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Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc

By Published: May 1, 2006
AAJ: Let's talk about some of the individual songs. "Howling Circle is the album opener. You point out in the liner notes that it's based on a Guinean coucou rhythm, which here seems like a simple one-two, one-two, but is deceptively complex.

EF: Yeah, because it's displaced in a way over the time. The rhythm achieves its full existence in the second statement of the theme—you can sort of hear it there. We tried to learn this after a late-night gig in Bologna, and it was just so frustrating. I mean, those guys get it pretty quickly, but then Andy and I had to be dragged along. And then we would get it, but unfortunately what happens with a rhythm like this is that it starts sounding like it's on the beat—you start thinking it's "bump-bump. Bump-bump. That's not it. So in the middle of a gig, Stomu and Satoshi would be looking at us, like, "what do we do? Do we move back? You'd better fix it, motherfucker.

AAJ: Well, that's just the rhythm. The melody's very memorable—maybe sort of Middle Eastern—and to me, somewhat ominous. I like how Stomu's bass changes in support of your and Andy's solos; he's sort of stalking during one and more rhythmically popping during the other.

EF: That always happens and I love that. But I want to get what Andy's getting [laughing]—so next time around I'll change the solo order, so maybe I'll get the stalking this time, or the popping, whatever. But it's great; you never know what's going to happen.

AAJ: Many of the pieces are built around the melodic unison lines between you and Andy—"Howling Circle is one. Another is "Anhinga, which is extremely elegant and lovely. Andy's on clarinet on this one and it's got a particularly nice theme. Your solo's a high point here—you go from pizzicato to bowed and Andy's clarinet weaves around you. Meanwhile, Stomu does his thing beneath. It's all pretty simple reduced to its elements, but it adds up to a really rich harvest of sound.

Erik Friedlander
Topaz, Left to Right: Stomu Takeishi, Erik Friedlander, Andy Laster, Satoshi Takeishi

EF: I do love this melody. I played with the form on this one a lot. Almost every time we pulled this one out on tour, and even in the recording session, I was changing it—trying to make the solo form really feel organic and give the soloist a chance to shape it. I think it happened on a gig once where I started pizz, and then started to mix the bow in instead of just changing from one to the other—instead, trying to mix the bowing in slowly. It seemed to work nicely.

AAJ: So a certain amount of experimentation leads up to the finished product.

EF: For this one, there was a lot. It was tricky—shaping it so you don't even notice it. So you just hear the melody, like you're talking about—so it has that feeling of freshness that it should have. And this process is pretty normal. I do that with all the tunes. One goal is to keep it really fresh for the players. When we're on tour, I like working a piece and finding out its boundaries, but I also like to, on the gig, say, "okay, we're going to do it this way now, so the musicians feel they have something else to contend with. It can bring out some interesting things.

AAJ: "Chanting is my favorite piece on the record. I find its composed melody parts pretty fantastic. Your notes explain that it's built around a seventeen-bar rhythmic pattern, which in terms of Satoshi's austere percussion, repeats—and it's all about a slow, patient build around your and Andy's counterpart improvisations before you finally hit that composed, unison melody.

EF: You pretty much nailed it.

AAJ: I love how it all happens in less than five minutes. It's remarkable that a tune can do so much, and come to such a satisfying conclusion, in such a short time.

EF: Yeah, it's like my "Bolero. This one was really hard. In fact, I abandoned it on tour at one point because we could never get it right. It's kind of a vibe; it has to be just right. Every ingredient: how long we play before we start the melody, how long before Stomu comes to the parts, how loudly we play. It's the kind of thing where we'd hit it once and then not be able to find the magic again. I'm just glad we found it in the recording session. The way that you proceed through before you get to that final big statement—if it's not right, all of a sudden you start perceiving it. You perceive every minute, and you perceive how five minutes is too long!

So that took a lot of tweaking, a lot of hoping for the right amount of improvisation and the right amount of handing back and forth of the little melody fragments that Andy and I do in the beginning in a way that was respectful of the atmosphere of the piece. So I wish I could say this was really organic, but it took a lot of concentration and tweaking. It's different from a lot of the pieces I write because it's not about a soloist jumping out and then the rhythm section just doing what they do really well, which is playing and dialoguing back and forth. It's more about this group crescendo and keeping this beautiful atmosphere. It was tricky.

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