Trio Soars into New York on Wings of Song:
What is it with these girl groups who beguile us with their dulcet tones and then disband, breaking our hearts?
The news that Anonymous 4, New York’s celebrated all-women vocal quartet, would quit full-time touring and recording later this year was met with a despondency among fans as dire as when Diana Ross left the Supremes in 1970.
Happily, another superb girl group has emerged to fill the void: Trio Mediæval, whose 2001 début CD, the ecstatically beautiful Words of the Angel (ECM), gained rapturous reviews worldwide. Founded in 1997, the trio consists of Anna Maria Friman of Sweden, and Norwegians Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Østrem Ossum.
Trio Mediæval’s specialties include polyphonic mediæval music, Norwegian ballads and folk songs, and contemporary works, many written especially for the group. They make their New York début Thursday at the Orensanz Foundation’s dramatic performing space, a desacralized synagogue, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, with a program drawn mostly from their new ECM CD, Soir, dit-elle.
“We don’t adjust our voices to the different strands of our repertory,” Friman said by telephone. “We just let our voices go, and”—she paused for a whoosh—“it happens!” Such passion shapes the Trio’s sound: impressively pure and ethereal when warranted, but with a womanly richness and bite that set the group apart from Anonymous 4. It comes through strikingly in the title cut of Words of the Angel. In Ivan Moody’s setting of passages from the Orthodox Easter liturgy, haunting, spiky dissonances suggest a joy born of unspeakable sorrow.
Friman, studying for a doctorate in mediæval performance practice at the University of York in England, explained the Trio’s pragmatic approach to issues of authenticity. “We could aim for historically informed performance, but there is very little evidence we can be sure of. My point of view, and also Linn and Torunn’s, is that what works is what works—for us and for the audience.”
Reminded that women in the Middle Ages probably would have been prohibited from singing much of the music in the Trio’s repertoire, Friman chuckled. “We don’t even know if the lower parts were written for voices,” she said. “There’s so much we don’t know. So I don’t see why we should think about the fact that women didn’t sing it.”
For similar reasons, the Trio generally does not provide translations of the works it performs: To quote producer John Potter, so as not to “channel listeners’ attention into meanings that are no longer there.” It’s a bold, postmodern interpretive stance, echoed in the self-referential packaging of the Trio’s CDs. They both bear the cryptic phrase Soir, dit-elle (“Evening, she says”), from a Jean-Luc Godard film.
The programs of the two recordings mirror each other, Friman said: The first mostly mediæval, with a contemporary work; the second largely modern, with one piece from the Middle Ages.
She also hinted jokingly at a marketing ploy. “People can go into a shop and ask for Soir, dit-elle. And the shop owner will say, ‘Which one?’ And they say, ‘I’ll have both!’”
Friman offered some unexpected but revealing thoughts on Trio Mediæval’s success. “Linn and Torunn have three children each. One of the special things about the Trio is that we live normal lives. We don’t do many concerts, and we make sure that they are real ’events’ for us.”
A similar humanity shines through in Trio Mediæval’s work, making for uniquely down-to-earth performances of heavenly music.