In 1986, four women gathered in a casual setting to sing through a bit of medieval chant. Little did they know they were launching Anonymous 4, an a cappella ensemble that has spanned nearly 30 years, 20 albums, countless concerts and more than a millenium of music.
Today the group announced that the 2015-16 season will be its last together. But this isn't the first time Anonymous 4 has thought about calling it quits. The group bid a similar farewell in 2004.
"That was sort of half-hearted," Anonymous 4's Marsha Genensky said in a phone conversation last week. "We thought we might be stopping, but really what we were doing was going from over-frenetic to reasonable."
This time it appears the group really means it. "A couple of us," Genensky says, "have projects that have become large enough that they are taking over, in a happy way. And a couple of us are ready to move into a different lifestyle."
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (who joined the group in 1998) was just accepted into the doctoral voice program at Juilliard, while Susan Hellauer oversees Chant Village, which aims to raise understanding of sacred music from cultures around the world. Ruth Cunningham is a certified sound healer with private clients and Genensky teaches workshops in forming music communities.
Anonymous 4's signature radiant tone and pure blend of voices was revelatory in 1992 when the group released An English Ladymass, an album of chant and polyphonic music from the 13th and 14th centuries. More albums quickly followed and by 1994 the group had three albums in the top 15 on Billboard's classical chart.
The group's most important legacy, it could be argued, is helping revive an interest in medieval music that has reached beyond traditional classical music circles. Ladymass, the ensemble's first album, preceded the craze for monks singing plainsong in popular albums like Chant from 1994 to today's Benedictines of Mary, who topped the classical Billboard charts again this year.
On occasion, Anonymous 4 has left the Middle Ages behind to focus on early American vocal styles, including shape-note singing and folk songs. The group's final album, to be released next spring, completes a trilogy of such albums and features songs from the Civil War era. Composers who have written for the group include Pulitzer-winner David Lang, whose love fail was premiered by Anonymous 4 in 2012. A recording of the large-scale work will be released May 27. (Hear an excerpt of the recording on this page.)
As breakups go, this one, Genensky says, is completely amicable. "We still care very deeply for each other," she says. "We have gotten ourselves through many aspects of life, through births and deaths and marriages and, unfortunately, one or two divorces. All the rites of passage we have done together.
"We've done this for a really long time. And we think there might be a world out there beyond Anonymous 4."