Sunday, June 01, 2008

Something Very Different

Responses to this blog are coming from some very interesting people and places. Recently, a representative of Jade Music sent two CDs asking that I listen to them and perhaps write a review. Me! A contemplative nun! I feel rather like a pretender in even attempting such a thing.

I have no, absolutely no, formal musical training except for school choruses and the community choir of this monastery. My sisters can tell you how well, or not so well I do in the choir. My first musical memories consist of the themes of various radio soap operas and Teresa Brewer singing "Put another nickel in. All I want is music, music, music." As for recorded music, that began with my father's first LPs of the original Broadway cast album of South Pacific and the lilting tones of Lily Pons operatic soprano in the Bell Song from Lakme and the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. So early on I was hooked on rock and roll, light classical music and opera. Then came the movie Amadeus with its announcement that there was a world of heavier classical music being missed. I was off and running.

I had heard of Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992) only a few weeks before receiving the CD. There was a big article about him in the Arts and Leisure Section of the Sunday New York Times. The following is from his web page:

From very early on it was clear that Messiaen would be a composer who would stand alone in the history of music. Coming not from any particular 'school' or style but forming and creating his own totally individual musical voice. He achieved this by creating his own 'modes of limited transposition', taking rhythmic ideas from India (deci tala), ancient Greece and the orient and most importantly adapting the songs of birds from around the world. He was a man of many interests including painting, literature, and the orient where he took in not only the musical culture but theatre, literature and even the cuisine of foreign countries! The single most important driving force in his musical creations was his devout Catholic faith.

In my amateurish way I describe his music as avante garde. Judging from the responses I have received from a few who have heard his works he is either adored or dismissed. Perhaps in the way that Philip Glass's modern operas are embraced by some and ignored by others. Since I am a simple melody-type person some of the pieces on this CD, Olivier Messiaen -Never Before Released, did not have much appeal to me but I found the organ pieces to be wonderful. The artists rendering Messiean's compositions are superb. Since this significant composer of the 20th century is receiving such attention these days, this CD would be a good place to find an introduction.

About the second CD, The Marriage of the Heavens and the Earth, modern renderings of the words and music of the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen, I feel a bit more competent to make comment. I have long been a student of Hildegard, a genius by any definition; woman of faith, leader, author, playwright, natural healer, preacher, musician, composer, as well as friend and critic of monks, clerics, and bishops.

In the last twenty-five years many recordings of her chant, unusual for its range and patterns, have been released. The CD mentioned here is very different in straying from historical authenticity and venturing into new expressions of words and melody along with interesting accompaniment by variety of percussion instruments. Along with the dulcimer there are bells, mbira, tanpura, Tibetan bowls, cymbals, Burmese gongs, bendirs and darabuka. In addition, the voice of Catherine Braslavsky has an unusual quality which I attribute to her experience not only with Gregorian chant but also Indian and Judeo Spanish harmonic chant. At times the vibrato in her voice reminded me of Arabic keening, that high pitched undulating wail. The use of Oriental percussion instruments was very appealing. Perhaps Hildegard purists would disagree about these adaptations. But I think Hildegard would be delighted. I particularly liked the Kyrie Eleison.

Listening to these CDs was an exploration into the previously unknown. It was an interesting and pleasurable journey. Perhaps it is one you'd like to take.

1 comment:

Dina said...

Shalom dear sister. Nice that you are branching out as a reviewer. Thanks for steering me to Catherine Braslavsky. And Google found me a free MP3 listen to her Kyrie. After a few times, it DOES grow on you. Not sure, though, that I'm ready to try a "new and improved" rendition of Hildegard von Bingen. :)
Greetings from Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day.