Secret voices

All-female a cappella ensemble Anonymous 4 celebrates 25 years with a special performance in J'lem.

The all-female a cappella ensemble 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Christian Steiner )
The all-female a cappella ensemble 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Christian Steiner )
While not exactly a homecoming, Marsha Genensky’s trip to this part of the world later this week will be something of a repeat performance. Genensky is one quarter of the Anonymous 4 female a cappella group from the United States which will perform at Jerusalem’s YMCA on Thursday, at 8:30 p.m., and at the Opera House in Tel Aviv on Friday at 9 p.m. The latter concert is part of the Opera House’s Music of all Sorts series.
“We performed in Israel in 2001, although for the life of me I can’t recall what program we did then,” says California-based Genensky.
“But I remember that people liked it,” adds the fifty-something Jewish singer, with undisguised pride.
Her previous trip here was made in very different circumstances.
“I first went to Israel when I was 13, to visit a childhood friend whose parents had fought in the War of Independence. They moved back to the US and then spent a couple of years back in Israel, so I went to see my friend there,” she says.
This time though it will be largely business, with, Genensky hopes, some time to walk around the Old City of Jerusalem, and maybe even get down to the beach in Tel Aviv.
Genensky’s recollection of the ensemble’s success with local audiences in 2001 is probably something of an understatement.
The quartet, which also includes Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, has spent 25 years together, primarily performing medieval music although they have also premiered works by living composers such as John Tavener and Steve Reich.
The name of the group is a pun on the name used to refer to an anonymous English music theorist of the late 13th century, Anonymous IV, who studied at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
In fact, the ensemble’s title is increasingly proving to be a misnomer.
“It seems we are getting less anonymous these days,” admits Genensky. “I think we’ve sold close to two million records with all our records combined.”
Not bad going for an outfit that is way beyond the commercial music pale. And, according to Genensky, quite unexpected.
“When we started to record we had no idea things would work out the way they did. We assumed that we would succeed at the same level, in terms of our recordings, as all the wonderful and talented other ensembles were doing, and for some reason our first recording struck a chord, so to speak,” she adds with a chuckle.
That debut release was An English Ladymass, recorded in 1993, although the group had been performing live all over the world since 1986.
Genensky’s family name comes from a small town in Poland.
“I think it’s some sort of Ellis Island twist on that Jewish city’s name, which was then in Poland, and then wasn’t, and then was again. That side of my family came to the United States in the 1870s.”
So Genensky brings a mixed Jewish-Polish- Californian cultural baggage to her role in the quartet, while the other three come from a variety of backgrounds. Hellauer was born and raised in the Bronx, New York City, Cunningham was brought up in well-heeled Millbrook, New York, while Horner is from Monkstown, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland. Genensky says the cultural spread only serves to enhance the final product.
“Yes, we also all have different original musical training and different original musical interests. But it all feeds into the big pool which is us, and we think it makes it all the richer.”
Genensky says she had to traverse some wide musical and cultural terrain to get to where she is today.
“I started at Hebrew school, and I just realized this morning that my first official performance might have been my bat mitzvah, but don’t quote me on that. I grew up in the folk era, so I grew up listening to Anglo- American folk songs. My first public singing performance and my first real studies were in traditional American folk songs.”
She struck out on her current line of musical work when she was at college, and it seems she happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“While I was at graduate school, I accidentally fell upon the absolutely fabulous early music collegium that was active at the University of Pennsylvania, and that particular collegium had in it the seeds of many of the American groups that are active today in various aspects of early music performance.
“The sound that I heard, coming from that group, was very similar, in terms of intervals and harmonics and over-layering, to what I was hearing in traditional American music. There is some odd sound connection between some medieval music and some American music.”
That goes a long way to explaining why the Anonymous 4 discography includes a couple of records devoted to American music, Gloryland and American Angels.
Genensky says digging into her national musical heritage has been a welcome departure for her and her colleagues.
“We’re talking about very early American polyphony, like the music of [18th-century choral music composer] William Billings.
And we also work with 19th-century music, gospel songs and folk songs, and 20th-century music and even music of today.”
Shortly after completing her studies at Penn State, Anonymous 4 came into being.
“I moved to New York on a whim, and within six months we had formed the ensemble,” Genensky recalls, little knowing that a quarter of a century later the group would still be going strong, and performing all over the world. “I stayed a little longer than I thought I would,” she observes with a smile.