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First Play: Felix Anima, Jeff Bird plays Hildegard of Bingen

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By
Robert Rowat

"Hildegard is a ferocious force and her story is quite remarkable," says harmonicist and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird.

He's referring to Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century abbess, prophet, natural historian, philosopher, poet and composer of one of the largest surviving collections of music from the medieval era.

On his latest album, Felix Anima, Bird indulges his decades-long fascination with Hildegard's plainchant. "This music is over 800 years old, and like all exceptional music it is timeless," he told us recently. Each of the album's eight tracks is an inspired take on one of Hildegard's sacred chants, and together they comprise one of the most surprisingly beautiful listening experiences in recent memory. "It is a joy to play," he says, and it shows. "I am very excited about how the album turned out so I want to share it."

In addition to harmonica, Bird plays lap steel guitar, shruti box, futujara, electric mandolin, music box and ukulele. Pianist Witold Grabowiecki joins him on two tracks.

Felix Anima is streaming in the CBC Music player until April 27. While you're listening, learn more about Bird's interest in Hildegard's music below.

When did you first encounter the music of Hildegard von Bingen?

It goes back to my days at the University of Guelph when I was studying music. You have to realize this was in the '70s so you didn’t have the unlimited access to music that we do now (which I think is fantastic). I took some courses in early Western music — medieval and Renaissance stuff. I had been completely unaware of this kind of music and yet, when I first heard it, it was so familiar. It was like I had lived then. I continued to explore it and one day stumbled upon a recording of Hildegard’s music called A Feather on the Breath of God performed by Gothic Voices under the direction of Christopher Page. That did it for me. I was hooked. No turning back.

How have the texts of Hildegard's plainchant informed your performances?

Hildegard is a songwriter. This music is usually sung. The words are in Latin so I don’t understand them. In the translations, you find there is a running thread about a “green energy.” It shows up a lot. A life force. That is what I hear in her music. Singing is breathing. Breath is life. My interpretations are performed on the harmonica so there are no words but there is a lot of breathing to be sure.

How did you come up with your titles for each piece?

Very simple. I looked through the lyrics of each piece until some word or phrase spoke to me.

Describe Witold Grabowiecki's role in these arrangements

Every now and then I meet someone at some weird little gig and from the first note you know this person. Like they are from some other lifetime. Like they are some long lost brother or sister. It is a good feeling and you want to repeat it. I have a large musical family of long-lost brothers and sisters. Witek is one of these people. Witek has a way of commanding the silence; that is a big lesson for me. Sometimes it's best to just wait. I knew if I brought him on board he would bring his own special brand of magic to the recording. And, he did.

You describe playing Hildegard's music as a "mind-altering experience." How so?

The rhythm is very free. It follows the words and the breath but spins out in unpredictable ways, making it both an exciting and satisfying roller-coaster ride. Also, the festival of vibration that I get when the shruti box is thrumming in my lap and the harmonica is roaring in my head is very transcendent indeed.

Learn more about Felix Anima and order/purchase it here. Scroll down for a detailed tracklist.

Tracklist

1. Lovingly Inclined Towards All (adapted from "O felix anima")
Bird, harmonica

2. He is a High Tower (adapted from "Columbia aspexit")
Bird, harmonica, lap steel
Grabowiecki, piano

3. Noble Rupert (adapted from "Karitas abundat")
Bird, harmonica, shruti box

4. Three Wings (adapted from "O virtus sapientiae")
Bird, music box, futajara, lap steel

5. Roared on High (adapted from "O cruor sanguinis")
Bird, electric mandolin, harmonica, ukulele, shruti box

6. Hail, Hail to You (adapted from "O virdissima virga")
Bird, harmonica, shruti box

7. The Third Flies Everywhere (adapted from "O virtus sapientiae")
Bird, harmonica
Grabowiecki, piano

8. Happy Breath (adapted from "O Ierusalem")
Bird, harmonica, shruti box

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