Interview with the Hildegurls

In early June 1998, the four Hildegurls---Eve Beglarian, Lisa Bielawa, Kitty Brazelton, and Elaine Kaplinsky---and director Grethe Holby sat down to discuss to discuss Hildegard and their Electronic Ordo Virtutum with Joe Hannan, program editor for Lincoln Center Festival 98.


JH: Where did the idea come from?

Kitty: In 1993 I was curating the Real Music Series at CBGB's. I felt that to balance all the wild stuff going on it might be refreshing to do some a cappella, early vocal music. Together with Eve, Elaine, and Mary Jane Leach, I cooked up a performance of Hildegard von Bingen's antiphons. Eve and I had already done a thing with Machaut's music, and we all knew Hildegard's music from the Hildegard revival of the past 15 years. We started at the back of the club and just walked through, singing when we wanted to, improvisationally riffing off the antiphons. We walked through with candles and black cloths.

Eve: We hid our hair and faces beneath cowls. We didn't bill ourselves in the programs---it was just "Anonymous."

Kitty: During this process, Eve, being an ambitious type, suggested that we do Ordo Virtutum. The rest of us looked at the score and thought she was insane. The opportunity came up again in 1996, when a friend was curating a series at Context Studios on Avenue A. I remembered Eve's suggestion and thought that maybe we could do an Ordo with a high-tech, electronic presence. We decided that each of us would take an act. I had this blithe idea of Hildegard plus high-tech---it all connects and it's really easy. Well, there was nothing easy about it; there's a whole structure in the Ordo that you have to respect.

Eve: That's one reason I was interested in the Ordo: there's a dramatic structure, a through-line. Our sections could be radically different from one another, but because the underlying structure was so strong, it would all make sense.

Kitty: Working with Mary Jane Leach, the three of us (Kitty, Eve, and Elaine) put it all together for the first time in October 1996. It worked way better than any of us expected. At which point we decided OK, let's record a demo.

Elaine: We ended up putting a huge amount of work into it---no one had expected the kind of effort it would take. We decided it would be great to go on with it---take it to the next level. Kitty did a tremendous job of searching for new possibilities, and when the Festival agreed to do the piece, we made some revisions to develop and clarify some elements of it.

Eve: Around that time, Mary Jane Leach had other commitments and basically felt it was too much, that she wanted to pull out. We brought in Lisa, and each of us did a certain amount of re-working of her own section.

Grethe: American Opera Projects was working to bring Patience & Sarah to the Festival. Here was another project coming into focus, and it needed someone to help bring it into the production phase. I started coming to music rehearsals to see what might be done with staging.

JH: It's interesting that there was a theatrical component way back in the CBGB stage. Does the Ordo invite that?

Eve: It's really impossible not to do it. There's a very good argument to be made that this morality play can be called an actual opera.

Grethe: For me there's no question. Throughout the rehearsal process we have uncovered new layers every day. The deeper we've searched, the more we've found. It's been an extraordinary communal journey for the five of us, and for me, a real revelation.

JH: What is the etymology of the word "Hildegurls"?

Eve: "Gurls" is a word with a certain amount of attitude. There's a whole concept of taking names that are put-downs and re-owning them---like activists calling themselves "queer" or John Leguizamo calling his one-man show Spic-O-Rama. "Girl" is a word we think is worth re-owning.

Elaine: In the e-mails we were sending one another, we started kidding around with versions of Hilde-this and Hilde-that, and Hildegurls is the one that stuck.

JH: How does a twentieth-century person enter into the imagery and allegory of Hildegard's texts?

Lisa: Her private theology can be very complex, and was not necessarily shared by her contemporaries. Hildegard mixed enough autobiography with her theology that her writings are illuminating about the philosophical climate. For example, we were very interested to discover that the worst thing you could be in those times was confused. The worst curse you could wish on someone was, "May you become confused." Being sure of the right path was crucial. For a woman, intellectual pursuits or ambitions were quite dangerous because they could lead to confusion. The idea of confusion is dramatically important in the Ordo. We spent time in rehearsal trying to re-create this vision of the world.


Music: Prologue and Act I

JH: What musical techniques helped you bring Hildegard's concepts together as an Electric Ordo Virtutum?

Eve: That's a big question. We each deal with one of the four main sections.

