of a lot of us around the holiday season with the title "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off." For 90 minutes or so, those in attendance at a concert, in a nearly filled Caruth Auditorium at Southern Methodist University on Monday evening, achieved that goal. The world didn't stop per se, but we were able to float in a pool of musical tranquility for a short while.
This miracle was enabled by the Anonymous 4, four women (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) who sing a cappella (unaccompanied) music from Medieval times with some complimentary contemporary creations included. This is the 25th anniversary of their founding and so the program was a retrospective of their many recordings, many of which are as familiar to their legions of fans as are hit songs by pop singers. Of course, the recordings were also for sale afterwards.
To those of us unfamiliar with the recordings, there was sameness to this music that made it difficult to follow along. The program didn't help, since all of the words and selections were printed in incredibly small type. It looked something like this. (No kidding.) Their ethereal diction was also a problem in keeping your place, even when you could see the program. When some French was recognizable, I realized that I was one piece behind where I thought they were.
Of course, for all of the selections other than the modern ones, this really didn't matter much. Many of the medieval texts were religious in nature and most of them were related to Christmas and Mary. Some reflected on Christ's passion and there was even a text from the Apocalypse. The secular texts were all about love and springtime.
The most fascinating text by far was in "The Scientist," a 2001 setting of three words constantly repeated, Galileo's famous "Eppur si muove'' (and yet it moves) by Richard Einhorn. Tradition has it that this is what Galileo muttered after he was forced by the Church to deny that the earth moved around the sun. Einhorn's tight and overlapping musical lines revolving around a tone cluster conjured up the image of the spinning earth and built with intensity to an abrupt ending, much like the Church stopped Galileo.
Another recent composition was David Lang's 2011 "The Wood and the Vine." This is a setting of set a translation of Marie de France's poetic meditation on the story of Tristan and Isolde. Throughout much of it, three voices intoned the wood and vine text while a solo voice told the story. That is a guess since the text wasn't in the program (at any size). Another modern work John Tavener's setting of "The Lord's Prayer" which was contemporary music that stuck to the medieval compositional traditions.
The early music on the program followed the forms popular at the time: trope, antiphon, conductus, hymn, prosa and song. This means parallel organum intervals, drones, unisons, and complex counterpoints are the hallmark of this musical era. The four sang with amazing intonation and unity. The voices were still individually recognizable yet the unisons sounded like a fifth singer—different but the same.
Mostly, they sang without vibrato but it was conservatively (just barely) added on some solo occasions to warm a note. None of the music was sung from memory, which is odd considering how long they have been singing this repertory. Instead, they stood at music stands as they quietly turned their pages. All four wore floor-length black dresses but individual personality showed through, as some were very sparkly and others purposely drab.
The composers, other than the modern ones, were mostly anonymous, thus the name of the group. However, there was a selection by Hildegard of Bingen, who lived from 1098 to 1179. She was a German Christian mystic, writer and composer. The Anonymous 4 were instrumental in her recent rediscovery and modern day popularity.
There was no intermission to break the mood and so the entire performance took on an almost Zenlike trance. The four singers didn't need to worry about their voices giving out since that never sang above a medium soft level. They sang together most of the time, but there were solo pieces for each of them and they also sang some trios and duets. No one was really sure when to applaud, so there was tentative applause when they stopped singing, but it seemed intrusive even then.
It was very different when the concert was over. The near-capacity audience gave them a very modern standing ovation and much enthusiastic applause.
Here are two samples of their recordings: The first is "Wondrous Love" from the album American Angels, available on iTunes here
And here is "Benedicamus domino Belial vocatur" from the album Secret Voices.