AMN Reviews: Erik Friedlander – Illuminations (Skipstone)

One of this era´s finest cellists, Erik Friedlander was commissioned by the Jewish Museum in New York to compose a work celebrating an exhibit of ancient, illuminated manuscripts in Latin, Arabic, but mostly Hebrew, on loan from the Bodleian in Oxford. Performing due diligence before setting to work, “I found myself in this darkened room surrounded by these gorgeous books and manuscripts that seemed to be talking to me. They were telling me a story of patience and craft, ritual and dedication that was inspiring.”

Since study of the Talmud is always done in pairs, and this is a solo work, not a duet (recorded in a single April day in Brooklyn), this is davening – meditative recital, not chavruta (fellowship), the individual alone with the Book. Friedlander composed ten pieces as distinctive as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, black fire upon white fire. The letters become animated – the candelabrum of the shin, each of its three fingertips aflame, the smooth, tabletop plateau of the tav, the maze of the tzadi, the monkey tail of the qof grasping hold of the monkey bars of the lamed, each crafted like a sofer agonizing over all 304,805 letters of the Torah scroll.

Illuminations is anything but parochial. Taking his lead from Bach (whose suites for cello are still among the world´s most frequently played), his life-long spirit guide, Friedlander´s prelude crosses the threshold of the “Scriptorium” – “a serious place where work gets done” – before spiraling off in search of ten lost tribes of sound evoking not only the Jewish world and the Jewish worlds within the Muslim and Christian ones – as in those precious books – but also southern and eastern Asia and uptown and downtown Manhattan. His “Cham – Hypnotique” is Tibetan in name and inspiration but recalls some of his most innovatory Jewish modalities, such as can be heard when he works with John Zorn´s Masada songbook. Fingers on fretboard, bow raining down on strings, he declaims, dervishes, frenzies a discombobulating tarantella, spins the wheel of the heavens above the star calculators of Babylon (“Fantasia – Zodiac”), indulges the noble with the courtly “Madrigal – The Virgin and the Unicorn” – and sinks into the mourner´s Kaddish before closing with “Pavan”, dedicated to Hildegard of Bingen.

Itself a library, as real and redolent with the smell of parchment as the Bodleian or mythopoeic as Borges´, Illuminations contains magnificent decorations, marginalia, cross-references, books speaking to each other across millennia of thought. Hardly was solo instrumental music ever so talkative.

Stephen Fruitman