Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc


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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.

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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