- Daisy Press: “You Are the Flower — Music from Hildegard von Bingen, Vol. 1” (StorySound Records)
- Kotoka Suzuki: “Shimmer, Tree” (Starkland)
- Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir: “strengur” (Carrier Records)
“The quality that we call beauty,” writes Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, “must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty’s ends.” As the days grow shorter and autumn light sets in, I’m often reminded of Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, an ode to the dark, the inky, and the crepuscular moments in life—moments becoming increasingly rarer thanks to technology. The convenience of a lightswitch overtakes the richness of lighting a candle; an effect Tanizaki describes as “a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow.”
Hildegard of Bingen used a similar metaphor to describe the repletion of divine experience, calling her holy visions “the Shade of the Living Light.” She wasn’t the only one to refer to God via burnished metaphors. In fact, our likening of darkness to all things wicked and crooked stems in part from the idea that the holy and divine would be the polar opposite. But Hildegard blurs the dichotomy: The only way to experience God as Living Light would be in the shade. To do otherwise would be to spontaneously combust.
There’s a subsequent fertile darkness in much of Hildegard’s music. Her hymns aren’t designed to unquestioningly praise God, but to contemplate the mysteries and mysticism of faith. They’re designed to be sung against church candles and incense; to be their own pregnancies of tiny, luminous particles. Her St. Ursula ode, “Favus Distillans,” for example, is a Matins responsory, sung in the darkest hours before daybreak. It gives room for the sensual ecstasy of the text, which begins with an image appropriated from the Song of Songs:
A dripping honeycomb
was the virgin Ursula,
who yearned to embrace the Lamb of God,
the honey and milk beneath her tongue.
The first three words quite literally drip with notes that waver a step above or below, unable to contain themselves. The challenge for the performer is to sing these notes without overindulging. The voice is a vassal more than a main event. Vocalist Daisy Press balances this tightrope act like Philippe Petit on the highwire. It’s not that Press isn’t in strong command of her instrument, but the way she sings these texts—on the first of her multi-album project devoted to Hildegard’s music—doesn’t fetishize technique or perfection. Her tone is crystalline and fluid, but delivered with a plainspoken directness.
“You Are the Flower” delivers a handful of Hildegard settings against a backdrop of drones and the occasional Hindustani raga—the latter a musical idiom whose level of devotion and contemplation matches Hildegard’s sensibilities. It’s hard to separate what of this album is musical artistry versus spiritual practice for Press, which is likely the point. Her fluid, coppery soprano flows and blooms in sparse but enveloping arrangements, adding on accompaniment layer-by-layer, track-by-track, illuminating the text like an old manuscript. The penultimate piece, “Spiritui Sancto Honor Sit,” is a peak moment of hushed reverence and interiority, and if you’re new to Hildegard’s biography I highly recommend listening to this while reading Nathaniel M. Campbell’s notes on the piece, which cite it as one of the examples of how Hildegard wove her own autobiography into her music.
In a way, Press is doing the same: A specialist in Hildegard’s music and a High Priestess in her own right at New York’s House of Yes, she began as a classically-trained singer, working with what she called “very intellectual, high-minded music.” She soon became disillusioned with it. “I was just sick of singing being so hard and music being so hard. I was under the impression that, if I’m not singing perfectly, I just shouldn’t be singing at all.” A blessing, then, that she discovered Hildegard’s works.
I realize I mentioned texture last week; after so many albums and so many of these columns, I’m bound to start repeating myself and to give away my personal musical predilections. But it’s once again the texture in Press’s album that makes it so convictive (on the final track, her voice fades so slowly it still hangs in the air long after the player has stopped). Kotoka Suzuki’s convictions take a similar path, as seen in the first album dedicated entirely to her compositions. Her Tanizaki-inspired “In Praise of Shadows,” written for three “paper players” and fixed electronics, picks up on Tanizaki’s observation that “Western paper turns away the light,” while Japanese paper “seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall.”
