An 800-year-old nun rocks out

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated November 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

You’ve seen Tony Bennett on MTV. You’ve seen Spanish monks duking it out with Pearl Jam in the record racks. You’ve figured it couldn’t get any weirder.

Guess again. This week Angel Records, the label that worked a miracle with the double-platinum Chant by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, unveils an artist who it hopes will follow the funky friars into the celestial ether of the pop charts: Hildegard von Bingen.

She was celibate, she wrote lyrics in Latin, and she’s been dead for, oh, about 800 years. But Hildegard, a 12th-century German nun and mystic, hits the streets this week with a new platter (Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen) and the kind of promotional push usually reserved for the Material Girl — including a video. ”As Chant taught us, it’s a little bit like Field of Dreams,” says Angel president Steve Murphy. ”If they hear it, they will come.”

What they’ll hear is Hildegard’s haunting melodies — sung by classical star Emily Van Evera and Sister Germaine Fritz, a Roman Catholic prioress — on an electronic bed of synthesizers and beat-box rhythms, à la Enigma or Deep Forest. As Murphy puts it, ”This is not Chant II. This is altogether different.”

Even so, Angel is betting on Vision‘s soothing, soulful vibe — and on Hildegard’s rep. A woman of boundless energy (she also wrote volumes of mystic visions, tinkered with math, and experimented with herbal remedies), Hildegard has spawned an underground coalition of composers, scholars, feminists, and New Agers who hold Hildegard festivals and crank out newsletters.

Now the nun is going mainstream. ”An awful lot of people would like Hildegard if they knew she was out there,” says Van Evera, ”and they would never find out about her unless something appeared on MTV.”