by Jill Kimball
When really, really good musicians get together to play music, something magical happens. Some of the best performances in history have been called divine or heavenly. No matter their faith (or lack thereof), those who appreciate music can agree there’s something otherworldly about an amazing performance or recording.
“We’re kind of scrubbing on our instruments, and what somehow comes out of that physical act is something spiritual or transcendent, ” says Miki-Sophia Cloud, a violinist with the self-conducted chamber orchestra A Far Cry. “The history of spiritual mysticism [is] about connecting the physical and the spiritual, which is such a theme in music as well.”
In observing the connection between mysticism and music, the members of A Far Cry had a great idea. They decided to make an album called Dreams & Prayers, a unique collection of music that explores the relationship of spirituality and sound. It begins with Hildegard of Bingen, fast-forwards to the present day, backtracks to 1994, and then concludes at the bedside of a newly-healed Ludwig van Beethoven. Four works, three faith traditions, and 1,000 years comprise this stunning, exhilarating, and (dare I say it?) transcendent album.
The disc gets is name from its focal work, Osvaldo Golijov‘s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Golijov originally composed the piece for klezmer clarinet and string quartet–more specifically, for the Kronos Quartet–and has now written an arrangement specifically for A Far Cry to premiere. What’s especially exciting about this recording is that the klezmer clarinetist is David Krakauer, the very same musician who played the premiere with Kronos.
The whole piece is inspired by the writings and teachings of Isaac the Blind, a Jewish mystic who lived in 12th and 13th century Provence. Its three movements are inspired by the three historical Jewish languages: Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew. The kind of transcendence explored here is more ecstatic and lively than it is dreamy or serene: you get the sense that Krakauer and the Criers just let go and played with abandon, reveling in the piece’s driving dance rhythms, lush orchestration and utter chaos.
With this 33-minute tornado at the center of Dreams & Prayers, it’s easy to forget there’s another world premiere on the CD: Mehmet Ali Sanlikol‘s Vecd, commissioned by the ensemble. Vecd, in Arabic, “refers to a state of rapture or ecstasy,” according to the composer; the piece is a musical evocation of the kind of spiritual ecstasy Sufi whirling dervishes try to achieve in formal religious ceremonies. Almost everyone will find this piece aesthetically appealing, even if they don’t make the religious connection. It begins with just a few musicians playing soft, meditative sustained notes. Then, a dramatic melody swoops in. Over the course of a few minutes, it gains in speed and volume until the piece reaches its whirling climax. The sound gradually slows and fades until, as in the beginning, only a few musicians remain.
My absolute favorite part about Dreams & Prayers is its opening track, an original arrangement of the chant O ignis spiritus paracliti by the incomparable Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard isn’t famous just because she was one of history’s first female composers. She’s famous because she was a composer, writer, philosopher, theologian, scientist, mystic, and Benedictine abbess…simultaneously. And her music was like nothing anyone had heard before: her chants were more expressive, complex and artistic than any of those composed before and even during her lifetime. It’s such a pleasure to hear her haunting chant arranged so simply on this disc: no extraneous notes or harmonies, just one pure melodic line played in perfectly-imperfect unison by the violinists of A Far Cry. Despite its simplicity, it’s not background music: this track deserves your undivided attention.
A close second favorite is the album’s heart-wrenching conclusion, the third movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15. At first it seemed strange for A Far Cry to include something so comparatively conventional, but then I read T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the piece:
“I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”
History tells us T.S. Eliot was on the nose about this piece: Beethoven likely wrote it following his recovery from an abdominal illness. In the original manuscript, he describes the third movement as a “Holy song of Thanksgiving to a convalescent of the Deity.” It’s an ode to the emotional healing power of music, further proof that we turn to music for a respite from all forms of pain. One last time, A Far Cry connects the physical with the spiritual in their impeccable yet sensitive performance of this movement.