Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

10 Questions for...
Anonymous 4's Susan Hellauer

November 29, 2011

The members of anonymous 4: Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, and Marsha Genensky Photo: Chris Carroll
There is something undeniably cool about Anonymous 4. The four women who comprise this vocal ensemble committed primarily to medieval polyphony and chant have been nothing less than musical trailblazers for the last quarter century. Their performances, which have been seen all over the world, are based on a unique combination of historical research and musical acumen, that make for a unique contemporary experience. Their visits are ones to treasure, and the four vocalists currently in the ensemble - Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, will soon return to Southern California. Theses two programs at UC Riverside (on Dec 2) and Santa Monica’s Jacaranda music series (on Dec 3) will feature favorites of their lengthy recording career and, perhaps surprisingly to some, a world premiere from composer David Lang, the wood and the vine. All of this also takes place following the release of their most recent Harmonia Mundi recording Secret Voices. The release marks the return of the group to the Codex Las Huelgas, a 13th-century manuscript with chant and polyphony used in a Cistercian convent. It's absolutely lovely. But before those highly recommended performances, one of the Anonymous 4’s great scholars and artists, Susan Hellauer, took a moment to sit down for the Out West Arts 10 Questions.

  1. You’ve been a part of Anonymous 4 throughout the group’s rise as one of the world’s premiere early music ensembles. What’s it like being America’s rock stars of medieval polyphony?

    We definitely have gotten recognition — hard work and sheer persistence can pay off! I think it's the same as it is for most people who receive recognition in their chosen fields. It's not so much "that's nice!" but more "what's next? how do I top that?" We're always looking for something that is new and different for us but that lets us remain true to who we are. There's so much behind-the-scenes work on repertoire, research and rehearsal that there's not much time left over to sit on one's laurels, so to speak. AND we try not to read too much of our press, for better or worse. We just keep marching forward.

  2. One of the things I’ve always loved about Anonymous 4 is the medieval music research and scholarship that has gone into the group’s performances and recording. How much is being a musical detective part of being in the group?

    It's a large part of it, and constitutes my dream job. I have degrees in musicology, but I knew early on and very well that normal musicology was not in the cards for me. So having the knowledge about the period and the repertoire that has survived has made it easier for me to put programs together. BUT, I do consult full-time musicologists about repertoires that are more obscure, controversial in some way, or survive in notation that is difficult or ambiguous to decipher. Musicologists now are much much more willing to share their work and their insights than their ancestors were, say 30 years ago and more. It's really a new world of cooperation and collaboration between musicologists and performers now.

  3. What do you enjoy most about performing together on the road?

    The audiences. It's our privilege and honor to bring our programs to them, especially when young singers are out there. To walk out to a full house in a great venue, with people of all ages and stages of life sitting out there . . . there's really nothing better. There's an episcopal hymn that has the words " . . . mystic sweet communion" in it -- that's how it feels.

  4. What’s the biggest surprise for you about the public’s enthusiastic reception of Anonymous 4?

    It has to be something I just alluded to above -- the great range of ages of our fans, from young to old. This never ceases to amaze me, especially as the audience for classical chamber music seems to be greying… BUT BUT BUT… there are fabulous young chamber music ensembles coming up and on the scene who are completely revamping ideals and aims of chamber music. The Kronos Quartet was out in front, but there's a whole wave of new groups who will surpass us all.

  5. You’ll be making two appearances in Southern California in early December at UC Riverside and the Jacaranda music series in Santa Monica featuring a new work from David Lang, the wood and the vine. What’s the best part about working with a living composer?

    It's that collaboration on creating a new work of art. We were thinking about him, then he started thinking about us, then he wrote a piece and we sang it for him. He tweaked it a little bit, he let us know the affect that he was after, modifying our sound and approach a little bit . . . all of us with the same goal. Very satisfying!

  6. How does singing early music inform your performance of contemporary compositions?

    Our ensemble sense, our "unity of intent" informs our early music singing — and it's just what we do for all music we sing. The sum is greater than the parts, and we do NOT alter the individual sounds of our voices, which are VERY different from each other. We determine the goal, direction and shape of each line, the weight of the words and the music, and then we agree on all those things expressively, and the voices come together. It's really no different in any repertoire.

  7. Anonymous 4’s most recent Harmonia Mundi Release Secret Voices returns the group to music of the 13th and 14th centuries. What’s so special to the group about music from this period in particular?

    The early years of polyphonic composition (as opposed to improvisation, which was going on for centuries in western music before it was written down) did not observe the now-common "SATB" range designations. The lines overlap, crisscross, in a polyphonic tapestry. We find this sort of writing very compatible with our almost-equal ranges, and it sounds (in our opinion) fabulous in higher voices, where the patterns of overlap and crisscross are a little more discernible to the ear than they would be in lower voices.

  8. When should I clap?

    Ha ha — very funny! But a good question. Most medieval pieces are quite short — a minute or three — and it's one of our biggest challenges to create a cohesive, flowing program out of these little miniatures. We once attended a concert at a European festival presented by a very famous medieval music vocal ensemble. They were singing 13th-century motets (VERY beautifully) but there was a full stop and applause after each tiny piece, which made it hard to get an overall impression of the "show." So we group pieces together and hope that our audience will clap where they see the breaks in the program. But, really, we're not all that fussy.

  9. A tempestuous tenor destroys your iPod. What music on it will you miss most?

    Actually, I don't really listen to an iPod. I think that the earbuds are very harmful to hearing, and I already have some hearing loss in my right ear. AND I think that constantly listening to music destroys its specialness. Silence is important — without it music is meaningless — go ahead and jog around the lake or the park just listening to the environment. Then go home and treat yourself to a Beethoven symphony, The Beatles, the Mozart or Brahms clarinet quintet, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schumann's Dichterliebe, anything by Josquin des Pres, Bruce Molsky, with his inimitable fiddle, guitar, banjo and voice. OR EVEN BETTER: pick up that uke, that banjo, that guitar, the concertina, the recorder, the harmonica, a couple of spoons, and MAKE SOME MUSIC YOU GUYS! It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be your own.

  10. What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from Anonymous 4?

    We'll be working on a full-length work by David Lang, called love fail — of which the wood and the vine is the first section. We'll be creating a new program called Marie & Marion — 13th century music again — just can't stay away — for 2013. We're thinking about one more Hildegard program, and one more American traditional program…we think and then we sing; that's pretty much what we do.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?



Opera Reviews '10-'11

Opera Reviews '09-'10

Opera Reviews '06-'09

L.A. Phil Reviews '09/'10

L.A. Phil Reviews '08/'09

L.A. Theater Reviews


Follow Along


Los Angeles

Follow me on Twitter