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Erik Friedlander

There are but a handful of well-known improvisers who call the cello their main instrument: Hank Roberts, Vincent Courtois, David Darling, Fred Katz and Erik Friedlander. Erik Friedlander has been steadily building an impressive body of work over the past ten years that has seen him emerge as the cellist on call for the New York downtown scene. Through recordings with artists that include Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano and John Zorn, and now with his own groups, Friedlander is helping to redefine the role of the cello in improvised music.

Starting out, Friedlander says improvising was not an early priority. "I wanted to be a working musician first," he says. "In a way, I regret that because I spent a lot of time just learning how to play the cello in a classical way. I became really busy and was doing a lot of freelancing, and I just wasn’t happy about it," says Friedlander. "When I was about eighteen, I met this bass player, Harvie Swartz [currently using the name Harvie S]. He wanted to use me in a band, so I got to play with all these great musicians. That experience led me to want to be an improvising musician. But I wasn’t working that much, so I set about trying to become really viable commercially."

With the decision to move into more improvisational music, there were few yardsticks out there for a young cellist. "Most of the early cello improvisers were bass players," Friedlander explains. "It didn’t have the dominating impact that sax players had. In the beginning, I was very jazz-focused. Those were the people I was hanging with and I didn’t have a broader sense of what was possible musically. So I focused a lot on sax players in the beginning, transcribing solos by artists like Coltrane and Shorter," he says. "When I first heard Arcado, which was a group with (violinist) Mark Feldman, (cellist) Hank Roberts and (bassist) Mark Dresser, it led me to open up my horizons. I started listening to what Hank Roberts and Abdul Wadud were doing, people who were working in the downtown scene to which I was oblivious for many years, much to my detriment. Once I started seeing what people were doing," says Friedlander, "I became more aware of being a string player and not just trying to imitate the saxophone, which really wasn’t working for me anyway."

Early Connections: The first time I became aware of Friedlander was with Dave Douglas’ incredible string group, and the recording Parallel Worlds. "The original concept of that band," describes Friedlander, "was with trombone and not cello. On the first gig, the trombone player couldn’t make it. So Dave called me to sub and that was the beginning. It worked so well that he had to stick with it; it wasn’t the original concept, but it’s to his credit that he saw immediately that it was really happening. I can’t remember if that was my introduction to the downtown scene or with Marty Ehrlich’s Dark Woods Ensemble, but in any case, I think this was the beginning of my acceptance with some of the main players."

Friedlander was soon seen by John Zorn, starting a long and fruitful relationship. "The first time we played together was at a 40th birthday celebration for Zorn," Friedlander says, "where I played a couple of Games Pieces with him. A few months later he started doing Masada and a couple of years later he started formulating Masada Strings; first it was the Bar Kochba group and out of that group came the string trio as a separate ensemble. I started playing on a lot of little projects that John would do, commercials, and things like that. It was really fun, eye-opening and amazing."

Friedlander holds Zorn in high regard and considers him a major influence. "He is incredibly systematic and organized in how he approaches writing," Friedlander describes, "and I think that really rubbed off on me. He also knows how to take risks. He throws himself into situations that many might consider too pressurized and just responds with a lot of intensity and élan. It was very inspiring to be around that; rehearsing pieces the afternoon before a big concert; just creating arrangements and not being afraid to work them until they were perfect. He has this voracious appetite for listening and finding new ideas."

As a participant on a number of Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture recordings, Friedlander says that the philosophy is "not to lock the idea of what Jewish music is into a small box; it’s got to be fed, activated and enlivened by modern, edgy sensibilities and not left to be treated like a museum piece. I always felt that the Radical Jewish dictum was, within some vague idea of what Jewish music is, to stretch the boundaries, push it and see what you could come up with. That’s the freedom and focus that Zorn is all about."

Chimera: While Erik worked in a cooperative trio with violinist Laura Seaton and drummer/Midi?Kat player Kevin Norton, his first group as a leader was Chimera, with Andrew D’Angelo on bass clarinet, Drew Gress on bass and Chris Speed on clarinet. It was the first group where he got to dedicate himself to writing exclusively. "The first pieces I started writing demanded that kind of ensemble," says Friedlander, "so I put it together and it was a great experience writing intricate, atmospheric, longer compositions. It was a treat playing in an acoustic environment, and it was certainly inspired by the Dark Woods Ensemble playing without drums, being able to play softly and also seeing how far I could go without the benefit of percussion."

