A 170-year-old catacomb in a Brooklyn cemetery might seem a bit nouveau for a set of 12th-century songs, but it might be as good as the New World’s got. And it was there, in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery on 7th September, that singer Daisy Press presented a dramatic solo performance of seven of Hildegard von Bingen’s sacred songs. 

Daisy Press performs Hildegard von Bingen
© Steven Pisano

It was very much her own setting, far from faithful, which needn’t be an issue. What would be an issue is if she didn’t have the voice to deliver the songs, a lacking Press does not possess. The tattooed diva has taken her interpretations of von Bingen to multiple stages and public spaces around the city and internationally, and has recently released a recording of her take on the ancient songs. 

The 45-minute set was presented more or less without pause. Press, alone at one end of the stone corridor, accompanied herself on tuned bowls, harmonium, chimes and gong. Her tasteful vibrato was a bit anachronistic but filled the resonant space beautifully. Green lights crept like serpents and ivy across the ceiling, pink and orange played off the stage end of the space, bright as neon. From the outset, the performance was interpretive without feeling ‘updated’. She moved at times through the small structure and delivered one song from within an open antechamber, out of sight to all but a few, wonderfully reflective, both in spirit and acoustics. A mouse scurrying through the space served to remind that we weren’t on a soundstage, that the eternal was played out here for real. 

Daisy Press
© Steven Pisano

The climax came, before one final piece, with von Bingen’s setting of Ave Maria, Press gave chordal framings on harmonium while delivering the strongest – or at least most demanding – vocal performance of the evening. For O virga mediatrix, she made use of a whirly tube spun above her head for a few forgivable moments, its soft howl having nothing to add to her voice. But once she disposed of the toy, the song built to the richest arrangement of the evening, her simple tools and powerful voice pulling together into the closest thing to an incantation all evening. 

****1