Kitty: There's also a Prologue that is not electronic. Well, there's an electronic drone, but it's not transformed. The drone consists of prolonged samples of us singing "Ve-" and "ni." It comes from Venite ad me--- "Come to me"---a refrain that the Virtues sing.

JH: So it's a Perotin-like thing, where one syllable of a cantus firmus can go on for five minutes.

Eve: Exactly. It's done electronically, but doesn't sound "electronic." It's just a pure drone sound, and we sing the pure chant, without mics, over that.

Lisa: I'm in charge of Act I. I've been fascinated with organum for a long time. In my music, the lines I combine are modal rather than tonal, so I call it polymodal. My section opens with a two-minute segment sung by Souls Imprisoned in Bodies, for which I multi-tracked my voice seven times to create a chorus of souls. Later I use a harmonizer: you sing one note, it produces a second note, higher or lower. I also used digital signal processing to create other organum-like sounds. One compositional method I used was to collapse horizontal melodies into vertical events. I also made vertical events by sustaining selected pitches from Hildegad's own melody or an organum version. These methods enabled me to create rich vertical textures from Hildegard's original notes.

Kitty: One interesting thing about the Virtues is that at times they seem to display characters that are opposite to our concepts of, for example, humility. The Virtue Humility is anything but humble. She is august and proud and commanding. Chastity is another case. All she does is sing about lying in the arms of the King in the bed of the King. The Virtues are generally pretty scary. Lisa tells us that when we portray the Virtues, we need to be "pod people." I can see why the poor Soul turns away from them.

Lisa: The Soul really does recoil from them. She's struggling with the world and the Virtues are not very helpful---they're forbidding rather than nurturing. The Soul says, "Gee, I have this body, the world is a beautiful place, I'd like to enjoy the worldly things that God made." She gets confused---there's that word---about whether that's okay and as a result, the Devil comes in. When she chooses the world, she lets the Devil in.

JH: And is the world the equivalent of Hell?

Lisa: Well, that's the Manichean concept that was floating around then, that everything about the body is evil.

Kitty: Whereas Hildegard proposed embracing the body as a vehicle to salvation.

Lisa: The woman's body was generally seen as a temple of pestilence, the fount of sin. Hildegard saw things differently. She was way into the female body. She studied anatomy and healing. She felt the nuns in her richly endowed convent should physically manifest the state of grace in a debased world. She only let rich women in. Rather than walking around in black shrouds, her nuns had jewels and tiaras and wore finery. They were supposed to look as luscious as possible.


Music: Act II

Kitty: In Act II, there is no Soul. She's in Hell with the Devil. The Virtues do a "catalog aria," strutting their stuff and defining themselves not only for the audience but also for the group of assembled Virtues, whom I think represent the nuns in Hildegard's convent. This is where a lot of the morality-play teaching takes place. I had a problem to solve, because in the original there are something like seventeen Virtues in a 45-minute act. So I edited it down to 12 solo Virtues who introduce themselves. We live singers are the chorus of Virtues responding to the solo Virtues on the tape: electronic antiphony. Musically, I used the act as an opportunity to deal with harmony. Hildegard did a lot of characterization by alternating between Dorian and Phrygian modes. There's a carefully thought-outmusical progression, so I couldn't just slash away. I found a way to put a scale in the bass underneath the whole section, based on the phrase Venite ad me, virtutes---"Come to me, Virtues." Ve-=D, ni-=E, te=F, ad=G, me=A, Vir-=A an octave lower, tu-=B, and tes=C. This cantus firmus is used not only in Act II but also for the keyboard samples in Act IV and the D- and E-drones in the Prologue and final Processional. We speak the Devil's part in several languages, improvised.


Music: Act III

Eve: The third act starts with the Soul running from the embrace of the Devil. It's almost a rape scene---an ugly, nasty thing. The Virtues are not present---they're on tape. I play the Soul and the other three, instead of portraying Virtues, are various aspects of the Devil, and they're messing with me. Hildegard had a series of theories that associate different instruments with different characters. Bowed string sounds are the Soul, plucked string sounds are the Virtues, the sound of God is flutes of various kinds, and the sound of the Devil is percussion. So I made up a set of acoustic samples---harp, ukulele, and other plucked strings, for example. The God sound comes from blowing across the mouth of a bottle. The Devil's sounds come from two places: a recording of a rattlesnake---both hisses and rattles---and a recording of really intense gay male oral sex.

JH: I'm not going to ask where that came from.