Topaz: Friedlander’s current group is Topaz, who have released three recordings to date, including their most recent, the daring Quake on Cryptogramophone. "The impetus for the group," Friedlander says, "started with needing to create a body of music for a dance performance here in New York. I wanted to write for saxophone, and I wanted to see what it would be like with electric bass to move into a different zone. So I got Andy Laster and Stomu Takeishi. We did that gig and in order to move it out of the concert/dance situation, I needed to add something. I toyed with a couple of ideas, but ended up with percussion [Satoshi Takeishi]."

"Topaz, the first album from 1998," Friedlander continues, "was inspired by a kind of mangling of 70s funk that I kind of threw into a blender. With all my projects, there’s this kind of reflection of where I am living in a big city environment, with lots of layers, lots of complexities and lots of cultures butting up against one another. Then there’s this urge to escape from that, and I think that’s in there too. You find pieces that are edgy, rhythmic, somewhat complicated, and then there are others that want to be in a place that’s not so throbbing."

Skin, the group’s second release from 2000, expands on those ideas, but is still more obviously rooted in structure, whereas the latest release, Quake (2003) is much looser, more collective. "I think there’s plenty of structure, " explains Friedlander, "but I encourage the band and enjoy the group finding its way to the structure, as opposed to saying ‘Part A ends, now Part B begins.’ It’s more like Part A ishere and the task is toget to Part B, and let’s see how interesting we can make it. Quake was recorded after a lot of tours and we had really worked the music."

Improvisation vs. Composition: While Quake appears more rooted in free improvisation, there’s more to it than meets the eye. "Anyone can throw everything out the window and be free," says Friedlander. "Being free is really being nowhere, because free doesn’t take you anywhere. There has to be a frame to create focus, and the frame is what I write. No matter how loose I let it get, everyone is working within that frame whether it’s intervals, melodic devices, or rhythmic things. That’s the frame. We don’t just toss it all out and go ‘Ok, now we’ll play free.’ We really focus on bringing the influence of the written music into the improv; keeping a tension between written and improv," he says.

"There’s an ethic about improvisation which is so great," continues Friedlander, "but not at the expense of the design of the composer. As a band, we’ve moved away from the page so to speak, but in a way that’s so amazing to me because we’re always respectful of what’s been written. Part of what I wanted to do as we got better and better interaction between the players, was to allow that interaction to shine, and to write less structured pieces pieces that freed us to do what we really do so well," he says. "I think that’s a progression you can see on the records. Let the band create tension and complexity and have enough interest and grist in the composition to keep the machine going."

The chemistry between the players is all the more incredible on Quake because the studio arrangement did not allow everyone to see each other. "It was recorded in a studio," Friedlander describes, "where there were two separate rooms; one for the rhythm section and one for the front line. The rhythm section could see me through a camera, but that was about it. Everyone is so good that it was no problem; we had it so they could just see me lift my head, and that was ok. It’s not about seeing where you’re going, it’s about hearing where you’re going," says Friedlander.

Part of being a leader is determining how long to allow improvised sections to play out. "It’s all about proportion how long I am going to let the tension go," Friedlander continues. "It doesn’t remain tension if you let it go on too long. So it’s finding that balance and saying ‘now, let’s full out groove,’ or ‘now let’s do the ending.’ That’s an important part of it."

Grains of Paradise: Friedlander released an ambitious and cinematic project, Grains of Paradise, in 2001. "I went into that record," he explains, "thinking ten violins, rhythm section, cello and classical guitar. I’d been listening to a lot of Middle Eastern pop music and Bollywood stuff, where the violin sections are really rhythmically engaged with the soloist. We got to play Grains of Paradise live once with a ten-piece violin section [the recording utilized three violinists who overdubbed parts] and I realized it would have been amazing if I could have afforded it in the studio. All of a sudden the rhythm section was dealing with a force; it’s a very different feeling."

The Broken Shadows Project: In 2002, Friedlander created the Broken Shadows Project, a series of unique live performances at New York’s legendary Tonic club. "I got together with a writer named Michael Greenberg here in New York, and he wrote a twelve-part radio play for me," says Friedlander. "I scored it using Topaz mainly, but with a different sounding approach. That has led to a new record, which is in the can right now. It’s a little bit of a diversion from what we’ve been doing," he says.

