Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc


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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.

AAJ: "Prowl is based upon a kundabigoya rhythm, but the players on the song are working through a mixed-meter structure that, in a funny way, makes this tune the jazziest piece here.

EF: Yeah, it does sound like that—especially the opening, right? All those harmonies.

AAJ: Yeah, and that unison alto/cello theme is almost beboppish.

EF: That's interesting. I never thought of that. Actually, I have a whole countermelody that I wrote that I kind of abandoned because I felt it was coming across too abstract. It sounded too eggheady, too intellectual. So I threw out the counterline, until the very end, when I break off. There's this little chorus where it almost sounds Steely Dan-y or something. This was another tricky one.

AAJ: There's something about this one. Andy's solo and your solo each start at a sort of zero point. For Andy's solo, the band is utterly calm at the beginning, and as his solo builds the group starts sizzling around him. But when you step up to solo, it all goes back to reset, back to zero. Then your statement has to start the waters boiling again.

EF: Right. I love that about this group. It's not really unusual—the format you describe—but I just love that the rhythm section will just say, "okay, what have you got? Then you can hear how things start taking shape. We have our predilections, but I like the way this always happens with this band, that over time we always kind of reset and see where it's going to go. Then someone will push it in one direction or another. It's great. It's like we set the vocabulary: okay, we're going to be using these words and this phrase length. Then we'll see what happens, we'll go for it. People might contribute a rhythm or harmony, and then we'll throw that up against what the piece is asking us to do. It's pretty interesting.

AAJ: "7th Sister is imbued with a sense of low unease, at least to me—it's like a nagging doubt put to music. This one really puts the rhythmic burden on you, on your arpeggiated ostinati. That gives Satoshi a lot of freedom throughout the song, and although eventually his drums do assume a more timekeeping role, you're really the primary timekeeper here.

EF: As you've been doing, you pretty much hit it. This is one piece where I took the rhythm, and instead of imagining the percussion playing it, the piece sort of germinated from this kind of cello harmony and the pizzicato thing that I've been getting into more and more on my solo front. There's something about the sound of the bass and Andy together on this one—it's a great sound that I've used a bunch of times.

AAJ: What, bass and clarinet?

EF: Yeah, it's really beautiful. The tricky part was developing it over time; it doesn't have the same kind of arc. I find myself, to my detriment, always in love with this feeling of arc—what you described as the "reset and then build thing. You know, that's universal and it has an innate power, and there's always the feeling there of telling a story. You start somewhere, and you tell a story, and that's kind of my grand paradigm. But this tune doesn't necessarily have that feeling; it's a little more timeless and a little more static. There were a few times in gigs where I actually felt a little uncomfortable how it was starting to lock up and groove and get that arc kind of feeling, and I didn't want it to have to go there. But I really like this rendition; it's really strong.

AAJ: Speaking of telling a story, "Rain Bearers has quite a narrative power. Without my describing the piece at all, I have to say that this tune taught me something you have no doubt known for a long, long time, which is how incredibly versatile the cello is as a musical instrument. Here you have a pizzicato intro that turns into a bass line, and of course there's also bowed sections. You take the role of several instruments, which is very helpful in a smaller band like this one.

EF: Well, the only reason I started this group was that I wanted to see how far I can push this: can I be in this music? Do I exist here? Some of the stuff I've written, in the beginning especially, was done because I really want to play with a rhythm section. I want to groove. I don't want to be doing free or chamber music just because I play the cello. This tune is about managing how much complexity I can invisibly incorporate as a subtext to the overall simplicity and the fresh, basic, expressive things in the music. It was a matter of finding the mesh of, say, how that bass line that's in a different time signature exists together with the cello line, moving into the next section. Yeah, I love this tune. It's another tune that's got to managed to get to that big crescendo.

AAJ: A temperamental creature.

EF: Yeah, exactly.

AAJ: Outside of any complexity within it, the tune does cook pretty powerfully and physically. Incidentally, I swear I hear some kind of loopy, almost organy sounds deep in the mix, especially during Stomu's popping, double-stopping solo.

EF: That's him! Isn't he amazing? It's so beautiful! I love that. He has this Boomerang pedal. When he first brought it in, I was like, "what's going on? He's become such an artist on it. He plays stuff, and while he's doing his job, he grabs snippets of what he's playing and then starts playing it back at different rates. It can be really high, and if you sustain it in a way and loop it, it almost creates this harmony, and it's so gorgeous. Sometimes he'll preset it before the tune—he'll have developed an idea. Other times, he'll just grab things from his own playing, just bass stuff, during the piece. He'll sculpt it and mold it and pretty soon he'll have this thing.


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