CD Reviews

Hildegard von Bingen : John Cage

March 17, 2013


And so on.

As if to remind us that releases on the Wandelweiser label certainly do not all sound the same, or are particularly silent, this recent release from the label sounds quite unlike anything else the imprint has issued, and, despite containing in part works by John Cage, there is no silence, or suggestion of it here. The album pitches the music of Cage against that of Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth century German composer / writer / philosopher / nun. “Pitches” is possibly the correct term here as well, as the disc, all vocal works sung by the soprano Irene Kurka, who has appeared on other Wandelweiser releases in the past, is split into three parts- the first contains straight renditions of nine Hildegard compositions, the second being Cage’s Sonnekus(2), a 1985 composition for solo voice in nine parts, and then the two spliced together over the final eighteen track section, with the tracks from the first two sections presented again, alternating track by track between the two composers.

Its a simple idea, but also an original and rather nice one. Kurka’s voice is really very beautiful indeed, a slightly softer soprano than most, thoroughly warm and intimate in tone, but very much in the classical / early music tradition. She sings the two compositions in a very similar style, closest resembling the early liturgical works of Hildegard. The Cage piece consists of nine of his mesostic concrete poems, brief nine line works that all have the word Sonneries running vertically through them. I am not familiar with any other recordings of the work, though they do exist, most notably it seems performed by regular vocalist collaborator Joan La Barbara. Whether Kurka has chosen to sing the Cage piece in the same style as the Hidegard isn’t clear, but even after several close listens it isn’t easy during the third section of the album to tell which of the two composers’ works she is singing at any one time. The fact that both parts were recorded in a church, with all of such a venue’s familiar resonances present  only succeeds in blurring the lines further. A line on the Wandelweiser website maybe points towards the simple concept behind the album: “all of a sudden 800 years of temporal distance seem to dissolve and the pieces communicate with each other.” This indeed happens, though how much is as a result of the composer’s intentions and how much conceit on behalf of Kurka isn’t clear.

Although very much different to anything else on the label, this idea of comparing music from such disparate times is close to some of the core elements of Wandelweiser related composition. Hildegard’s music is exceptionally simple. While quite beautiful, it (and much of the music of its time) does not contain the great variation in form or melody that later centuries of composition shaped music around. What mattered to Hildegard at the time were the words of the pieces- the material that the songs contained. Much of the music of the Wandelweiser composers has followed similar themes, the simple organisation of sonic material into unadorned but meaningfully placed structures. Perhaps sometimes the idea is reversed, with the composers providing the structure and the musicians offering the material to fit into it. Either way, all of the music here, none of which is actually by a Wandelweiser composer has a sense of simplicity and a focus on the placement of sounds that resonates with the label. Indeed the 800 year gap feels non existent. The subject matter of Cage is also close to that of Hildegard as he used biblical text of some kind, though the precise content of the material is lost in both of Kurka’s realisations. So the music here is beautiful to listen to- restful, enchanting, expertly crafted. Yet nobody could be forgiven, on anything other than a very careful listen for not realising the fundemental differences between the two compositions, their form, meaning and reasons for existing. The way they come together asks a number of interesting questions about how compositions reflect one another, or perhaps how musicians impact on them to make this happen. Alongside these thoughts however also sits an album of extremely beautiful, simple music

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