Yet the medieval manuscript found at the abbey contains mostly polyphonic works written for two, three or four different voices. That complex type of singing was forbidden to nuns of the Cistercian order at that time, Genensky said. The codex also contains Spanish, French and English music and melodies from other parts of Western Europe.
So the cloistered nuns of Las Huelgas, whose abbey was on the famed route of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, may have been more in touch with the modern world of the 1300s than they could admit. Did they practice this demanding polyphonic music clandestinely, as the program's name, "Secret Voices," implies?
Though polyphony was the new challenge of that time, chant's apparent simplicity is deceptive, said Genensky, who lives in Menlo Park and will also be part of the team leading an Oct. 19 chant workshop for experienced amateur and professional singers from the community. The team also includes Anonymous 4 singer Susan Hellauer and members of Stanford music faculty.
"In Chant Camp, we'll work on singing a single line together. And you have no idea, unless you've tried, how hard that is, though it sounds like the easiest," said Genensky, who explains that chant presents unique challenges, including "deciding how it goes together ... how the phrasing goes, how the entire line of music goes, or what the intent of the piece is. On top of that (there's) the idea of listening as much as you're singing."
Chant Camp will offer the opportunity to learn some of the theoretical underpinnings of chant. Those include the modes, a system of melodic classification not entirely unlike modern keys, which dominated Western music for hundreds of years, said Stanford professor Jesse Rodin. Rodin directs Cut Circle, an ensemble specializing in Renaissance music, and will be teaching at Chant Camp.
Modes also underlie the folk songs and carols of Europe, which are another area of specialty for Anonymous 4 (the group is currently recording "The Cherry Tree," medieval English carols of the 15th century), and still provide the point of departure for some compositions today.
Even more than the theory, Chant Camp will focus on the practice of chanting, including Iberian chants that will be part of the "Secret Voices" performance. Also leading the workshop will be Professor William Mahrt, who has kept the tradition of Gregorian chant alive for more than 40 years through Stanford's Early Music Singers and the St. Ann Choir, which sings the year-round cycle of liturgical chant at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto.
"Chant is a bit of music history," Genensky said. "No matter what kind of music you do in real life, and whether it's the kind of music you intend to pursue or not, chant is a fabulous exercise."
Founded in 1986 in New York, Anonymous 4 has performed in 30 countries and nearly all the states in the U.S. The ensemble now performs together only part-time.
The intensity of performing in a small group, with major scheduling commitments and constant travel, was wearing, Genesky said. "We were so cloistered, working more than full-time, and we started to have the urge to do other projects."
Now Anonymous 4 singers also pursue other passions — mostly musical — including solo performing and recording, teaching, musical scholarship, directing, and projects such as Susan Hellauer's Chant Village. A shuffle occurred only once, when Ruth Cunningham left to pursue varied musical interests, including music and healing, and a new member, Johanna Rose, was brought in after an intensive search. Cunningham has now returned to Anonymous 4.
Marsha Genensky will be teaching for Stanford's Continuing Studies program in the winter quarter, giving a class called "Longtime Traveling: Roots of Anglo-American Secular and Sacred Song."
What: Anonymous 4 performs "Secret Voices: The Sisters of Las Huelgas," music from 13th-century Spain.
Where: Memorial Church, Stanford University
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21
Cost: Tickets are $40 general and $10 for Stanford students.
Info: Go to livelyarts.stanford.edu. Chant Camp, for experienced amateur and professional singers, is from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at Stanford; tickets are $20 (or $10 for those holding tickets to the Oct. 21 performance). Space is limited; those interested should call the ticket office at 650-725-ARTS.
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