Friday, December 23, 2005

Like a Feather on the Breath of God

Woke up last night around 4 am and, unable to get back to sleep, stumbled into living room and hit play on the cd player. I'd qued up, earlier in the day, Hildegard of Bingen's 'Like a Feather on the Breath of God" (recorded on Hyperion in1983 or so). But at 4 am I'd basically forgotten what I had in the player so when I sat down to just stare blankly out the window and will myself back to sleep, the music didn't hit me as familiar even though this is one of the first cd's I ever bought -- at least 15 years ago -- and one that I've listened to probably hundreds of times over the years.
In my half-conscious state I just let my thoughts and impressions of the music lead me where they might. What was really interesting was how the female voices created a sense of both etheriality and earthiness.

While I was listening I was watching these clouds of smoke drifting out of the Detroit Public Library whose rooftop I can see clearly from my 6th floor apt. The smokecloud would waft, at times, horizontally across the nighttime cityscape, and then it would wisp up vertically into the stars. I've spent a lot of time contemplating this smoky drifting, it looks very beautiful especially against the very gray backdrop of the city in winter. (At least I think so).

This particular night the billowing clouds were strikingly similar to how the the choral voices on the cd seemed to work and move in and across sonic space. The architecture of the voices, singly and in combination at times seemed to blend horizontally (this is literally what I was thinking, examining) and when the solo parts came in they seemed to lift up out of that horizon, but never entirely away from it. One could really hear how this was about musical embodiment -- spirit made flesh.

When I finally got up to check what the heck I was listening to I first felt sheepish that I hadn't recognized it, so I switched on the lamp to read the liner notes. I have a biography of Hildegard of Bingen that I've read a few times over the years and which I totally love, but I don't recall ever reading these notes. It seems that most of the pieces were written as homages to varios founders of abbeys and churches in medieval Germany (men and women who Hildegard honored as forefathers and mothers of her own important role as a founding abbess). One of the main metaphors is that of the cornerstone, rock or edifice upon which the sounds are built. That is, the lyrics often refer to the architecture and spatial significance of belief. In some way this changes (or at least contributes to) my sense of what belief might mean.

Or perhaps the medieval notion of it is far more "grounded" than later metaphysical developments.

Music as a physical, material, spatial, reality shouldn't be news to anyone, it's just that the delight of its history was a palpable epiphany at 4 am .

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