1. In addition to its uncontested and continued commercial success (the CD booklet accompanying the 1986 re-issue claims that it is “widely held to be one of the most successful records of pre-Classical music ever made” [24]), and critical reception (it won a Gramophone award in 1983), it also had an impact on the musicology community. It is after A Feather on the Breath of God appears that music history textbooks begin to include a discussion of her music and one even includes a track from this recording (“Columba aspexit”, the same track that features in A Beautiful Mind in 2001) (Kerman and Tomlinson).

  2. Significant as Gothic Voices’ pioneering recording was, Hildegard’s more recent and grand success in the marketplace had as much to do with marketing strategies as it did with the music itself. Following the Chant craze in early 1994, the marketing of Hildegard’s music increasingly targeted the New Age meditational music buyers, and sales figures for Hildegard recordings soared.

  1. New Age music is difficult to define:

    Like the fractal patterns of nature, new age music isn’t a smooth, definable entity, but a shifting maze of intricate relationships that are constantly similar, yet constantly different. (Diliberto 44)
    When New Age was adopted as a music industry term in the early 1980s, it embodied a new instrumental music embracing elements of acoustic, world, folk, space, jazz and classical into a hazy hybrid. (Diliberto 60)
    “New Age”–whether one applies the term to music or sex or religion or politics or diet or psychology–is a sensibility that deliberately eludes the chains of definition. (D. Hall 13)
    According to David Regneri, who sells it in his music store, it is various musics linked to the values claimed since 1973 by New Age Journal: “wholeness, spirituality, relationships, self-healing, universal brotherhood and sisterhood, creativity, and oneness with the universe.” Developed mostly in Germany, Japan, and California, it includes “Space Music,” electronic music with a dreamy, “otherworldly” quality; George Winston’s piano music with a “percussive style” that is yet flowing and quiet; Celtic harp; Japanese folk melodies on flute; singing in Gaelic; Mozart played on synthesizer, sampler, and acoustic instruments and inlaid with “naturally recorded” ocean sounds; Native American chanting and singing combined with synthesized music. What all these types have in common, Regneri said, is that they are relaxing, calming, and mediatative for certain people. “Pachelbel’s Canon,” he noted, “played slowly so it’s relaxing becomes New Age music.” (S.G. Hall 23)
    New Age music’s consciousness-changing abilities can increase the mental and emotional health of those who listen to it. Whether used as ambient or foreground sound, the music can evoke feelings of peacefulness, joy, relaxation, gentle stimulation without distraction, intimacy, and sometimes even bliss…It aids mental concentration (or defocusing) for superior meditation, inner awareness or “out of body” traveling. (Birosik x)

    New Age music is at once both a style and a genre, a category created by the music industry (Aidan A. Kelly describes it as a “marketing slogan, not a musical category” [295]). As a style New Age music is associated with breathy, slow, arhythmic, droning, synthesized music; as an industry category New Age music encompasses many other types of music, such as World Music, Folk Music, Electronic Music and Gregorian Chant, frequently without alteration in style. Indeed, by 1989 Gregorian chant was listed as a category within the Vocal Music sub-genre of New Age Music in Patti Jean Birosik’s New Age Music Guide (162). This association of Gregorian Chant with meditation or relaxation was picked up very quickly by record producers. Music critic David Littlejohn reports that a private poll conducted by the Spanish branch of EMI in 1993 revealed that, “many young Spaniards owned and played chant records, often for relaxation purposes” (24). It was this poll that led EMI to compile 19 tracks recorded in the 1970s and early ‘80s by the now famous Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, and release the album as Las Mejores Obras del Canto Gregoriano in Spain in late 1993. Determined to attract the under-25 crowd, EMI used television advertising to great success; projecting sales of 30-50,000 copies, by early 1994 EMI had sold 300,000 (24).

  2. Later in 1994 in the US, Angel Records (an EMI affiliate) released the same album under the title Chant with a new, slick (and now very familiar) cover, depicting monks floating with the clouds in the sky (a New Age emblem I will discuss later) which created a media sensation apparently due to its record number of sales.
    Figure 4: Chant
    It had sold a million copies within a month of its release (Littlejohn 25) and by 1996 American sales figures topped 3 million (24).6 I would argue, that the media created a selling sensation when they embraced Angel Records’ intensive marketing strategies. In addition to Angel Records’ massive press release, they also launched a huge sales campaign through print, radio and cable-television advertising. Furthermore, as David Littlejohn writes, “reaching out to record store owners, Angel Records shared the cost of local ads, and offered hooded souvenir T-shirts as well as giant posters and cardboard cutouts of the monks” (24-25). Because of this intensive campaign, stores throughout America ordered enormous quantities of the album and Chant reached number twelve in Billboard’s top classical record sales before it was available to the public, before a single CD was purchased by an individual. By relying on shipping figures rather than actual sales figures and ranking Chant as number twelve, Billboard itself created a demand for this hugely “successful” CD. Importantly, this can no longer happen. Billboard’s sales figures are no longer calculated according to the quantity shipped, but rather the quantity sold.

