Hildegard and the women who surrounded her celebrated eight offices (services) each day, as was the Benedictine lifestyle. These offices were primarily sung. Members of the village, pilgrims and others were invited to join them in some offices, but it was the sisters, gathered together in prayer, who were the centerpiece.
Hildegard referred to her music as a translation of the Cosmic Symphony. In a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, she said that singing God's praise was an "echo of the harmony of heaven."
To place it in modern terms, chant is not a spectator sport. It is a means of joining with others in the connection to the divine that is a shared experience.
When I sing Hildegard's music there is no room for thought. There is a living creation being formed, and my intent is to nurture that creation, drawing myself and those listening more and more deeply into the sacred stillness. This is a place that we each know, and that as we approach we recognize as a feeling of home, of belonging.
In the midst of singing, there is an underlying stillness. The stillness is home; it is the divine connection.
From the earliest memories that Hildegard shares, she experienced heavenly sights and sounds. The visions, depicted in a series of illustrations made under her guidance, often show both beauty and horror &endash; heaven and hell - in the Catholic context that Hildegard consciously understood.
Just as Hildegard translated her visions into artwork, she translated the sounds into music.
In her writings and letters she refers to hearing a voice speaking directly to her, as well as to sounds which she interprets as divine music, or heavenly harmony.
When I sing, particularly when I'm singing the music of Hildegard, there is no applause. There may be several long pauses between chants. In those pauses there is silence. The silence is not empty &endash; as the concert progresses the silences become richer, as if filled with tones humming just out of earshot.
From hearing sounds like 'a delightful resonance in the clouds' to that of rushing winds, Hildegard's experiences of spirit are multi-faceted; including sight, sound, fragrance and touch.
The experience of the divine in Hildegard's life was one of intimacy, in each moment. When she writes, "the body must raise its voice in harmony with the soul for the praise of God", it is as a statement of physical fact. The individual body and sacred community are nourished by communal acts, such as singing.
For this reason I invite those who wish to join me to add their voices to some of the chants. This is not a random invitation! I will ask specifically for a single tone from the female voices or for an octave or series of fifths from both men and women.
I am pleased by the quality of intonation of which concert audiences are capable. I expected it in early music and university towns, but I find it nationwide.
Unison drones, or unbeating octaves and perfect fifths are wonderful with a large group. They provide the perfect medium for singing chant, as I can place beating and non-beating intervals into the harmonic bed of sound provided by the audience.
After a few chants the entire building seems to be singing, and overtones ring down from the church ceiling. Although we may have started with just two notes, there will be the most amazing chords forming and dissolving due to the overtones as I move through the different phrases.
This is a type of co-creation that invites me to sing differently each time. My voice 'plays' with all of the voices in the room, much like any similar instruments blend and tune together.
As a result the creative dynamic has the potential to change. The audience sound may suddenly become much quieter, or may swell in anticipation of the vocal line ascending. This is the ultimate orchestra without a conductor &endash; everyone in the room attends to the moment, and something wonderful is born out of our unified attention.
Or, as Hildegard puts it.
O creation of God which is human, in great sacredness you
were brought forth