Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek has a busy weekend in Durham ahead of her. At First Presbyterian on October 5, she sings love fail—the new piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, of Bang on a Can fame—with her group Anonymous 4, the premier a capella ensemble working at the cusp of early and new music. On the following night at Reynolds Theater, Anonymous 4 pairs with the Mountain Goats for Transcendental Youth, where John Darnielle’s story-driven folk-rock is embellished with medieval harmonies. In a cheerful phone conversation with Horner-Kwiatek, we learned how Anonymous 4 has broken through gender barriers, how their David Lang commission grew from five minutes to an hour, and how they came to work with an indie artist such as Darnielle, who shared his own version of events with The Thread earlier this week.
The Thread: How did you come to join Anonymous 4?
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek: I’m from Ireland originally and lived in London for a long time, singing mainly new music. I moved here and was working in New York as a soloist. I had been doing that for a couple years—I guess this was about 14 years ago now—and one of the original members left. They didn’t advertise auditions; it was very word-of-mouth and I heard about it. I met with the group, sang some music with them, got to know them, and then joined. My point of interest has been new music, so I’ve helped steer the group toward commissioning composers.
And you have often visited Duke?
Yes, I’ve been to Duke a number of times. This past spring semester, I was a visiting artist working with graduate composers and performing their music, and I am coming back to Durham next spring.
Other than you joining the group, the lineup has been pretty steady, hasn’t it?
It has, and the interesting thing is that the singer I replaced is actually now back in the group. About five years ago, another original member decided she wanted to move on—so Ruth Cunningham came back again!
Can you tell us about Anonymous 4’s background and mission?
Anonymous 4 has been around for 25 years. It was founded to explore medieval music in women’s voices, because most of this stuff wasn’t being sung by women. As the group went on, we started to branch out into both American shape note music and new music. The group has commissioned various composers in the past, like John Tavener and Peter Maxwell Davies. For our 25th-anniversary celebration last season, we wanted to represent everything the group has done in one program, which included commissioning a new piece.
You mentioned historical gender roles in liturgical music—could you tell us more about that?
That’s probably a better question for Susan Hellauer, who’s our resident historian. But from what I gather, other than the music that was written for nuns in convents to sing, this music was primarily written for men. Women weren’t supposed to sing in public—the usual thing, where men do things and women don’t. The story according to Susan is that when Anonymous 4 first got together, she actually contacted some historians in this field and asked them if it would be okay to sing music that was written for men. The record company probably didn’t want to get into a musicological fight with people who want things done the “proper” way, but we didn’t want to just sing women’s music—Hildegard chants and things like that—we wanted to be able to sing anything. Susan puts it that we “got a note from teacher,” since a couple renowned historians said it was fine. [Laughs]
Does it reveal interesting things in this music when it’s sung by female voices?
I think so. The sonority of higher voices does bring out different colors in the harmony, changes the mood. We sing it in a more lyrical fashion than was probably the convention—chant, especially, tended to be equal-note. We tend to be into musical phrases, like you would sing any tune, with legato phrasing. People seem to like that, although I’m sure there are people who don’t. [Laughs] It kind of became our trademark.
How did love fail, this piece David Lang wrote for you, come about?
We chatted about composers we were all interested in and David Lang came up. He’s very prominent in the New York scene with Bang on a Can, and he won a Pulitzer for The Little Match Girl Passion. That was a very interesting piece vocally; we liked his writing and the colors he pulled out in the voices. So we approached him, had a very good meeting, and got on very well—which is important in these situations! Initially, he was only going to write a five-minute piece for us, which ended up being called “The Wood and the Vine,” where a text about a pair of lovers is taken from Marie de France, a medieval storyteller. But that piece wound up becoming a part of love fail, this 60-minute piece exploring the different facets of love and relationships.
How did love fail get from five minutes to an hour long?
David really wanted to expand it to the full evening. We’re actually doing it two ways. We just premiered it up at Yale, which was staged with a video playing behind us. At Duke, we’re doing the concert version, which is a little more straightforward.
Outside of singing, does the work make any theatrical demands on you?
The theater happens around us in a lot of ways. The music is very intricate, with a lot of rhythmic variety, and our interaction was what interested David when he watched us rehearse. We don’t have a conductor, so everything happens through eye contact and body language. We breathe together; there are gestures made, and he loved that.
But we do have one extra element we don’t normally have: we play instruments in this piece. David asked us what instruments we could play and sing at the same time, and I told him that at school I used to play glockenspiel. So I play that on a couple of pieces, and there’s a big bass drum that Susan plays at one point, and a conch shell. It’s pretty minimal—I have two notes, maybe three, but it’s a theatrical element in and of itself that people wouldn’t expect from us.
Shifting gears to Transcendental Youth—working with an indie musician like John Darnielle is new for you. How did you get into this project?
The purpose of the Ecstatic Music Festival here in New York is to bring artists from wildly different worlds together; it’s kind of like a weird blind date. Our agent called me and asked if I’d ever heard of John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats. I have to confess that I hadn’t. He said that John was a huge Anonymous 4 fan and wanted to partner with us for the festival. I immediately went and listened to lots of John’s music and was really drawn to it, especially the lyrics—he’s such a great poet.
A little convincing was thrust at Anonymous 4, because it was a bit out of the box for us. But we met with John and he was such a wonderful person, and so eager to really collaborate with us, meeting in the middle. When Owen Pallett was brought into the mix [as an arranger], that was even more fun because Owen is such a jack of all trades. He was the glue that stuck us together and he had a great ear for what each song needed. He put Anonymous 4 arrangements around what John was doing, but the integrity of John’s music is still there. It doesn’t remotely sound like medieval music. We weave around what John does and it’s like it shouldn’t work, but it really does.
You all are obviously trained singers while Darnielle is not. Were there any challenges in meshing together?
You know, John has really fantastic pitch. There are certain numbers where we have to get the pitch from him when we come in and it’s just no problem at all. Our voices sound very different, no question, but actually, we have very different voices already within the group. We’re all trained in different fields. Marsha [Genensky] is folk singer originally. Susan Hellauer was a trumpet player. So we already blend the different colors of our voices as best we can, and John is just another color in the mix. His voice is definitely separate from ours, singing a different line, but it’s really easy to relate to what he’s doing.
Is it very difficult to sing such different programs on consecutive nights?
We’re going to find out!