  3. In a study that addresses the uniformity of style in the cover art of New Age recordings, Helfried Zrzavy details five elements that proliferate, including depictions of landscape: (1) stark covers, (2) landscape photographs, (3) painted, abstract art, (4) free-form fantasy landscapes, and (5) absence of the artists (41-48). The depictions of landscape—whether photographic or fantasy—usually emphasize the sky and clouds, which evoke both nature and the spiritual realm so important to the New Age aesthetic, illustrated on many New Age CDs: Windhorse Riders, Out of the Wind, Like an Endless River, Chiaroscuro, The Song of Angels, and even on a TV guide cover (see Figure 5). The cover of Chant—with its sky and clouds—places it in the New Age sector of the marketplace, although Chant appeared on the classical charts and the recording does not incorporate a New Age style.7 Since the phenomenon of Chant in 1994, discrepancies have arisen increasingly in the promotion of chant recordings between the content of the CDs and what the covers suggest. Because the music industry has appropriated chant as a category of New Age music—whether or not the performance style makes use of New Age techniques—it is sometimes impossible to tell what style of performance to expect from a CD when both kinds of recordings are marketed in the same way. Drawing on the success of Chant and its marketing style, many Hildegard recordings also target New Age audiences through their covers, whether or not the recording itself uses a New Age style of performance.

    Windhorse Riders
    Out of the Wind
    Like an Endless River
    The Song of Angels
    TV Guide cover
    Figure 5

  4. 1994 was also the year that Angel Records released Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen. As Timothy Taylor reports, Vision was an obvious attempt on the part of Angel to capitalize on their success with Chant:
    Figure 6: Vision

    The monks refused to make a second album for EMI/Angel, saying they had been underpaid for the first one, so Angel scrambled to recreate the success of Chant. Hence, the cover art of Vision is remarkably similar to Chant; even the font is the same. (14)

    Vision, like Chant, uses the sky and clouds motif to appeal to the New Age market. But unlike Chant, Vision features World Music rhythms, as well as the reverberation, airy timbres, ambient synthesizer and atmospheric swells associated with New Age music. These elements can be heard in “Laus trinitati,” firmly placing Vision in the New Age style category.

  5. Although the text on the cover proclaims this recording as Hildegard’s music (which we know to be monophonic chant), in David Foil’s liner notes we discover that the idea behind the CD was “to record Hildegard von Bingen’s music in its purest form and marry it to the imaginative concepts of the contemporary American composer Richard Souther, using contemporary pop and world-music sounds that reinvent the startling immediacy, the piercing beauty, and the sublime spirit of Hildegard’s art [emphasis mine]” (5). Foil’s language seems to claim several levels of authenticity for the recording: the “pure” performances of Hildegard’s chant (sung by early music singer Emily Van Evera and a “real” nun from New Jersey, Sister Germaine Fritz) and the creative vision of Richard Souther. Taylor points out this same claim to authenticity in the press release issued by Angel, which refers to the use of “two unique vocalists for authenticity, Sister Germaine Fritz, a Benedictine nun, and Emily Van Evera, a world renowned early music vocalist and historian” (15).8 Curiously, although the liner notes state that Souther used “contemporary pop and world-music sounds” to “reinvent” Hildegard—granting him authenticity as a creator, Taylor reports that “world-music sounds” are the least authentic feature of the album: “The promised world rhythms turn out to have been available on a CD collection entitled Supreme Beats: A Percussion Library by Bashiri Johnson.This 4-CD set reportedly took six months to complete and contains 650 grooves in four hours, in four categories: ‘contemporary,’ ‘dance/hip-hop’, ‘African’, and ‘world’.” Available for $350, the collection is aimed at anyone “who use[s] sampling as a creative tool” (16). The cover art of Vision is notable for its use of two forms of neumatic notation, the late medieval square notation in the border and the earlier neumes (such as those found in Hildegard's manuscripts) which float disembodied in the cloudy sky behind Hildegard herself. The appearance of these neumes, stripped of meaning and context and used here as pure decoration, strongly reflects the way in which Hildegard's music has been taken out of its own context through the style of performance on the album. The rather modern almost photographic depiction of a youthful nun—wearing lipstick—with stars sparkling in her head covering (a halo for the twentieth century?), similarly de-historicizes Hildegard the person.


1 2 3 4 Works Cited


6. By 1996 worldwide sales were over 6 million.

7. In keeping with Zrzavy’s observation about the absence of the artists on New Age covers, the monks depicted on the cover in fact are not the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo—who would be wearing black robes—but rather a group of anonymous Franciscan monks in their brown robes (Littlejohn 24).

8. Emily van Evera, in fact, is one of the Gothic Voices singers on A Feather on the Breath of God.



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Review Essays

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Talbot: Scarlatti

Woodworth: Musicology