Elaine: I did.

Eve: The Soul is pre-recorded violin, played for me by Robin Lorentz. The devils onstage---the other three performers---never sing, but speak in several languages. The Soul is like, "I really need help, I need to be rescued from the Devil, I'm really messed up." The Virtues answer, "We're right here, what's the problem?" At that point, Lisa transforms to a Virtue. Slowly, a call and response goes back and forth, which has an emotional trajectory. The Soul becomes more and more importunate, and then Elaine becomes a Virtue. Finally the Soul fully experiences the Virtues' glory: their purple robes, their scented lilies, etc. At which point Kitty, the only remaining devil, becomes transformed into Humilitas, Queen of the Virtues. To me, it's all projection. The Devil is in me and the Virtues are in me; each of the people who have been in devil or virtue mode transform as I transform. By the end of my section we're all in unison.


Music: Act IV

Elaine: In the story of the Soul, the third act is climactic. The fourth is about the Virtues plus the Soul, in concert, vanquishing the Devil. We talked about how the Virtues start out feeling very distant, but by the end of the fourth section, the Virtues are very much human, figures with whom you can identify. The act starts off with the entrance of the Devil. I decided to put one aspect of the Devil on tape. It's my voice speaking Latin, but I slowed it up tremendously. The others speak these phrases live in different languages---
French, Latin, and English, plus me on tape in German. It's like the Hydra in Greek mythology; all the languages are the heads of the monster. As a child of the twentieth century, I also couldn't help but think of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. In the other acts, the accompaniment or the multiple characters tended to be on tape. In mine, the Devil is the only thing on tape. Everything else we perform live. I play keyboards, Kitty electric bass, and Eve and Lisa do various things, mostly percussion. There's an element of improvisation involved.

Eve: We're playing live instruments, and in some way they metaphorically function as the weapons that destroy the Devil. Our tambourines are weapons, as are Elaine's keyboard and Kitty's bass.

Elaine: The third act ends with a duality between the Devil and the Soul. Near the beginning of Act IV, the Soul turns to Humility and says, "Help me with the power of your medicine." Everyone turns to my keyboard and starts playing. Music is the thing that heals the Soul. The keyboard itself is an example of the duality that gets healed. The sampled voices that Kitty mentioned earlier are all there, assigned to various keys. So the Virtues are all assembled across the keyboard I play. Another part of the keyboard has sounds associated with the Devil---laughter, rumbling noises, and slowed-down speech.

JH: So you as the Soul have the whole play of heavenly and hellish possibilities at your fingertips.

Elaine: It's all there. At this point, Humility, Chastity, and Victory in turn are saying, "Yeah, let’s go beat the Devil up." Finally, Humility sings Ligate ergo istum---"Bind him, then." The Devil roars and we bind him up---electronically.

Eve: The Devil then taunts Chastity from the Abyss: "What the hell do you know about any of this stuff?" Chastity’s response is that she brought forth one Man---Jesus---and that Man saved the world.

Elaine: The Virtues then sing a glorious song that goes through my head constantly. [Hildegurls all start singing.]

Eve: Oh my God, it's gorgeous. It feels like a triumphant ending.

Kitty: But there's more. We sing a Processional, which like the Prologue, ends up off-mic. The taped part, instead of just being the pure vowels of the sampled syllables, gradually gets more and more electronicized. It gets weirder and weirder, and when the vocals end we're left just with the drone.

JH: Is it the sound of the world at large?

Eve: That's the basic idea. But the idea is also that the intense individuality that each of us has exhibited in her section gets subsumed into a big mass. It's not just our story, it's everybody’s story.


Hildegard and her Politics

JH: Is it significant that the first surviving notated work of Western musical theater---or opera---is by a woman and was presumably performed in an all-female setting (if we discount the secretary)?

Eve: Music was something that was available to women, in a way that writing theological tracts was generally not---although Hildegard, of course, did both. But she was exceptional. We keep talking about how this piece is so deeply personal that nine centuries later there's no trouble identifying with the Soul and her travails. One doesn't even have to be Christian. Instead of just abstract theology, there's a strong sense of personal impact on a human being.

Kitty: I think it's interesting that we retain a record of Hildegard's work at all. It has to do with the class thing---she had the money...

Eve: ...and knew how to play the game with the patriarchy.