"It was a very dark radio play," Friedlander continues, "about a journalist who gets fired from his New York City job and goes back to an iron-belt small town; he’s hired at very little pay on the crime beat. Things are slow, so he starts hobnobbing with the underworld elements and starts creating news by committing crimes. It was a great opportunity for me to do something that I really love, which is the live drama of radio."

Scoring for Film: The competition for scoring work in New York is fierce, but Friedlander is starting to make headway into that area, where he has a strong interest. "I’ve just come to realize recently that all those years being around my father [renowned photographer Lee Friedlander] and just looking at pictures, I always wondered; because I don’t have a natural gift for photography or even for appreciating it with a lot of knowledge," says Friedlander. But what I did get was a sense of how to put music with the picture. It’s something I really want to do."

"I got the job of scoring a four-part PBS documentary," continues Friedlander, "because of Grains of Paradise. They heard it and loved it, and thought I could work well with them. Doing the PBS documentary solidified a desire I have to continue doing scores. I always listen to a lot of film music, like Morricone."

Abaton: It’s a full year of releases for Friedlander. In addition to Quake, he has his first ECM recording due out on October 14 of this year, a trio led by pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and including violinist Mark Feldman. The album, Abaton, "started as project a couple of years ago," Friedlander explains, "when Manfred Eicher at ECM approached Sylvie to do something. He really liked her and wanted her to do something for them, so she began writing music. Mark and Sylvie had a duo for years, and I think they wanted to go in a very heavily written format, but with an improvisational kind of focus. It was natural to go in a new music way with a piano trio that would record beautifully and would be very well suited to the ECM aesthetic. So we started playing together and it really worked well. She wrote some beautiful music."

"The miracle," says Friedlander, "was that we recorded the album and then Manfred suggested we do some improvs. He loved it so much he just said "Keep going." We were going to just use them as filler pieces, maybe two or three interspersed between the written pieces, little breathers from the larger works. But Manfred loved them so much that we sat there in the studio and kept playing and playing. So now it’s a two CD release with the first disk being the composed material, and the second being the improvisations."

"This is right up Manfred’s alley," concludes Friedlander, "classical music, but its got improv and beautiful, acoustic instruments with a lot of space around them. It was a good match," he says. "It’s always nice working for people who know what they’re doing, a team like Manfred and Jan Erik (Kongshaug, engineer). It’s like when you work with Zorn he has a team of people and you go in, things work and things get done."

Maldoror: Friedlander is releasing a third recording, Maldoror, on October 6 in Europe and October 20 in the U.S. "I have a solo record coming out," says Friedlander, "which is really exciting, on a record label called Brassland which is a new label. It’s strictly solo, no overdubs. I did this record at a classical studio in old East Berlin. It’s a project that was conceived of by a friend of mine named Michael Montes, who is a composer here in New York. He kept telling me over and over again, ‘You really need to do a solo record; it’s that time in your career.’ And I kept putting him off. Then I was in Europe and he was in Europe and he suggested that I come to meet him in Berlin, and that we do the project."

"It’s a unique record I think," says Friedlander. "It’s a series of solo improvisations that are based on this poetry by a 19th Century bad-boy surrealist. And the concept of the record was that Michael would put a poem down in front of me, I would read it, and then I would do an improv. We did it in about an hour, the whole thing, with no overdubs and no retakes. We did about fifteen or so and he kept ten or twelve for the record."

Carving a Unique Place: As an active participant in the New York downtown scene, Erik Friedlander is carving a unique place for himself in improvised music. "What makes it unique", explains Friedlander, "is that in a very small geographic space, you have such an enormous number of really fine musicians. All share a set of skills which include a high level of playing ability and a shared understanding that when you go to perform with other people, you bring not only your ability to play, but your knowledge of all these other kinds of music that are available and the desire to bring that kind of flexibility to the situation," he says. "Although there are lots of gradations and colours to it, the basic ethos is about this kind of flexibility and curiosity, it’s amazing."

"And jazz is only a part of it," continues Friedlander. "Almost everybody on the scene has been involved in jazz. But then there’s a whole other group of players that come from new music or just completely other zones, like Ikue Mori who don’t have any jazz, but bring an incredible improvisational knowledge that doesn’t have to be about jazz."

With the release this year of Quake and Maldoror under his own name, and the Abaton project, Erik Friedlander is sure to gain a wider audience and continue to redefine the cello as a vital instrument in improvised music.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Erik Friedlander
  • Subtitle: Redefining the Cello
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