New York Times

The results pleased everyone, so Brazelton approached the Lincoln Center Festival. She learned that the highly-regarded early-music ensemble Sequentia had already been booked to perform "Ordo Virtutum," but that an alternative perspective would be welcomed.

Founding member Mary Jane Leach eventually dropped out and was replaced by Bielawa. New sections, including Beglarian's portrayal of a visit to Hell, were added to the 1996 treatment, and others were modified.

Grethe Barrett Holby, an experienced opera director, signed on to help present the Hildegurls' adaptation as a theatrical work instead of a static oratorio. The neo-"Ordo" now has costumes, fog effects and a rape scene in which the Soul's clothes are torn from her body.

The performances on Friday and Saturday are nearly sold out, but another is scheduled for Madison, Wis., in September, and Brazelton said the work will probably be revived later this year at, of all places, a downtown synagogue.

Sequentia performed its version of "Ordo Virtutum" earlier this

arts at large

      THE NEW YORK TIMES, JULY 23, 1998      

The Hildegurls are devoted to the music of a 12th-century abbess, but these are no singing nuns.

Instead, the Hildegurls, a quartet of contemporary composers based in New York, have left the convent behind and are heading toward the unconventional in their adaptation of "Ordo Virtutum," the electronic-music entry in this year's Lincoln Center Festival.

"Ordo Virtutum" was written by Hildegard von Bingen, the forceful German abbess and accomplished plainchant composer whose 900th birthday is being observed this year. Her "play of the virtues" portrays the Soul's struggle to reject the Devil's lures and to embrace Humility, Chastity and a dozen other wholesome characters. The musical drama is one of the earliest examples of a morality play and possibly the first opera.

While Eve Beglarian, Lisa Bielawa, Kitty Brazelton and Elaine Kaplinsky respect Hildegard's musical genius and celebrate her proto-feminist status, their "Ordo Virtutum," which opened Wednesday and will be performed again Friday and Saturday, is hardly a reverential reading.

"We're Composers. We're not early-music practitioners," Brazelton said in a recent telephone interview.

"We have our trouble with her," Bielawa added. "It's not as if we all want to be like her. We've gotten to know her pretty well, and none of us really feel like she'd be our best friend."

Dividing the work into four acts, each Hildegurl applied her individual sensibility to one of the sections, preserving Hildegard's melodies and the Latin text but reinterpreting the music through modem ears -- and with modern technology. Although the women are singers and instrumentalists who perform "Ordo Virtutum" live, trading roles as they go, soundtracks and other devices are used to amplify the cast.

Brazelton, for example, used CMIX, a program developed in the early 1980's to manipulate sound files on IBM mainframe computers. When assembling her section, she found she was forced to squeeze 45 minutes of songs by virtuous characters into her allotted 15 minutes of time.

She recalled, "I didn't dare edit this gorgeous stuff, so I stacked them up, one on top of another.

Sometimes I have eight chants running at the same time, four live and four on tape."

Listeners may not hear those vocal lines as voices, since Brazelton has transformed some of them into drones, airplane roars and other noises. Similarly, the sound of Satan is an electronically altered recording of a door being slammed by Columbia University students who were at play while Brazelton was trying to work. "I have it on tape, and I have our reaction, which is this burst of laughter. So that's the Devil," she explained.

For the introductory act, Bielawa sampled herself singing the music of French composer François Couperin, extracting from a recital tape some of the same Latin verbs employed by Hildegard. Beglarian created her third-act score on a MIDI-based system. The improvisationally-inclined Kaplinsky will lead the finale with a keyboard, which contains samples of the Hildegurls' voices, while the others join' in on electric bass, percussion and MIDI wand, a baton-like device that produces synthesized sound.

Electronic adaptations of classic works, from high-tech Hamlets to switched-on Bach, are no longer rarities. Just last year, the traditionally conservative Salzburg Festival sponsored an updated version of the Mozart opera "The Abduction from the Seraglio" in which the victims were imprisoned in cyberspace rather than in a Turkish palace.

Generally, these productions attempt to prove how timeless the source material is by demonstrating its relevancy to present-day situations, although the results can be bizarrely anachronistic.

Fortunately, "Ordo Virtutum" appears to be an appropriate candidate for the digital touch. "It's a piece that begs for some kind of context," Bielawa said. People have used the piece for their "The piece was always used [for teaching], so we're using it, too."

The Hildegurls also have connected with Hildegard and her work on a highly personal level.

Brazelton said, "She was a very single-minded woman. When I went in to edit, I just felt the intensity of her thoughts, in a very living way."

Bielawa responded to the parable of an artistic soul striving to make sense out of a confusing world, a world filled with temptations. "Things that do not empower her are seductive to her. Through music, she comes to a centered place at the end of the piece. I can't think of anything more relevant to the four of us than that story. It has given us each an emotional palette that we can plug right into."

"Yes," she continued, "Hildegard was a 12th-century nun -- you can't deny that. We're not nuns. We don't share some of her crazy theological ideas; even when she was alive, a lot of the thinkers of the time didn't share her ideas. But a lot of people don't share my compositional ideas. We don't share each othersŐ. The personalities could not be more strong and distinct."

The Hildegurls: (left to right) Elaine Kaplinsky, Lisa Bielawa, Eve Beglarian and Kitty Brazelton. Photo by Adriano Fagundes.

Each of the Hildegurls is an established member of New York's downtown music scene -- even Bielawa, the self-described "baby," who has won a series of young-composer awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

The consortium was formed in 1993 when Brazelton, who was teaching Hildegard's music at Columbia, organized an evening of a cappella improvisations based on her songs at CBGB, the scruffy East Village club When the group reassembled in 1996 for a concert at a downtown studio, everyone remembered Beglarian's suggestion that they should do "Ordo Virtutum."

month. It aimed to recreate the way the piece might have been presented in the mid- 1100's by Hildegard and the women of her convent.

Brazelton' skepticism about the authenticity of such recreations has liberated her to approach the same material in a radically different fashion.

She said, "I'm not convinced that early-music performance prac-
tices are actually early-music performance practices." In other words, no singing nuns.

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