Staging an Afterglow: Interview with Nwando Ebizie

Yes! That semipermeable membrane between reality and unreality, between meaning and unmeaning. I’m so excited to hear a bit more about Hildegard: Visions, and where the rituals feature in that project. How did you first encounter Hildegard of Bingen? 

I have a background in classical music, so I knew of her first as a western art composer, but without knowing her music that well. It was at the same time that I was doing Distorted Constellations that I had this idea of Hildegard, and doing something around her. I knew she had these visions from God, and that’s something I was interested in – an atypical brain that has visions. With really no interest in whether she did or didn’t have these visions – but rather what that does to a person and what kind of person she was. 

As someone who experiences this phenomenon of visual snow, is it possible to look at other artists throughout history who may or may not have experienced it and how they describe it. Language is so interesting, it’s so time sensitive. One of the main ways people describe Visual Snow is analogue tv static, which is already outmoded. I’m not sure how much longer younger people will know what that means! How would someone in the twelfth century in Germany describe something like that? That’s the starting point, but that’s not really what it’s about. 

How would you describe Hildegard and her work? 

I’d describe her as a polymath, she was also a great politician. […] She had these visions and a hugely productive life – she was a healer and a taxonomist. She’s an endless wellspring of inspiration – I wanted to create a piece that reflected that – that gave a slight afterglow of this majesty of her life. So you can get a sense of her spirit. 

The piece is based on the ritual that she would have gone to as an anchorite when she first entered the monastery. Anchorites entered the monastery as children. Hildegard was a member of a wealthy family in the twelfth century – typically, these sorts of families would give one child to the monastery, to God – so she arrived as a six year old, to do this ritual… Which is essentially a death ritual. I think in our western culture we’re not particularly good at integrating death into life – but it’s interesting how they had this: the whole community would come together and watch this child lay down on the floor, covered in leaves, and say these very intense words: “I’m now dead to this world… I will remain forever.” Like most death rituals, there’s a crossover: a mirror side, of birth and rebirth, and her being birthed into this new life. 

What a thing to go through when you’re six years old! 

Yes – What does that do to you? What does that mean to you? I think it might mean more to a child – maybe you’re better then, at connecting to the magic of things. 

Photo by Claire Shovelton.

That sounds like quite an emotional experience. Is it an emotional experience performing this ritual in Hildegard: Visions, imagining what that must have been like for her, and for others like her? 

I watch quite a lot of religious ceremonies and I’m always struck by how the celebrance has to be practical for the magic to work. I don’t know what else you’d call it apart from magic, they don’t use that word in monasteries – maybe transmogrification is better. You know, the blood turning into wine – that sounds like magic to me. 

There’s a practicality. I’m very interested in the process, which is emotional. I want to create environments for the performers where they can explore something of meaning to them. 

Do you feel like this idea of ritual, of magic, of Hildegard’s own view of the world, has changed your own creative practice? 

Each year I’ve worked on it, I’ve studied a different facet of her. This last year, it’s been around her philosophy of the virtues. […] Reading that really helped me understand the book of visions and when I got that, things definitely changed. I’m not really sure how it changed the process, but I’m sure it did. It changed my understanding of her, so it probably had a direct impact. 

I think it’s that it is connected to the Aristotelian virtues – the idea of an essence, the idea of having different balances – like even the medieval humors. I think that’s what she was saying in her book of visions: that there’s this multiplicity that makes up the person. I have a tendency to project myself on Hildegard, to, which I think a lot of people have done: there’s Catholics that think she’s a saint; new wave spiritualists that think of her as a healer;  there’s people like me that’ve decided she’s neurodivergent. This is all possible. She’s this great beacon of exploration. 

It must have been amazing to work with a historical figure for this length of time: I love how the relationship changes over time with the person and their work. I know that there are lots of other projects and workshops that have informed this. How are you planning on staging this now within the disruption that COVID-19 has caused? 

There’s going to be a sharing of something that intersects with one of my other interests at the moment in April 2021 in Leeds, which is around sustainable, indiginous, low-tech technology. We’ll build a hamman – which is also why I went to a farm today to talk to a man about lime! Lime is so magical: lime has been used since people started building things. As we’ve evolved alongside building materials like lime and clay, there’s evidence to suggest that that’s why they’re quite good for us. Lime draws out the toxins from the air, it draws out the formaldehyde – it absorbs carbon dioxide. It’s this wonder material that we should be cladding all buildings with! 

It’s a healing material – a material that’s healing to the earth, to people. So for a ritual of transformation, it really makes sense [to involve it] – it holds you. The water resistant version of lime is called tadelakt and is used in Moroccan hammans. It’ll be a part of the whole ritual in ‘Hildegard: Visions’, which it’ll be this multiple day experience. A section of it will be based in this hammam that we build, which is based on an anchorite ritual called extreme unction. This is actually a part of the Catholic funeral rite. So it’s a blessing or anointing section. I want people to go inside this space which is healing, which is based on principles of sustainable, older design. 

The space will be a sonic and tactile environment. There might be washing, it might be dry – depending on safety issues – a year ago, I would have filled it with water or steam, but now things will look a little different. 

I’ve heard an extract from the sound recording of extreme unction. How have you found sourcing the sounds for that – is that a recent collection? 

It was recorded just before covid – there’s a place called Snape Malting’s and I did a residency there with some singers. All the sounds come from a makeshift hammam in a disabled toilet – we taped a microphone to the ceiling and recorded us washing. There will be other pieces within it – that’ll be one experience of the sound experience. 

What other sounds will you collect for Hildegard: Visions?

There will be lots of different experiences. The final piece of the day will be like a gig – it’s going to be electronic music, but it’s quite inspired by minimalism. The first piece will be more of a soundscape connected to the natural world – I don’t know what that will sound like yet.

Interview by Polly Hember

For more information about Nwando Ebizie see her website. She is currently working on Hildegard: Visions, which is inspired by the twelfth-century saint, composer and poet, Hildegard of Bingen. Ebizie describes Hildegard: Visions as: 

‘a large scale operatic retreat. It will be radically accessible. It will be a chance to experience the spirit of Hildegard as filtered through my position as a neurodivergent Afrofuturist – a woman of my age.
It will be a ritual experience based on the aforementioned death ritual.
It will be a transformational experience.
It will be a multisensory feast full of song, touch, taste, smell and movement.’