Jeff Bird – Felix Anima: Jeff Bird plays Hildegard of Bingen (independent)
This is generally a column about modern popular music, so it won’t surprise anyone if I admit to being out of my depth talking about the 12th-century music of Hildegard von Bingen. Her name is not unfamiliar: the German is one of the only female composers of the pre-modern era, and was a scientist, philosopher and mystic as well as an abbess. Because of all this, she’s been of particular interest to feminist scholars in the last 30 years or so.
Jeff Bird first heard her music in 1985, on a recording by the group Gothic Voices. He was studying early music at the University of Guelph, while playing in renowned folk group Tamarack, and was immediately hooked. A few years later, he got a gig playing harmonica with some indie band in a church for a live recording: that band was the Cowboy Junkies, who ended up selling millions of records and with whom he’s stayed ever since. Bird has put out a smattering of worthy solo projects over the years, but the thematic consistency of this one sets it apart.
He approaches Hildegard’s music with little more than a harmonica and a shruti box, which is like a small harmonium, which he plays in his lap. He described to CBC Music the movement of air through his body and the “festival of vibration” from the two instruments as transcendent, and it’s not hard to imagine. Hildegard’s work was primarily choral; Bird’s is instrumental, but the human breath is integral to each approach. There’s a bit of lap steel, electric mandolin, ukulele, and a strange new five-pipe wind instrument called the futujara, based on a Slovakian design (look it up, if this is remotely interesting to you). Pianist Witek Grabowiecki also appears.
The album is meditative and spiritual in ways one would certainly not expect from a harmonica record—but Jeff Bird has always been about subverting expectations and blowing your musical mind. This is no different. (May 4)