Jocelyn Montgomery,
Lux Vivens (Living Light)
(Mammoth, 1998)

If you have seen Blue Velvet, David Lynch's macabre fablization of the mid-American Dream gone sour, then you have the appropriate aural grounding to fully appreciate the music of Hildegard von Bingen, 10th-century muse and mystic. Strange as that sounds, it is the thimble analysis of Lux Vivens (Living Light), certainly one of the most interesting of the myriad of offerings which emerged during the recent 900th birthday celebration of von Bingen and her works.

Certainly, the path followed by Jocelyn Montgomery to this work is nothing if not sinuous. The granddaughter of a Scottish fisherman and fiddler, she grew up in London, and received a solid but conventional training in voice via the Purcell School and St. Paul's in Hammersmith, where she also studied the violin. It is at this juncture that the story begins to jog a bit, with Montgomery essaying the usual round of busking on the streets of London, supplementing her income with the odd modeling job or music video extra gig. She also performed with the group Sinfonie, and was recognized for her talents with an Arts Foundation fellowship. Out of this period of her life came love, marriage and a move to Los Angeles, where the odd crossing of fates is (relatively) commonplace. She was heard by the right folks, signed to Mammoth Records, and found herself in the studio with David Lynch within weeks. Lux Vivens is the chronicle of their extraordinary collaboration.

How to describe Lynch's fascination with what we hear? For most folks, the direct clue to his obsession can be found in the opening minutes of Blue Velvet, when the eye of the camera descends from a wide shot down into a yard, ever closer to single blades of grass and small bits of soil. As the lens focuses on the small world made large, the microphone is along for the ride, and the viewer/listener is treated at the end of the sequence to the rumbling sounds of insects as they scurry across bits of sand and earth. It is this sensibility that attaches to Lynch's vision for the contemplative hymns of Hildegard von Bingen.

Though there are "sonic landscapes" throughout the disc, there are only two places where Lynch imposes his sensibilities directly upon the work, in the opening "Flame and Vision" and in the all-too-literal "Battle and Aftermath." The former is an exercise in ethereal electronic winds and floating chords, punctuated by a sonic explosion near the end of the piece. The latter is especially disconcerting coming, as it does, on the heels of "Viridissima" (my favorite cut on the disc), easily the most pastoral and tranquil of von Bingen's offerings. "Battle and Aftermath" begins with the dark, violent sound of shearing metal and remains disquieting throughout. Neither of these sound essays, however, distract from the beauty which is von Bingen's music as interpreted by the formidable Montgomery.

Indeed, for all that is obtrusive about Lynch's presence as producer, there are a number of tracks where the marriage between his audio collages and Montgomery's glorious voice are much more than the sum of their parts. Indeed, the music of von Bingen, which was written without benefit of formal musical training by the Abbess, hints not only of the more traditional canonical works of her day, but alludes strongly to the mystical transports which was their original genesis.

One would be hard pressed, then, to characterize this as "easy listening" music, for any age of listener. What it is, rather, is a daring attempt to fuse the creative energies of artists separated by nearly a millenium of all that has gone between, but united by a vision of that which might be. This isn't a disc for everyone, but when it finds its target, the listener will likely say, as I did, "where have you been?" Lux Vivenswill take you on the best kind of journey there is, to a place you've not yet been, and perhaps to a place you never knew you wanted to visit.

[ by Gilbert Head ]

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