Brackenbury Bianco: Wayward Mystic

String player Brackenbury, in duo with percussionist Bianco, finds a link between 12th century songwriter Hildegard and Coltrane's modalism


Brackenbury and Bianco got together in the wake of the Covid lockdown when gigs were still hard to come by, and in spring 2021, as Bianco Brackenbury, they recorded the intense Rising Up (Discus 112CD), reviewed by Nic Jones. It was an impressive debut, with a surprisingly rich and inviting sound given the rather stark instrumentation. For this follow-up, subtitled “Improvisations Inspired by the Music of Hildegard von Bingen”, they have turned to an unexpected source for inspiration.

Hildegard (1098 – 1179) was a remarkable figure, for my 10 bob one of the most fascinating in the history of Western culture. Extrememly daringly, given that she was a nun, she pioneered something approaching empirical scientific research, and was also, amongst other things, a painter, a poet, and an influential theologian and diplomat who once, perhaps not entirely diplomatically, berated Frederick Barbarossa for tardiness, In 1984 Gothic Voices issued an album of her compositions and this triggered something of a Hildegard vogue, but to the best of my knowledge there have been no jazz or improv recordings of her compositions.

Of course, the performances here are “inspired by” rather than being “versions of” the Hildegard works. The project had its gensis in 2021 when Brackenbury gave Bianco a CD of Saint Hildegard’s music, which stirred him to play an hour-long drum track alongside the recording. She felt that his “rolling-thunder-in-the-distance drumming and the ethereal monophonic vocal lines perfectly complimented [sic], and my inspiration to try singing some, then add violin/viola layers with pedals and improvise, was ignited. In learning some of these beautiful Latin songs I have found a crossover with Coltrane, and the modal music that he was exploring.”

My own initial responses to Hildegard’s work were very far from the moods of these improvisations but, judging this music on its own terms, it is impressive, exciting and ceaselessly evolving, riveting the interest. The interaction between the two musicians bespeaks a real and fertile empathy, constantly productive of fresh perspectives and, after all, may not be so far from Hildegard’s ecstatic visions. The sound (recorded and mixed by Bianco) is excellent, doing full justice to the instrumental textures and the swirling complexity of the music.

CD1: Hymn Of Hildegard; O Frondens Virga; O Quam Marabilis; Grace (69.16)
CD2: Placement And Resolve; O Pastor Anumarum; Cherubim’s Sword; O Cruor Sanguinis (69.19)
Faith Brackenbury (vn, vla, v, effects pedals); Tony Bianco (d, pc, kyb). Shropshire, December 2021 – April 2022.
Discus 140CD