Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, theologian, writer, and composer, spent much of her childhood in a small cell in a convent adjacent to a church, in the company of another woman. It sounds hermetic, even claustrophobic. But, says Eden MacAdam-Somer, a violinist and singer, “her room grew because she invited people into it. And I thought that was such a beautiful concept: If you can’t go out into the world, what about inviting people into your world?”
MacAdam-Somer teaches in New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation department, and her music draws on classical, jazz, folk, and free improvisatory styles. She’s been thinking a lot about how the life of a music student — endless solitary hours in tiny studios — can resemble that of Hildegard in her cell. And she wondered what it would take to make NEC a more communal place.
“As artists, we spend so much time in our little rooms, practicing, working things out in our minds,” she said in a recent interview. “How can we invite people into the space that we’re in, and try to work for change in that way?”
That’s one reason why, when it came time for MacAdam-Somer to undertake a large-scale project with her students, she chose Hildegard’s “Ordo virtutum” (“Order of the Virtues”), the earliest liturgical drama for which both text and music survive. It tells the story of Anima, a soul, struggling to choose between the devil and the virtues, heaven and hell. The “reinterpretation,” as MacAdam-Somer calls it, will be performed on Tuesday, and she hopes that the resonances of the play, which dates from 1151, can serve as a powerful reflection on community and the artist’s role within it.
“I think she humanizes both the virtues and the devil to a degree that you can really see how they represent the good and evil in all of us, and the trouble that we deal with in our lives, on an everyday level,” she explained. “And I thought it would be an incredible opportunity for our students to take a look at their own lives and the work that they’re doing as musicians and see what they had to say about it.”
MacAdam-Somer had her students begin at the source: They read about Hildegard and studied both music and text, the latter in multiple translations. From there they branched out in myriad directions. They examined a version of “Ordo virtutum” by composer Lisa Bielawa, which has echoes of rock and uses electronics. Hildegard’s melodies are based on musical modes common during the Middle Ages, so they looked at other spiritual modal music, especially John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”
They forged parallels between the chant of Hildegard’s time and Appalachian spiritual ballads. One student, from Korea, suggested incorporating a traditional Korean exorcism dance. Also employed is an African tribal chant used to gather the spirits before a party leaves for a hunt, “just like Hildegard singing about hunting the devil to tie him to a chair,” she said. In fact, in Hildegard’s play the devil can’t sing, he can only yell, so in one scene he’s represented by the song “Heartattack and Vine” by one of music’s great yellers, Tom Waits.
The assembled forces — including a 60-voice chorus drawn from the NEC community — will bring all of this and more to bear on the story of Anima’s struggle to choose between the virtues of heaven and the temptations of sin. In shepherding the production, MacAdam-Somer hopes listeners come away from the performance with “an appreciation of Hildegard’s relevance today, and also the different perspectives on the world from looking through these different kinds of music.”
It will also, she hopes, bring performers and listeners together, a critical aim in all her work. MacAdam-Somer mentioned during the interview that every year she teaches students in Afghanistan, accentuating what she feels is the global reach music can have.
“I’m always interested in trying to figure out how I can make the world a better place, even in a small way, through music. I feel like I have this whole global community of people all around the world — we’re all connecting, we’re all trying to do the same things artistically. And that’s really nice.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidg