Garmarna’s Hildegard von Bingen

The sticker says “12th century chants, 21st century sounds.” But don’t let that strike fear into your soul. This is no mamby pamby attempt to cash in on the unexpected appeal of Gregorian chants with new age backgrounds. Nor is it a faithful reproduction of what Hildegard’s music might have sounded like back in her monastery on the Rhine. This is a powerful interpretation of medieval music brought forward through astonishing vocals and accompaniment, that for the most part, really work. Garmarna know how to tap into the essence hidden within these medieval Latin chants to extract the magic. Next they surround it with percussive accompaniment that is more appealing than the moniker “21st century sounds” would suggest. This is simply powerful backing using available technologies. After all, this disc was recorded in commemoration of Hildegard’s 900th birthday, and I suspect that if she were still around, she might have made a few changes herself.

Hildegard’s music has been preserved with notations on melody, the lyrics, and some good (depending on the piece) guesses as to what she imagined for her compositions. I’ve heard other groups attempt to communicate her music, both in “medieval” form and adapted for modern instruments, but Garmarna’s effort is the only one that really works for me, so far. Garmarna bring something of the medieval into the now, seeming to tap into the nuances within the lyrics and melodies. Think of this as Hildegard refreshed and reinterpreted — all the heart is there, making it almost seem odd that this music was written in another era.

Hildegard von Bingen was an amazing woman, and has been somewhat of a “star” since the early 1980s when Matthew Fox and other creation mystics translated and reinterpreted her writing for today’s readers. Although she did not enjoy equal status with men in the medieval Christian church, her brilliance and leadership skills helped her to become a very influential person for her time. She excels at finding natural images that describe the relationship of nature and deity, in a way that one finds more recently in some Irish music and writing. Indeed, her abbey was originally founded by Irish missionaries to the continent. Hildegard carried on a correspondence with many of the political and spiritual leaders of her day, wrote an influential medical manual, composed operas, and choral music, conveyed her visions through painting, managed an abbey, and still seems to have maintained a sense of at-one-ness with deity and nature. It is believed that she suffered from migraine headaches, perhaps a source of her visions, and it is thought by some that she might have indulged in psycho-actives (although the evidence for this is a bit thin). Whatever – this is an amazing composer, whose vision has been revived at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Garmarna are Emma Hardelin on vocals, Stefan Brisland-Ferner on strings, hurdy-gurdy and programming, Jens Hoglin on percussion, Gotte Ringqvist on guitar, Richard Westman on guitar and e-bow, with guest Iain Ross on guitar on “Paco.” I’d listen to Hardelin sing almost anything — she just has a wonderful voice, comparable to some singers of Irish and Scottish traditions like Karen Matheson of Capercaille, or Karan Casey, or Mary Jane Lammond.

The first track, “Euchari / “Eucharius” is particularly powerful. At almost five minutes in length, it has a dark wailing fiddle line and a wild hurdy-gurdy line, and insistent percussion reminiscent of some of Gjallerhorn’s better numbers on Sjofn — it just rocks. In fact, the fiddle lines are wonderful throughout this album, conveying what the beauty in these sophisticated melodies, grabbing the heart of the melodies and blending effortlessly with Hardelin’s voice. The hurdy-gurdy provides the drone that almost certainly accompanied these melodies in Hildegard’s time. But it must be said that a great deal is resting on Hardelin, and that she delivers magnificently. Another standout number is “O Frinderans Virga / O Growing Branch” which features both a beautiful clear vocal delivery, and an exciting, urgent, demanding fiddle line. The disc is also a CD-ROM, and contains a video performance of this song, for the technologically-inclined. My other favorite is the similarly glorious instrumental introduction to “Unde Quocompque / Whence, Wherever,” a song with a plaintive, melancholy vocal backed by minimal violin accompaniment, and later a percussion interlude that returns to the insistent theme, but with an electronic edge. I also particularly enjoyed “Paso” and the final number, a simple benediction entitled “Kyrie.”

One must always ask whether or not the updating will stand the test of time that the originals have. OK, let me admit that I don’t think musicians have been combing the vaults searching for Hildegard’s music, but it is clear that she produced a great deal of rich source material that could be interpreted in various ways. For the most part, I would have to answer that I believe Garmarna’s interpretation will endure. There are a very few passages that are a bit too self-consciously electronic, like the vocal distortions on the third track. But overall these arrangements really work for me, although they might not work for a purist.

If you’re a bit of a mystic, or just want to listen to something that is eerie, powerful and life affirming, with a great percussive package, check out Garmarna’s Hildegard.

(Northside, 2001)

About Kim Bates

Kim Bates, former Music Review Editor, grew up in and around St. Paul/Minneapolis and developed a taste for folk music through housemates who played their music and took her to lots of shows, as well as KFAI community radio, Boiled in Lead shows in the 1980s, and the incredible folks at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which she’s been lucky to experience for the past 10 years. Now she lives in Toronto, another city with a great and very accessible music and arts scene, where she teaches at the University of Toronto. She likes to travel to beautiful nature to do wilderness camping, but she lives in a city and rides the subway to work. Some people might say that she gets distracted by navel gazing under the guise of spirituality, but she keeps telling herself it’s Her Path. She’s deeply moved by environmental issues, and somehow thinks we have to reinterpret our past in order to move forward and survive as cultures, maybe even as a species.

Her passion for British Isles-derived folk music, from both sides of the Atlantic, seems to come from this sense about carrying the past forward. She tends to like music that mixes traditional musical themes with contemporary sensibilities — like Shooglenifty or Kila — or that energizes traditional tunes with today’s political or personal issues — like the Oysterband, Solas, or even Great Big Sea. She can’t tolerate heat and humidity, but somehow she finds herself a big fan of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (Louisana), Regis Gisavo (Madagascar), and various African and Caribbean artists — always hoping that tour schedules include the Great White North.