Nun of the Above

Jess Barbagallo on Ethan Philbrick’s Disordo Virtutum

Still from Ethan Philbrick’s Disordo Virtutum, 2020. Image: Museum of Arts and Design.

AT 8 PM ON A WARM, Thursday night, a crowd of twenty arrives in a virtual room for a Zoom performance of composer, cellist, and writer Ethan Philbrick’s Disordo Virtutum, presented by New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. With varying degrees of surprise and pleasure, I find that some attendees are familiar to me. I see a former lover, an artist with whom I have made small talk on several occasions, and a choreographer I once had a shy first date with over greasy pasta at a small Italian restaurant in Ridgewood. (Today we’re friends; she’ll text me after the show.) Curator Lydia Brawner is there to introduce the presentation as we all cruise each other in weird silence. Earlier in the week, Brawner had shared with us a digital zine to peruse in anticipation of the impending service. Containing the lyrics of the night’s music, it’s a flat hymnal for scrolling. Philbrick is there too, waiting with the audience as he holds his cello in a cozy wooden garret. A young, handsome white man with a well-kept beard, his presence is relaxed and tender.

I’m familiar with Philbrick as a collaborator of wunderkind Morgan Bassichis, and earlier this year, I saw him present new solo work at the Kitchen’s L.A.B. Series on the theme of regeneration, where he charmingly sang queer theory in call-and-response fashion. At the time, I felt disarmed by those isolated, thorny theses Philbrick had extracted from Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Philbrick has a gorgeous voice, and I was torn between an appreciation for his virtuosity and my discomfort with the paradoxical sexlessness of the quotations. Now, that performance feels prescient. A pandemic asks you to relearn everything, and that includes a sexuality founded on intercourse. And putting anything to music makes you a good teacher.

Still from Ethan Philbrick’s Disordo Virtutum, 2020. Image: Museum of Arts and Design.

I don’t remember if Philbrick began to play first or if he did introductions. I do remember he gave us some tasks to bring us into Disordo’s virtual space: Find the eyes of someone in the room. And, because they will not know, really, that you are looking at them, really look. Find someone else. Find the corner of their frame. I tried to follow the prompt, disappointed that I couldn’t read the titles on the bookshelf behind my object of study.

Next, Philbrick tells us the story of his introduction to Hildegard von Bingen, the German Benedictine mystic and composer whose Ordo Virtutum (Order of Virtues) inspired the evening’s concert. His adaptation makes the twelfth-century morality play—in which the devil and a coterie of personified virtues fight over the fate of a fallen soul—into an exegesis of, and ritual for, the present crisis. Philbrick plays us some of the music as the Chat feature becomes a space for subtitles that translate the original Latin to English.

O nos peregrine sumus.
Oh, we are pilgrims!

Quid fecimus ad peccata deviantes?
What have we done, wandering into sin?

The contemporary implications are obvious and not. We are those humble pilgrims walking into the unknown! (Cue celestial trumpets). The caveat is that this “we” is as tenuous as the terms of collectivity itself. If pandemic precipitated a reckoning with the grotesque excesses and colossal failures of the so-called “free” market, it did not do so unilaterally. Through vectors of race, class, and geography, the most privileged have, to some degree, been insulated from death and financial ruin. But these gradients of catastrophe are tricky to easily surmise or sermonize from a chair in my bedroom, where we are all living together in a world without a coronavirus vaccine and no sufficiently realized challenge to capitalism. Particularly in the United States, there is little actual consensus, even among those who appear to share an ideology: on mask wearing, on how to learn, on how to survive while doing the right thing.

Still from Ethan Philbrick’s Disordo Virtutum, 2020. Image: Museum of Arts and Design.

