Saint Hildegard

Ancient choral music and 21st century ambient electronica have always been closely associated in my mind. They're two of my favourite musical genres, very often playing in the background while I'm working.

Clearly the technological gulf is absolute. The religious orders of the middle ages had only the human voice with which to weave their Psalms, antiphons and responses (although current scholarship indicates that they worked in instrumental ornamentation when they could). The contemporary ambient composer has a software studio on his or her laptop able to generate and shape every conceivable sound.

But the final sound has extraordinary similarities. Stark, pure melodic lines, gently rising and falling. Complex, interweaving harmonies. Drones, often sustained through the full length of a piece. And, above all, a sense of 'space', of music open to the skies, reaching out.

I've had an intriguing CD on repeat play over the past week or so that blends the two styles together seamlessly. Hildegard (you can listen to excerpts) by the classical group Sinfonye is an imaginative recreation of a Benedictine Vespers service using words and music by the 12th century abbess, Saint Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard was rather remarkable: a mystic, visionary, preacher, scientist, advisor to kings and popes, she was declared a saint and Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict this year. She wrote forceful liturgies characterised by striking, bold imagery, and set them to melodies and harmonies of great emotional force, particularly given the limited musical palette she had available. One persistent theme is viriditas, 'greenness', an image of the life force of God, as exemplified by one of the hymns on the CD:

Hail, O greenest branch,
who, in the windy blast of the appointing of the saints came forth.
When the time came that your branches flowered,
you were greeted with 'Hail',
for the heat of the sun poured into you like the scent of balsam.
For in you flowered the beautiful flower
that made fragrant all the spices that had dried up.
And they all appeared, full of growth,
when the skies dropped dew onto the grass,
and the whole earth was made glad;
for her womb brought forth wheat,
and the birds of the air had their nests in it.
The food was made for mankind,
and great happiness for them that feasted upon it.
So in you, O sweet Virgin, no joy is ever wanting.
All these things Eve despised.
Now praise be unto the Most High.

Sinfoyne mix Hildegard's words and music freely with compositions of their own. The music is interspersed with medieval instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy, the organ, and handbells, but also with contemporary swirling ambient pads and backbeats: one of the contributors, Guy Sigsworth, has worked with the likes of Bjork, David Sylvian and Seal, and it shows: some of the more celebratory liturgies are backed with driving electronic beats that - strange as it might seem - sound absolutely appropriate.

Who knows whether Hildegard would have been making music like this had she had today's technology at her disposal. But I rather think that given the breadth of her curiosity and talents she would have had her own copy of Logic Pro, and would have been turning sounds not unlike those of Sinfonye.