Electric Ordo Virtutum

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There are some that confuse the medieval morality play, or, if you prefer, liturgical drama with opera. While morality plays are essentially dramas with music and some even feature specific characters, they are not organized in the forms of arias, duets, choruses, recitative, and so forth that characterize opera. German abbess, poet, and composer Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum, written circa 1151, is just about the oldest morality play there is, unless the Anonymous French play Le jeu d'Adam is older and it appears to be almost exactly contemporary to Hildegard's work. That has led some people to refer to Ordo Virtutum as the "first opera" and it is not so; however, the group Hildegurls -- along with contemporary composers Lisa Bielawa, Kitty Brazelton, Eve Beglarian, Elaine Kaplinsky, and Grethe Barrett Holby -- have re-rendered it into something that is nearly an opera, represented in recorded form by the album Electric Ordo Virtutum on Innova.

The Hildegurls take Hildegard into the twenty first century, neatly dovetailing her medieval migraines with the cellphone-agitated headaches of the twenty first century. To Hildegard a migraine was a holy gift, allowing direct communication with God; in contemporary femininity, a migraine is just a migraine. The ironic conflict between these warring poles of the feminine spirit is to some extent a shared interest among the various composers of the Electric Ordo Virtutum, though the contributions are all different and, judging from the photographs enclosed, this must've been a heck of a show to experience live. It doesn't seem fair to single out different parts of this intriguing work, though it is worth mentioning that Bielawa's section makes use of some wonderful, sung cluster chords developed out of the vertical of Hildegard's one-would-think intractably horizontal musical texture, and the menacing voices and sharp sound effects of Elaine Kaplinsky's section are riveting in their drama and frequent, jarring sonic interruptions.

The singing, speaking, sighing, and chanting of the Hildegurls is otherworldly and pushes the envelope for the female voice, picking up from pioneering artists in this arena such as Patty Waters, Joan La Barbara, and Diamanda Galás, but moving forward from that to some extent, it is not often that you hear such singing in ensemble, and here it is realized with perfection. Moreover, the electronics help move the story along and is not used as a commercializing element as it was on EMI's Vision, a release devoted to Hildegard's music to some extent, but also tastelessly repackaging her like a rock star. This attempts to establish a continuum from the present back to Hildegard in an artistic, spiritual, and political way, and it is entirely successful, gripping, and entertaining; the only way it could be better would be if it were a video, and that not being the case, Electric Ordo Virtutum is as good as it's going to get, which is excellent.

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