“Can we try that again?” asks Marsha Genensky from inside the cavernous recording studio at Skywalker Sound. “I think we need to add some whumpage!”
Seated in the adjacent control room, producer Robina G. Young peers over the sprawling mixing board and casts a bemused smile.
“Whumpage?” she asks over the intercom.
“Yeah, whumpage,” Genensky says. “That’s not a technical term — I just made it up.”
“Ahhh,” Young laughs. “I’ll know not to look for it in the Grove Dictionary of Music.”
With that, the members of the Anonymous 4 vocal group huddle in the northern California recording studio built by Star Wars director George Lucas — a high-tech temple of the arts, nestled amid gently rolling hills that harbor redtail hawks, longhorn steer and even coyotes — and repeat the last verse of the folk hymn “Star in the East,” only this time with a taste of authentic . . . whumpage.
The need for authenticity is a fine point at these sessions. Best known for popularizing Medieval music, the Anonymous 4 — Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner Kwiatek — are recording a mix of ancient chorale works and rustic ballads from the American sacred-harp songbook, so-called participatory songs traditionally performed by larger groups of 100 or more.
“The [Americana] is quite different from the Medieval music,” Genensky explains later over a taco salad in the studio commissary, “in the sense that we have fewer parts and have to figure out how to be the Anonymous 4 and not traditional sacred-harp singers.”
This three-day session is for the upcoming album The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas, the follow-up to 2006’s hot-selling Gloryland, a collection of American folk and gospel songs that also features instrumentalists Darol Anger (violin and mandolin) and Mike Marshall (guitar and mandolin). The centerpiece of the new vocal album is the title track — an ancient English carol — and two American folk hymns derived from it. “It’s a very old story, and one that keeps sprouting up, no pun intended,” Hellauer says of the cherry-tree tale. “It is spoken about in 14th-century miracle plays — little playlets that recorded the biblical miracles.”
In the story, the pregnant Madonna encounters a cherry tree and asks Joseph to retrieve some of its sweet fruit. Joseph declines. So the baby Jesus, from inside Mary’s womb, commands the tree to lower its boughs within his mother’s reach.
For the Anonymous 4, The Cherry Tree bears special significance: it’s the group’s first CD in three years, the first in a decade with co-founding member Cunningham and an attempt to bridge two very different but related styles. The hope is that the album will appeal to both those who found the quartet twenty-three years ago through its Medieval polyphony and chant, and those who have learned of the group through their more recent Americana recordings.
“There is a segment of our audience who knew us from the earlier music, who were a bit confused when we made a left turn to a different set of styles,” Hellauer says. “We wanted to build a bridge between those audiences.
“It’s a perfect union.”
Back in the studio, the singers are pursuing that vision while concentrating on the folk hymn “The Unspotted Virgin.” Dressed casually in sweatshirts, sweaters, scarves and sneakers, the women brace against the chilly studio air and read their scores from black metallic music stands. Between takes, Cunningham sips tea and drums her fingers; Hellauer runs through a vocal warm-up exercise.
The mood is friendly but focused, the sessions a mix of warmth, spirituality and, at times, clockwork exactness. The singers alternate between angelic artistry and girlish amusement, but the lighthearted banter belies the fact that while Anonymous 4’s recordings sound effortless, the women are careful technicians determined to get it right. Their jokes about Kwiatek’s new pet tarantula segue into serious discussions about stylistic approach, the many ways a word is spelled in the rustic shape-note tune books and the proper breath needed to make a passage sound natural.
The result is a silken-voiced sound hailed by critics as “unearthly” and “beatific.” Hellaeur calls it “that four-heads, one-voice effect you get. That unity of intent.”
Young announces that it’s time to record again. Genensky taps a button on an old tone generator that emits a short beep to guide the singers, a red light outside the control booth signals the beginning of the session, the engineers engage the digital recorders, and . . . ah, those heavenly voices.
The singing stops after a verse.
The producer presses a button on the intercom. “The beginning was a little scratchy,” Young says. “And I know it’s an Americana piece, but could we not take the ‘D’ out of the word ‘spotted’?”
And so it goes.
This scene is repeated over and again in a laborious process as the singers — first a foursome and later a trio — lay down a series of tracks, trying subtle differences in sound.
During the sessions Young coaxes, cajoles and compliments the singers to deliver their best pitch, blend and pronunciation.
“Say the word ‘merrily’ for me,” she instructs at one point.
“Merr-i-ly,” the singers repeat in unison.
“You’re saying ‘mrrrr-ly.’”
The women giggle.
“I mean, this is a glorious ending, isn’t it?” Young says. “Well, let’s say it merrily!”
They do. Then it’s on to the next verse.