Chet Doxas and Micah Frank light a fire for Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen — the visionary composer, writer and mystic active in Germany during the High Middle Ages — would seem an unusual focal point for a pair of jazz-trained, Brooklyn-based electronics artists in 2022. But that's precisely the case for Micah Frank and Chet Doxas, whose new album is due out on Nov. 18 on Puremagnetik.
The first single from the album, which is titled The Music of Hildegard Von Bingen Part One, is a version of "Ave Maria" featuring harpist Mary Lattimore. A new single, premiering here at WRTI, finds guitarist David Torn joining Doxas (on clarinet) and Frank (on electronics) for their take on "O Ignee Spiritus."
Frank and Doxas forged their creative partnership in 2018 — eventually releasing an ambient album, All the Roads, that was enthusiastically received. The idea to invoke Hildegard von Bingen came from Doxas, whose familiarity with her works goes back to his time as a conservatory student at McGill in Montreal.
"My counterpoint teacher spoke about her holistic approach to writing music," Doxas says in a press statement. "The natural world played a big part in her compositional voice. I've gleaned inspiration from her, allowing outside influences in my life to blend with my musical ideas. When I improvise with Micah, he often includes drones in his sound, while I play single note melodies or improvisations. This pairing is similar to early music, with a melody over the cantus firmus."
A direct address to the Holy Spirit, "O Ignee Spiritus" finds von Bingen clearly appraising the stark contrast between good and evil. According to a post about the hymn from the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies, its language combines devotional fervor with metaphorical detail: "By you the human mind is set ablaze / the tabernacle of its soul / contains its strength." Here is a version by early music ensemble Sequentia.
Frank and Doxas, working with Torn, pursue an abstracted version of the hymn, working with tape loops and pedal distortion. The result is a soundscape that evokes aspects of the vintage Downtown Scene — the home turf of Bill Laswell and John Zorn — while maintaining a contemporary foundation. In addition to Torn and Lattimore, the album includes appearances by bassist Michael Formanek and electronic artist Kodomo.
"We realized much of our work sounds like early medieval or Renaissance music," says Frank. "We searched for a composer to help confine our composition and production process to these early music elements. Von Bingen's compositions were perfect for our production and instrumental style."
Frank and Doxas are on tour with other Puremagnetik artists next month.