Went to a concert last night. Anonymous 4, an amazing a cappella vocal group. Four women singing mostly Medieval liturgical music for an hour and a half. Pure, exquisite tones and intonation in an authentic early music style.
My friend Ernie is married to one of the women in the group, so I had dinner with Ernie and then got in on a free ticket. I don’t think I would have gone otherwise.
I’m glad I heard them. It was a memorable performance. And yet, afterward I found myself reflecting that there was not a trace of emotion anywhere to be heard. Quite by design, I’m sure, the focus was on purity, not feeling. Also, there was almost no contrast. A couple of times while singing the early American folk songs (also religious in nature) they sang one of the verses more quietly. In a few songs, one of the women stepped back and sat down, so that we were hearing a trio rather than a quartet, but that affected the vocal sonorities not at all.
This morning I started wondering how Janis Joplin would have reacted if she had been sitting next to me. I’m imagining her becoming more and more restless, and then, after about ten minutes, jumping up and stomping out (with or without arm-waving and obscenities).
Anonymous 4 are so talented and so dedicated, I can’t help wishing they would broaden their palette in various ways. How about arranging some Romantic lieder for their own voices? For an encore, how about a couple of barbershop quartet arrangements, or a Swingle Singers jazz chart? How about some elaborate Renaissance melisma here and there? How about bringing in a couple of discreet instrumentalists (viola da gamba and recorder, for instance) to provide some timbral contrast and some antiphony? How about talking to the audience between songs to give us some idea what we’re hearing, where it came from, and what it means?
I’m just being a curmudgeon. They tour, they sell CDs, the auditorium was close to full, so obviously they know what they’re doing. It’s working for them. But I’m still channeling Janis Joplin.