Ask a fan of The Mountain Goats what they listen for in the music of John Darnielle and there’s a very good chance their first answer will be words – inventive, potent words that bud to life and stamp their impression on the mind in tune after each brief tune. Ask a fan of Anonymous 4 what they listen for and words might come in 3rd, 4th, maybe 17th on a list of countless wonderful things about them. It has nothing to do with diction or delivery, but rather that the texts performed by Anonymous 4 are part of the cipher that makes their sound so eternal and mysteriously gorgeous; a sonic glimpse into the medieval past that, apart from those of us who happen to be Latin scholars or Capuchin monks, is satisfyingly inscrutable.
It’s no wonder they’re called Anonymous 4, Anonymous IV being the eponymous mystery man whose 13th century treatise on some of the earliest known European composers gives scholars and other folks who nerd out on musical antiquity the clearest vision of polyphony as it was performed three quarters of a millennium ago. So, words, from the mouth of Darnielle: a comfortingly relatable substance, poetry that articulates the familiar in ways listeners may never have otherwise considered. Words from the mouths of Anonymous 4: a vehicle for some of the most celestial, tightly knit harmony this side of the cosmos. On Saturday, March 24, those words and those voices shared the stage at the Kaufman Center for the penultimate performance of the Ecstatic Music Festival.
Anonymous 4 took the stage to themselves first, greeted by a packed house primarily clad in plaid flannels. The audience would continue to trickle in throughout the first twenty minutes of the performance, perhaps totally unaware of the scheduled start or totally aware of the fact that The Mountain Goats went on second. There was a marked tenor of repression at the start of the evening that was a mite unsettling. A crowd made up of probably 80% die-hard Darnielle fans, usually a hooting, hollering, lyric echoing, heart-on-their-sleeves mob, instead afflicted by that darn classical etiquette and seemingly prepared to sit on their hands and wait to get to the good stuff. So when Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek were introduced onstage by Darnielle to begin the festivities, there was a feeling like strangers had just swung open the door to the saloon.
The thing is, to the uninitiated Anonymous 4 simply needs to be seen to be believed, a difficult task when the sound that they produce is so harmoniously lilting and clear that a listener is compelled to close their eyes and just bask in it. There is something actually shocking about seeing four flesh and blood humans producing the sounds that they make. Anonymous 4 sounds like stained glass looks: a bevy of lines and colors meticulously crafted and even more meticulously fused together, the finished product containing a sense of perpetuity and a collectively informed knowledge of the past. This was most keenly felt in Lection: Apocalypse 21, based on texts that braced for the world’s end at the turn of the millennium – yeah, the first millennium, as well as two 13th century motets from a codex whose origins lay in a Spanish convent. Not everything sung by Anonymous 4 was a thousand years old, however. Richard Einhorn’s The Scientist does quote Galileo but its repetitious, layered rhythms built something more modern and minimalist, with Anonymous 4’s pristine voices going into and out of phase. There was also John Tavener’s medieval redux The Lord’s Prayer, as well as Wayfaring Stranger and Parting Friends, two relatively new pieces written in the mid 19th century. Each was in English and made for a fantastic segue into the second half of the concert, bringing the audience home and reminding them that not all is Latin and arcane.
The veil was totally lifted when The Mountain Goats emerged and Darnielle began leafing through pages and pages of lyrics that were sort of in the order listed in the program itself. This shift in character was exemplified by his buzzy acoustic guitar and healthy doses of banter between the songs – each one marked by cleverness and brevity, sometimes by inanity, and sometimes even by heart wrenching morose. Yet there was nothing like defeat in his music or his presence, his kind demeanor illuminated by the stadium rock progressions he giddily smacked out of his guitar while literally hopping in place. Some of the tunes he played were brand new, and one of the most effective was 1 John 4:16, in which he was joined by Owen Pallett (of Final Fantasy fame) on violin. The song’s delicacy was extremely poignant, with Darnielle’s gentle, compellingly un-ambitious piano part tiptoeing through the harmonic progression. Another engaging number was Bride, a song all about the Bride of Frankenstein. “The same electricity that gave us life crackles through the lamp,” sang Darnielle, an amazing line and an amazing moment considering fifteen minutes prior Anonymous 4 had been up there singing music written by people about half a millennium away from even fathoming what electricity is.
When Anonymous 4 joined The Mountain Goats on stage to sing songs from their Transcendental Youth collaboration, Darnielle essentially found himself accompanied by the most amazing backup singers in the history of backup singers. No one ever could have come up with such an arrangement but Darnielle himself, who has been an avid fan of Anonymous 4 for something like twenty years, and no one was more ecstatic about it than he, who showed his hand by blurting out missives like “I can’t even believe this is happening.” Despite his disbelief, the songs, all written by Darnielle (and arranged for guitar, piano, and voice by Pallett), all concerning mental and emotional turmoil in different guises, contained a levity that worked remarkably well in the hands of Anonymous 4, who with their unyielding level of poise and perfection sang lines like “woke up on the floor again, cell-phone stuck to the side of my face.” Spent Gladiator II and the a cappella Lakeside View Apartments Suite captured the best of The Mountain Goats’ effervescently clever lyrics and Anonymous 4’s immaculate harmony. It may not have been classical in the strictest sense of the word, but the contrasts on display made for a wonderfully attractive and affirming way to demonstrate how the old can meet the new. From lyrics by Saint John the Apostle and those about stealing sunscreen from a CVS to the most divine, polished polyphony and a guy who has the look and feel of an open mic maestro. Together they showed what voices from the past could do with words from the present, and the beauty in both was hard to miss.