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Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc

By Published: May 1, 2006
AAJ: I do really can picture starlings "unceasingly coming and going, circulating and crisscrossing in all directions in "Flights of Starlings.

EF: That piece is a hard one to do. The big trick with this was translating it into doing it live.

AAJ: Ah, now, that's what I want to ask about. They're improvisations, but in concert they became specific, non-improvised pieces, right?

EF: Well, I really didn't even really want to confront this. But I realized that no one would want to see me read a poem again; that's not really a great live performance [laughing]—everyone can watch me read, and then I'll play. And then, do I pass the poems out, so everyone knows where I am? I had to confront how I could make it work as a gig, and I had to learn some of them. It was annoying and frustrating and I didn't really want to do it, but I sat down and transcribed the record. I picked half-a-dozen or so pieces, and I added a lot of other repertoire. I did a Santana piece, a couple of Eric Dolphy things, a Persian piece, an Abdul Wadud piece—a lot of other people's music. Because this Maldoror book of music is very dark, very intimate, and I was playing bars and clubs. I needed to have more variety. I needed to take people away from this mood so I could bring them back to it. It turned out to be a great thing for me; I just loved doing it. I have a new record in the can ready to come out, and it's really beautiful and very different. So it'll be cool.

AAJ: Would you care to contrast your approaches to playing solo with those of playing in a group setting?

EF: I can't say that I do anything different. I just do what the music is demanding that I do. The obvious difference is that there is no chance for me to step back solo. When I play with Topaz, one of the joys is not being central all the time. I can step out in front and then step back and let Satoshi or someone take a solo. It's nice to be able to be on stage but not necessarily the focus; I can gather myself and think, "okay, is my set right, do I need to change up the order? I can listen to how the tune's going and think, "okay, let's make this a bit shorter. So it's nice to step back out of the limelight. When you're playing solo, there's just not a chance. You have to do all that and be central. I would say that's the only difference. Otherwise, it's just doing what the piece needs.

AAJ: It's also perhaps less stupefyingly dull to sit around and wait with three other people before you go on. That's what struck me about the Vanishing Point DVD—I've seen all the backstage footage in rock and roll films of a bunch of guys sitting around, but never before have I seen the situation of just one musician waiting around.

EF: Oh, it's awful. Not only that, but it's you and the presenter—there's no buffer. You may end up having to have dinner with the presenter. At least when you're traveling with a group, you're traveling with a little bit of a family—you can bring a little of your own turf with you. But it's tough when you're solo.

AAJ: It's very vulnerable.

EF: Totally. That scene in the video was particularly funny to me when I look back, because I was doing a door gig. If nobody showed up, I wasn't going to get paid anything! So I'm sitting there, it's twenty of nine, and there's nobody there. I'm thinking, "okay, this is Oakland, there's got to be some people coming. Of course, they all show late and it works out fine. But when you're by yourself, it's all on you, and the presenter's just looking at you [laughing], like, "why did I hire you? When you're with your band, you can at least commiserate together.

AAJ: Let's talk about your Grains of Paradise record. This is a CD released in 2001 on Tzadik Records' Radical Jewish Culture series. It's got Satoshi, bassist Trevor Dunn, guitarist Bryce Dessner on some of it, and three violinists—Joyce Hammann, Karen Milne and Peter Rovit. You mixed this one yourself. This is gorgeous, melodic stuff with lush but noncloying strings on some of the pieces, and another great rhythm section. The strings here remind me of some Mideastern pop records, and you're the primary soloist on these pieces. What was the concept behind this project?

EF: Well, you nailed it: it was Mideastern pop. That, and Bollywood, and I was listening to [Lebanese pop star] Nawal Al-Zoghbi. I had sort of an intense year of listening to this stuff. I've forgotten some of the names, but I was listening to Lebanese pop, Israeli pop. And also some of the Bollywood things with the big strings, which are unison, and the way they punctuated the lead vocal, which was mostly a female singer. The singer would sing and this whole mass of strings would come in and comment, comment, and it was very rhythmic and very undocile—not about laying down lush harmonies, although I'm all for that. It was much more aggressive and participatory, and I really wanted to do something like that. So that's what this record is about. It's 70% that, and then there's this mystical, pretty, Jewish side. And it all kind of melds in that zone.

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