Lisa: Humility was actually one of the ways of playing the game back then. Hildegard never claimed her visions were anything but divine revelation. It's different from Bach, say, who saw God as the source of his abilities, and thought he'd better exercise them. Hildegard is more like, "God gave me this stuff, you guys, leave me alone." [laughter] Every time she writes about it, she goes on for half a page: "Oh, my miserable self is inadequate to express any of the things I experienced through the grace of God only and not through my..."

Kitty: She's so manipulative! Some of her letters...! I don't think it's evil manipulation, though. She's just ambitious.

Eve: I have to say that part of me thinks that she and I wouldn't be best friends.

JH: Saints are tough people to live with.

Eve: She's authoritarian. She's politically very conservative.

Kitty: She's anti-war, though, at the time of the Crusades, so how conservative is that? She stopped a Crusade.

Lisa: But she really did support the idea that just as there were ranks of angels, people were born into a certain class, that if you were low-born you could not learn certain things---the caste system. When she was directly asked whether all people were equal in the eyes of God, she said, "Well, no, they're not."

Kitty: For her to write for the nuns in her convent in an Ellingtonian way---

JH: Ellington as in Duke?

Kitty: Yes, in that he wrote his music for his own players, to bring out the best in them. To me, Hildegard intended Ordo Virtutum to develop her nuns as nuns. I don't see that it has to do with outside game-playing.

Lisa: The question of whether you could stand having Hildegard as a friend---a lot of the time people assume that since we're working with Hildegard's Ordo that she is some kind of model of artistic and personal achievement for us. In fact, we've got problems with her. She's gritty and her ideas are weird. Yeah, it's a beautiful piece and she's an artist, but we're not necessarily into her as a role model. We're dealing with differences that transcend the aesthetic. She is as idiosyncratic as we are---we haven't approached her uncritically.


Contemporary Incarnations

JH: Is there any contemporary figure to whom you'd compare Hildegard?

Lisa: Possibly Gertrude Stein. How could we not admire her, even if she had some class issues? She wasn't particularly activist, but she was a poetic genius---an artist of the finest caliber. Both she and Stein were dichotomous---each was a bit of a social elitist and at the same time a visionary artist who could see into the universality of the human condition.

Elaine: This may be totally outrageous, but she reminds me of Millicent Fenwick. She was the only woman or one of the only women in the Senate, a Republican from New Jersey. She ended up losing her seat because she went against everyone---her own party and everyone else---on the principle that political campaigns should be publicly funded: no special interest money, no lobbying, get rid of it all. Her conscience led her into a morality play not unlike Ordo Virtutum and, like Hildegard, she was a powerful woman in a man's arena.

JH: What would Hildegard make of your piece?

Lisa: Well, she did put a curse on anyone who changed or edited out any word or note.

JH: That was prescient.

Kitty: So I'm in trouble. The reason was that it all came directly from God. But when we realized that my section ran to 45 minutes, and we had all agreed to do acts the same length, I had to find edits.

Lisa: We all agreed to cut at least one word, so that we would share Kitty's curse.

Eve: Maybe this gets us to question of the authentic practice performance with early music. I have a whole polemic that it's nonsense, that it couldn't have sounded like that---there's no way. Which is not to say that I have a clue as to how it did sound. I do feel that each of us in her own personal way has really invested herself in what she is doing. Musically, theatrically, emotionally, theologically---on every level we are living with Hildegard, and trying to make her points as powerfully as we can. She probably wouldn't approve of the details, but in terms of the urge and the degree to which we are attempting to honor and embody her ideas, her music, her sensibility---what's not to love?

Kitty: After all, she's no longer a soul imprisoned in a body. Hildegard is free of her body, of fashion, of performance practice, of financial concerns, of the minutiae of human existence as it has evolved. I don't think she'd mind the rock or other elements. I think she'd connect with the soul of our version. She' d understand that we really have tried to make it as powerful as we can, speaking today's musical language. I think she'd look down from heaven and dig it.


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Interview by composer Joe Hannan to whom we are extremely grateful for his perspicacious questions and dedicated transcription.

All photos except the last taken by Grethe Holby at Eve's house during rehearsal spring 98. Hildegurls represented are: 1-Eve Beglarian; 2-Lisa Bielawa and Kitty Brazelton; Elaine Kaplinsky. The last photo of Grethe Holby and Kitty Brazelton was taken by Arthur Elgort after opening night at Lincoln Center Festival 98.

The 6 Women Creators