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Hildegard starring Patricia Routledge

The Antinoan Doctor surprised me this morning with a post about an actress who became a nun in the only traditionally cloistered Benedictine women’s community in the United States. He had stumbled across a short documentary on her conversion engagingly entitled God Is The Bigger Elvis. At once I went looking for it on Amazon, and from there I segued to looking for another film I knew I had heard of about Hildegard of Bingen.

Amazon Instant Video did not fail me: I have just watched Hildegard, the 1994 film starring Patricia Routledge as the twelfth century’s most famous nun. Routledge is, of course, best known for playing Hyacinth Bucket (“It’s pronounced ‘Bouquet’!”), but she is as capable a dramatic actress as a comedienne; this is not Hyacinth-playing-Hildegard, but a solid and sober performance.

The film wisely concentrates on a few crucial moments and relationships in Hildegard’s life: Her friendship with the younger nun Ricardis; her conflict with the abbot of her community at Disibodenberg over the burial of a Crusader who may be excommunicate; her decision, supported by the nuns’ priest Volmar, to leave Disibodenberg and found an independent abbey at Bingen. Quotations from Scripture and from Hildegard’s profuse writings interweave with her justly famous music and tableaux of her visions to create a lovely taste of Hildegard’s personality, life, and work. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in her.

Despite no longer being a Christian, I remain deeply connected to a few saints and notables of the tradition who have meant a great deal to me. Julian of Norwich is foremost, but Hildegard is a close second, and I’d have to include the poet Dante and some of the English poets–Donne, Herbert, Hopkins–and Nicholas Ferrar, who founded the lay religious community at Little Gidding that inspired Eliot’s poem of that name. Hildegard, so very German in some ways, is also deeply Celtic; her Rhineland home had been evangelized by monks from Ireland and Scotland, and her persistent themes of nature and its goodness, the spiritual value of music and of the natural sciences, medicine and healing, and viriditas, literally “greenness”,  her metaphor for spiritual life and health (chi? prana? awen?) seem not only Celtic but Druidic (for Revival values of that word, at least). I am happy to discover I am still interested in her work and spirit.

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So yesterday I had an experience I’ve been waiting for the last thirty years or so. I heard the music of California in the far future as imagined by Ursula Le Guin and Todd Barton.

When Le Guin first published her book Always Coming Home, a vision of life in the Napa Valley centuries after the end of the world as we know it, it included a cassette tape, “Music and Poetry of the Kesh”. The book and tape together cost what was then a stupendous sum, something like $25–more than I could afford to spend out of my own pocket, even if I could find a bookstore that carried it. I daresay my mother vetoed buying it for me just as she vetoed buying me a Batmobile when I was in kindergarten. (Nope, still not over that.) So I purchased the mass-market paper edition as soon as I saw it, but I never had a chance to hear the music.

Thanks to the magic of mp3 downloads, it’s playing in my ears right now. The instrumental pieces sound rather California New Age, like something you’d hear on an acoustic-only episode of Hearts of Space, but the vocal pieces sound, to me, convincingly tribal. They are sung in Le Guin’s invented language, and they sound to me like the music of people for whom making music, singing, participating in music, is the default; it is music which belongs to the singers, the instrumentalists, rather than to specialists, experts, professionals, pop stars. It is not so much a performance as a participation: Work song, lullaby, sacred chant. I like it. I like it very much.

(And if you’re interested in listening, you can find samples or buy the whole album here.)

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In 1987, an Irish singer and composer named Michael McGlynn founded a choir in the hope of reviving choral singing in Ireland. He called it “An Uaithne”, after “the collective term for the three ancient types of Irish music, Suantraí (lullaby), Geantraí (happy song) and Goltraí (lament)”. Members of the group included his wife and his identical twin John. He soon Anglicized the spelling of the name to “Anúna”.

In 1986, an American organist and composer founded a choir to sing music of the English cathedral tradition outside of liturgy, in concert. Members included his then wife and identical twin brothers. He called the group “Sine Nomine” because the first members couldn’t agree on a name.

In 1990, a soprano with a straight tone and red hair auditioned for Sine Nomine. The director not only hired her, he asked her out on a date (being by then divorced his first wife). Reader, I married him.

Probably in 1992, I found a cassette tape called Anúna in an Irish import store. I bought it, listened to it, and loved it. The sound of the group and the feel of the music was very similar to what we were doing in Sine Nomine, although we were performing medieval and Renaissance compositions, madrigals, part-songs, Anglican communion services, and Anúna’s repertoire consisted entirely of compositions by the director, Michael McGlynn.

Anúna is twenty-five years old this year. Sine Nomine did not last so long, but I went from choral singing in concert under my husband’s direction to choral singing in liturgy under my husband’s direction, sang in his church choir for several years, and eventually retired for a complex cluster of reasons that included being spiritually alienated by the liturgy and feeling just too damned tired to rehearse and perform after a forty-hour work-week. The music of Michael McGlynn and Anúna has accompanied me from Sine Nomine to Anglo-Catholic liturgy to druidry, always remaining an essential nutrient in my life, food for my soul and mind and heart.

Last week I discovered that the group had just released a new album. Despite money being a bit short, I hastened to buy it in mp3 format and listened to it immediately, streaming it at work via my Amazon Cloud music player. And I read the entries on Anúna’s website and McGlynn’s blog about the group’s history, and thought about their two and a half decades, and the albums I’ve listened to, and how certain songs of theirs have become keynotes, for me, of the tides of the year, part of my observance of holy days and seasons.

An uaithne. The three strains of all music: The song of sleep, the song of joy, and the lament. Like the three shouts of creation in Welsh bardic traditions, the three primal vowels that reverberate through human language, the triskele of Celtic tradition in musical form. The music of Michael McGlynn and Anúna is the music of my druid journey. I leave you with a song for this season of the year:

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Recently Read:

Current Reading:

Current Listening

Current Viewing:

(including movies I’ve seen this summer)

  • The Avengers
  • Iron Man
  • Iron Man 2
  • Men in Black 3
  • Farscape
  • Life on Mars, the British series with John Simm about a police detective who wakes up thirty years into his own past after being hit by a car

Current Obsessions:

  • The BBC’s Sherlock and its lead actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman
  • the writing of Aidan Kelly
  • ice cream, lots of ice cream
  • the two red-eared slider turtles we’re housesitting this summer, Beatrix and Matilda, the Shell Sisters

 

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Unexplainable Photo Snapped at Jim Morrison’s Grave | Music News | Rolling Stone.

Watch the video. That is *creepy*, man. *vague shudder*

Thanks to Sannion at the House of Vines for the link!

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Tori Amos has a new album which can be heard at NPR’s First Listen. I’ve just heard a 9-minute song inspired by the Cad Goddeu, the Battle of the Trees which figured so prominently in The White Goddess.

Listen to it here.

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