Chants Of Hildegard Flower In Creepy Space (With A Furtive Mouse)

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Daisy Press performed music of Hildegard von Bingen at the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs, using drone instruments that included whirly tubes, chimes, and singing bowls. (Photo courtesy Death of Classical concert series)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Fans of Hildegard von Bingen, the 11th-century composer of exquisitely beautiful liturgical chants, are fanatical in the way of Berlioz or Bach or Wagner fans: There is an International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies website devoted to her, and even a whimsical Facebook page entitled Daily Update on Hildegard Von Bingen’s Health Condition

Hildegard was a Benedictine abbess, mystic, philosopher, and polymath. Her music is monophonic, set for a single vocal line, leaving ample space for interpretation. Her champions have included the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, which in 2005 released the album The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen, and Seraphic Fire, which in 2021 released a recording of her morality play Ordo Virtutum, set to Hildegard’s own text and weaving in antiphons, hymns, sequences, and responsories.

In 2019, the playwright/composer/singer Grace McLean (who portrayed Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimova in Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), composed and orchestrated a musical, In the Green, which debuted at Lincoln Center Theater — a jazzy, deeply strange exploration not so much of Hildegard’s music as her traumatic roots. 

Hildegard von Bingen, circa 1098-1179 (Wikimedia)

The latest performer to take on Hildegard is Daisy Press, a classically trained soprano whose resume includes collaborations with Sō Percussion and IRCAM, performances at Burning Man, in Broadway’s immersive show The Devouring, and with the electro-funk band Chromeo. Over three days in September, Press gave solo performances of seven of Hildegard’s chants in the dark void of the catacombs of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, which hold the remains of 30 New York City families. It’s a wonderfully evocative but creepy space where since 2018 the impresario Andrew Ousley has been presenting a wide range of chamber concerts. There certainly might be no space better to hear all those medieval open fifths.

In her Brooklyn performances, Press incorporated elements of Hindustani ragas into Hildegard’s original chants. The concerts coincided with the release of Press’s first solo album, of the same repertoire, on StorySound Records. She performed in bare feet and wore a flowing blue dress, her lower legs criss-crossed with fabric, Roman-sandal style. The crypt can seat only 85 people; the very front of the space evokes an altar, but where you might expect to see an altarpiece, there were hanging chimes.

Drone accompaniment came from several instruments, including those chimes and, at the front of the small stage, five crystal singing bowls whose rims can be slowly swirled (played by swirling a mallet around the outside rim to make the bowl sing at a steady pitch) to create a steady single pitch or struck for a gentle gong-like effect. During the intermissionless performance, Press also sang to the accompaniment of a whirly tube — whose sound comes from whirling it lasso-like in the air — and the harmonium-like shruti box, operated with bellows, buttons, or electronically.

Lighting at catacombs concerts provides its own drama: a white or pink halo over the stage, electric candles along the aisles, and a backdrop, on this occasion lit in a golden yellow, where the chimes were hung. Big voices can overwhelm this chamber-sized space, so Press’s precise, narrow, sweet timbre, with lightly applied vibrato, was a good match for the acoustic.

The first number, “Favus Distillans” — set to a marvelously evocative text that likens the virgin Ursula to a dripping honeycomb — began with a series of gentle gong pitches, as fishnet patterns appeared on the ceiling, courtesy of lighting designer Hybrid Movement, with designs by Françoise Voranger. There were florid, extended embellished phrases, with some melismas on diatonic pitches, Western style, others sliding between pitches. At important text changes, Press often changed her drone accompaniment — at the words “Gloria Patri et Filio et spiritui sancto,” she switched to the shruti box, and her voice skittered over the embellished notes.

Ornamentation often used microtones, for example an extended sliding melisma on the word “Ursula.” Press created appealing dissonances against the drone accompaniment; a shruti drone on open fifths might be set against her sung interval of a fourth, or a minor second. As her right hand worked the drone, her raised left hand gesticulated, much as with hand gestures used in Indian classical music.

Hybrid Movement provided lighting design for Daisy Press’s program. (Photo courtesy Death of Classical concert series)

Communicating devotion or ecstasy — using a musical style from 1,000 years ago — to modern-day audience can be difficult, but it felt electric when at one point Press sang a rare minor third against the drone’s open fifths; you felt the audience perk up. In “Ave Maria, O auctrix vite” (Hail Mary, authoress of life), she added a splendid slide on the word “superbie” in the phrase “cum sufflatu superbie” (“with puffed-up pride”). In “Spiritui sancto” she used a whirly tube as her drone accompaniment, creating an intriguing effect, because you can never quite predict at what point the tube will sound, or change pitch.

This was an ambitious, technically impressive performance by a solo musician singing an hour of music, from memory, while navigating multiple drone instruments. At one point, Press strolled down the aisle, carrying a singing bowl, and performed from inside one of the side crypt doorways, invisible to most of the audience. (While there, she may have encountered the tiny, terrified mouse that briefly ran about, causing audience members to raise their feet off the floor, though not causing any audible “eeks.”)

At times, I wished that the Latin words were projected in translation. There’s so much to savor, for instance, in the text of “Karitas habundat in omnia” (“Love abounds in all, from the depths exalted and excelling over every star…,”), or in “O Clarissima” (“O radiant bright, O mother of a holy medicine, Your ointments through your holy Son you’ve poured upon the plangent wounds of death, by Eve constructed as torture chambers of the soul. This death you have destroyed by building life”). 

At sunset in Green-Wood Cemetery. (Jennifer Melick)

This performance was far from the pure, straight-toned Hildegard as exemplified by, say, Anonymous 4. Press’s free, liquid voice and her unique, personal interpretation of this music bring to mind a couple of singers who emerged in the 1970s: Annie Haslam of the progressive rock band Renaissance (though Press’s voice is not so stratospherically high) and the singer/songwriter Kate Bush (best known for “Wuthering Heights” and “Running Up That Hill”). It’s not so much a similarity of vocal timbre as the searching, spiritual quality of the performances and a mixing up of genres.

In a 2019 interview with The Creative Independent, Press noted that though she trained as a classical singer, finding her voice through the music of Hildegard von Bingen “was a really big moment…. Medieval music can be somewhat like Indian music — when I sing it at least. I really found my voice when I started practicing singing one note with a drone like Indian musicians do.” Her official biography notes that she is “founder and High Priestess of Voice Cult,” a community in Brooklyn that meets monthly to “explore singing Hildegard’s music as a regular grounding practice for body and spirit.”

In a brief program note, Press wrote, “A Latin word you will hear tonight is ‘abstraxit,’ meaning, ‘pulled away from.’ In early childhood Hildegard herself was pulled away from the everyday to live in a tiny cell, a place of deep isolation and contemplation …. This evening’s performance was “designed as our own brief ‘abstraction’ from NYC reality.”

In good weather, as was the case on this occasion, the audience gets in the proper contemplative mood by experiencing nature while walking to the catacombs, strolling the cemetery’s winding paths, walking under huge old oak, maple, beech, and tulip trees, near the graves of Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louis Gottschalk, and others. The planets were aligned on a perfect September evening with a liquid-orange sun hanging just above the western horizon as we clambered up the hill to the performance. Emerging from the catacombs, we were greeted by a nearly full moon as it rose in the sky to the east. Hildegard couldn’t have scripted it better herself.