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Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc

By Published: May 1, 2006
AAJ: He's a badass. You do one cover tune on this record, "A Closer Walk With Thee, a New Orleans funeral piece. This is the one non-original here; is this your New Orleans tribute?

EF: It's something we've been playing. I have a band—it was called Rope— with [drummer] Mike Sarin and [bassist] Hilliard Greene. I didn't write any music for this group, but we were invited to play in Berlin for an anniversary marking 9/11 along with the Ethel string quartet. They asked us to come up with some musical nod to this event, and it was very tricky, because I'm very loathe to capitalize on that, on the emotion of it. So I brought "A Closer Walk With Thee, a hymn that I remembered from being in New Orleans, and we played that with Ethyl. It was really beautiful and simple.

Erik FriedlanderSo Topaz started just doing it because it was a thing that Andy could play clarinet on and was pretty. I felt that having lived really close to 9/11, it was my own unannounced way of dealing with that in the concerts and touring around, because at the time it was sort of on everyone's lips when we were in Europe or elsewhere. It was my own private thing. So I had planned on recording it, and then the New Orleans disaster happened after we recorded it. So that was just a weird accident. I was tempted to pull the song, because I didn't know how it would seem. But it is a tribute to New Orleans, because I did spend some meaningful time there when I was a kid—I got my first cello there, I met a lot of musicians there, I learned to play the mandolin there. It's tied up in me musically in a weird way. So it's a strange accident, the implications of including that piece. But it's a beautiful piece, and tricky to find the right tone. You don't want to get too arch with that—like any sort of deconstructed "ha-ha, look what we can do. But I don't think that's how it comes across.

AAJ: Let's talk about your solo cello stuff, which is a significant part of your work. I've seen your tour DVD Vanishing Point, which documents your 2004 American/Canadian solo tour for your CD Maldoror. The DVD's full of great playing, but it's also a very good document of the disorientation of road touring, with lots of auto footage, barbecue restaurants and you sitting around backstage waiting for a venue to fill. What were your intentions producing a film like this?

EF: It was such an odd experience touring around playing solo cello. I had quite a few dates, which was great, but there is this feeling of being kind of undercover during the day, kind of incognito. You're just playing for this hour or two hours where you become sort of the most important person in the room; for the rest of the day you're just silently crossing boarders and making your way. It's odd. That's what's great about it, too: you have your day all laid out for you. You have this moment when it really matters, and so you don't have to do anything else besides exist from one heartbeat to another. I guess I was trying to document that a little bit, that kind of dislocation. I think [laughing] I was partially successful.

AAJ: Well, it's very enjoyable to watch. As a Chicagoan, I of course especially liked the Chicago footage, which I recognized immediately. I think I howled out when I spotted the Empty Bottle, which I recognized from its free-water dispenser at the bar.

EF: I had a great gig there. It was really fun. I did a solo set and then I played with [drummer] Tim Daisy and [reedman] Ken Vandermark. We just played free, without music, and it was great—really fun.

AAJ: Maldoror is your 2003 record of solo cello pieces . It's a three-way collaboration of sorts: producer Michael Montes placed selected texts from Les Chants de Maldoror by Isidore Ducasse, a nineteenth-century book beloved by the Surrealists, in front of you with some other suggestions at the time of recording. You responded with these improvised pieces.

EF: Exactly. It was his idea, basically, and it was he who encouraged me to pursue a solo record. We just happened to be in Europe at the same time, and I had a day or two to meet him in Berlin, so we arranged this recording session—where I actually also recorded his cello-piano piece. Then we had some time at the end of the day and he surprised me and said, "do you want to try this? I said, "sure. That was the process, and he was kind of my audience of one, sitting there in a chair. It was a huge studio, mostly used for orchestra. It was really cool.

AAJ: It's a gorgeous-sounding record.

EF: It is. It's amazingly well-recorded. It was fun; it was interesting to see how it worked as a kind of book of music.

AAJ: What sort of suggestions, in addition to the texts, did he give you?

EF: I don't remember! It's been a while. Probably just general, musically descriptive kinds of things. I think sometimes I would take the suggestions and sometimes I would just abandon them. It was fun because it was like a performance. I would just grab on to whatever image or string of images that I could to make a little story for myself and then include whatever he said or not, and then see what would happen.

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