Perhaps what makes Hildegard so inspiring in light of this unremitting bleakness is the parade of virtues she offers; there is not one way to be good—there are seventeen! And in her original composition, each of them gets a solo before Chastity crushes the devil’s head under her foot. At one point in the live presentation, Philbrick invites us participants to invoke these angels by making hand gestures as he rattles off their names—Humility, Victory, Contempt for the World, and others. I’m almost too busy with my own digits (note Obedience is also a virtue) to clearly see the movements being generated by my new dance partners: a certain glitch in the utopian matrix being proffered. After we’ve completed the exercise, Philbrick makes a joke: We are “virtue signaling.”

Philbrick elaborates on Hildegard by adding five new virtues—Underlying Condition, Distance, Riot, Planning, and Abolition—and illustrates them for us in a video. Before this prerecorded piece of the performance begins, he instructs us to get comfortable by turning off our cameras. I bring the lights low in my office, and the semi dark, sexy-moody ambience, interrupted only occasionally by my dog’s overheated whine, creates the effect of an inverted séance. Rather than receiving ghostly visitation, we viewers have inadvertently become ghosts ourselves—invisible, but felt.

Still from Ethan Philbrick’s Disordo Virtutum, 2020. Image: Museum of Arts and Design.

The twenty-five-minute video opens in darkness, accompanied by the sound of dripping water and faded Gregorian chant cut with a woman’s operatic wailing. As the image appears, song and strings accompany footage of performers in isolation as they move us through the stations of Philbrick’s intervention, their voices transposed over scenes of them carrying out various focused activities. Underlying Condition (Tomás Cruz) slices strawberries with an enviably sharp knife. Distance (Ned Riseley) folds clothes surrounded by rustic greenery. Riot (Hai-Ting Chinn) disassembles a doorknob, her melody reminding me of a Kate Bush song I can no longer identify. Planning (Malik Gaines) cleans a vaporizer with a Q-Tip, something I have to fact check later as my notes identified the tool in his hand as “silver tube … piece of technology??” Abolition (Amelia Bande) exfoliates her feet. This last activity floods me with memories of other art historical “scrubbers”: Marina Abramovic and her cow bones, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her museum steps. Ministrations of care never end; they merely are dispersed, and unevenly, among those who are drawn toward maintenance by conscience or by plain necessity. Artists record these tasks over and over again because, as the truism goes, the work is never done.

In her life as a nun and abbess, Hildegard von Bingen practiced a similar ethos of sustained goodness from the monastic position. What made her unique within her religious order was her sense that God was not far away in heaven, but infinitely everywhere on this earth. Reading my hymnal more closely, I pay better attention to the potentials of a beatifically personified Nature, as seen through Hildegard’s eyes:

Oh deus,
Oh God,

Quis es tu?
Who are you?

Qui sunt hi,
Who are these,

Qui un nubes?
Who seem like clouds?

In these lyrics, Philbrick finds validation that the modalities he highlights as New Virtues, be they elusive or contentious or indirect as clouds, are exactly what should be cultivated in human nature today. In his cosmology, we are devil and virtue all at once, toggling between damnable history and the ability to act with morality, a concept more intricately dynamic than the monolithic largesse the word traditionally implies. He frames his orchestration of sound as a political action of diffusion, enabling us to comprehend higher power as manifest in the myriad minor scores that attend solitude. Sometimes our private actions are so small that we ignore their weight and consequence, but alongside the more easily apparent seismic shifts in culture, a reorientation is transpiring—in our minds and at our fingertips.

When the performance was over, we applauded Philbrick with muted mics, making for one of the most surreal curtain calls of my viewing life. After pressing the red “Leave Meeting” button as I exit the room, I am strangely compelled to take the random hammer on my desk and smash the screen of my laptop. It has nothing and everything to do with what I saw; those intimate scenes of tactility as embodied by the virtues leave me itchy in my own need for a devotional object. I head outside to take a walk around the block, where careless street revelers share the road with masked families. Something of the concert has made its way inside me, and being beside my neighbors in real life only exacerbates the feeling that I am walking alone, in tandem with other drifting passengers.