Tanizaki would be even more distraught to see, in 2022, the disappearance of paper in so many aspects of life (in both Japan and the West). Suzuki’s hymn to the author takes this into account, luxuriating in the tactile texture of paper while also lamenting its loss to technology. “As modern life has become increasingly alienated from materiality, pushing into a virtual, digital domain, ‘In Praise of Shadows’ is a eulogy for our collective loss of the tangible,” she writes in her composer’s note to the work. Yet the work itself relies on both paper—sonically explored with almost religious devotion—and electronics, the latter providing both holding container and annotation for the former. This in itself invites contemplation; it’s an elegy for what is lost through technology, but also an elegy that can only be experienced through the same (especially on recording).
It’s one of seven dreamworlds that Suzuki gives us the keys to on “Shimmer, Tree,” which begins in a layer of somatic suspension and ends with its title track—an homage to Suzuki’s former teacher, Jonathan Harvey. A meeting between the two by a sun-lit window in California inspired the first movement. As Suzuki describes it, Harvey paused mid-sentence, and gazed out of the window at a tree swaying in the wind. He then remarked: “Do you see how beautifully that tree is moving?” Suzuki channels this memory into a Messiaen-like moment of finding God in the small details, giving the interplay between limbs, leaves, and wind to a piano solo (lustrously played by Cristina Valdés). The second movement veers even deeper into Harvey territory, taking inspiration from his 1982 work “Bhakti,” (Sanskrit for “devotion” and a work that pays homage to the Vedic hymnal, the Rigveda—a series of hymns Harvey described as “keys to a transcendent consciousness”). In this way, Suzuki—not unlike Press—continues the idea of lineage that passes on from teacher to student, even using the same recording of a tenor bell from another Harvey work (“Mortuos Plango”) towards the end of the piece. The student inherits from the teacher, and builds on those teachings, eventually passing them on to someone else who takes up the mantle.
“Some years back I came across a compilation album which included recordings from Ísmús, an Icelandic online music and culture archive,” Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir writes in the liner notes to “strengur.” To her surprise, Steinunn found that the compilation included a recording of her great-grandmother, poet and farmer Halla Lovísa Loftsdóttir. Steinunn soon began researching her great-grandmother, finding a large database of interview clips and singing—including original compositions. “The encounter sparked the wish to ‘meet her’ through sound,” she adds, noting that her recording of choice was a 17th-century Icelandic hymn captured in 1969.
After some false starts to this meeting, Steinunn reached out to Nguyễn Thanh Thủy, a performer on the Vietnamese cousin to the zither, the đàn tranh. Thủy’s knowledge of Vietnamese performance practices and improvisational skills unlocked the door for Steinunn and eventually led to “Hölluþula.” Layers of electronics include the plucks of Thủy’s đàn tranh. Steinunn’s baroque violin winds around them, at times picking up Thủy’s notes, at others adding a material layer to the electronic fuzz or embellishing the tones hummed low by her great-grandmother. The archival recording of a centuries-old hymn is enmeshed in this setting, as if it were old yarn being used to darn a new sweater. The seams are visible, but it makes the work stronger for it—each particle is luminous.
It’s a beautiful opening to “strengur,” a word that Steinunn notes can mean the string of an instrument, the materials twisted together to make a rope, string, or cord, or “an even and persistent wind that runs along objects and geographic elements, such as mountains or buildings.” Wind is a constant element in the works that form the album—which comprises five groups of three pieces, each group developed in partnership with a close collaborator (including, in addition to Loftsdóttir, Davíð Brynjar Franzson, Lương Huệ Trinh, Kent Olofsson, and Mirjam Tally). On the banks of a strait separating Sweden from Denmark, Steinunn tied her old gut strings to a post, dipped them in red ink, and enlisted the breeze to direct the ink from her strings onto pieces of tracing paper.
These become trail markers throughout the album, one “strengur” score for each composer that exists in the same ecosystem as their full contribution to the album. Within each one, you hear the fibers of the strings as they twist together, as well as the wind that runs evenly and persistently between bow and body. Measures crackle with a kinetic luminescence. Other found sounds—muffled streetscapes, ASMR-ified whispers—create a layer of ghosts of conversations past. There’s something holy in these mundane moments, too. I’m not sure what is being said in the spoken excerpts on Olofsson’s “Violin with Þytur” (“Þytur” here being Icelandic for “ruffling” or “whistling”), but the layers of sound—originally designed for a gallery installation—coupled with Steinunn’s bowing between whistles and rustles are reverent, a hymn to the natural world. ¶
Subscribers keep VAN running!
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.