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  • Remaking the PastFeminist Spirituality in Anonymous 4 and Sequentia's Vox Feminae
  • Kirsten Yri (bio)

In her 1994 review of recordings of medieval and Renaissance music for the journal Plainsong and Medieval Music critic Tess Knighton distinguished with the heading "Women's Music" a new section devoted purely to female voices. Making note of the in-creased visibility of and special interest in the sounds of female voices and presenting evidence of historical precedent for their use in medieval sacred and secular music, Knighton remarked, "The sound of all-women's voices is consistently refreshing—perhaps simply because we have become so accustomed to hearing men singing chant in particular."1 Indeed, before the release of recordings by all-female voices, the association of chant with the male voice would have appeared "natural" to the worshiper or listener. This article discusses the shift from male to female voice in recordings by all-female ensembles Anonymous 4 and Sequentia's Vox Feminae, exploring the range of ideological positions such recordings involve. In featuring all-female voices these ensembles do more than construct new sounds for the medieval polyphony and monophony they perform. They also reshape attitudes toward medieval society, effectively remaking the past as a site for feminist and spiritual exploration.2 [End Page 1]

Yet the popularity of all-female recordings of medieval music in North America says more about contemporary social conditions and feminism than it does about the Middle Ages. This is not to suggest that Anonymous 4 and Sequentia's Vox Feminae, the two ensembles most clearly connected to this popularity, employ the same tropes for women and spirituality. Differences between the ensembles can be found in their vocal production, imagery, and liner notes, although the recording practices and marketing of their compact discs obscure the ensembles' differences in approach. The lingering image is one that highlights vague spiritual dimensions over specific historical or textual messages.

Being distinctly "female" in sound, recordings by these ensembles easily resonate with feminist scholarship that has remade the received narratives of women's lives. Indeed, such musical undertakings would be inconceivable without the massive, revolutionary work done in the field of women's history and to which the ensembles' liner notes and literature refer. For instance, the five-volume A History of Women, edited by Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, included, as part of its enormous project, a volume on the Middle Ages translated into English and published in 1992.3 The volume's focus on the roles of women in society and their everyday lives, actions, and behaviors was unique for exploring everyday rather than simply exceptional women. In this regard and especially pertinent to recordings by Anonymous 4 and Sequentia's Vox Feminae is the work done on historicizing medieval women's spirituality. Widely read during the 1980s and 1990s, when these recordings were being conceived, produced, and marketed, is the work of scholar Caroline Bynum, whose Jesus as Mother examined feminine imagery in religious writings, while her Holy Feast and Holy Fast explored the imagery of food that was prevalent in religious women's asceticism.4 Echoing recent feminist approaches to medieval and Renaissance texts, the cultural work of Anonymous 4 and Sequentia's Vox Feminae reevaluates and asserts the prominent roles women played as singers, composers, patrons, and literary subjects.5

Anonymous 4's Johanna Rose explains, however, that in the reception of her group's performances "feminism happens by default," presumably because the very presence of female voices is understood as staking territory.6 Donald Greig also draws attention to the perception of female voices as a political (read "feminist") act: "If an admission that all male groups constitute the norm against which all comers must be judged then look no further than Anthony Pryer's review . . . who writes, as Greig reports, 'The four anons are all women (is this a political statement?).'"7 So entrenched was the modern view that sacred medieval music was the domain of men that when Anonymous 4 released An English Ladymass, it was praised [End Page 2] as a record that would "dispel the old myth that chant and early polyphony are really uniquely the province of male voices...


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