by carl wilson

Block Ice & Bloodlines


This Friday, New York's Erik Friedlander, perhaps the most prominent cellist in the improv-and-new-music world today, is playing a show on Toronto Island, and by some coincidence, today in The New York Times, there's a story about Friedlander - in particular his new album, Block Ice & Propane, which draws on memories of family camping trips with his mother, sister, and father Lee Friedlander, the famous photographer. I'd forgotten that Erik F. was the lensman's son, so I was curious to read this piece. It's disillusioning as you get older to find out that half the people exhibiting in galleries have trust funds and another third have artist parents (and a few have both), the ways that class, cultural capital and nepotism determine the shape and population of arts communities - not that the kids of artists should be excluded, of course, but it's another sense in which the tribe is kind of endogamously self-reproducing rather than having full intercourse with the rest of society and evolving out of that. However, I didn't feel that way about the Friedlander connection, I think in part because it's obvious how hard Erik works, with his quite prolific output of solo albums along with guest appearances in performances and recordings by everyone from the Mountain Goats to John Zorn and Ned Rothenberg to Courtney Love; but also because there's always been something a bit mysterious in his aesthetic to me, which somehow framing him as the child of a modernist-artist family helps to bring into clearer focus.

One point that the Times's Ben Sisario passes over that seems worthy of mention is that Lee Friedlander has quite a direct link to the music world, as he was the photographer for jazz and soul albums on Atlantic in the 1950s and 1960s, shooting the classic portraits on the covers of such albums as Miles' In a Silent Way, Coltrane's Giant Steps, discs by Aretha Franklin, Roland Kirk, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, Mingus, Ornette and many more. Friedlander remarks in the story about the liberating effect of having grown up seeing that art is a matter of "just doing" the impossible. I'm sure that he also grew up hearing that lesson illustrated sonically by the subjects of his father's photographs, some who bent the rules and some who recognized no rule but their own, and his own work, which is so much about tension and timbre and the marginal limit points of music, is illuminated when I look at it as conditioned by and responsive to the swaggering, expansive music that surrounded him in childhood.

Whoever his daddy is, Friedlander is quite an intense performer and well worth catching live. See the gig guide for details. Also, on the "jump" to this post is a column I wrote about him three years ago when he was touring behind my favourite disc of his (I haven't heard the new one yet), Maldoror. [...]

Making ugly sounds on a beautiful instrument

April 15, 2004
The Globe and Mail

When I reach Erik Friedlander, he's rollerblading through the streets of New York, and asks me to wait as he passes through a tunnel.

It's the first time I've interviewed an internationally acclaimed musician in mid-skate. But for a jazz player on the outer rim of expression, and an unlikely instrument, "cellist on rollerblades" is as good an image as any.

I ask if he's heading to a studio job, maybe an avant-jazz session like those he's done with the likes of trumpeter Dave Douglas or saxophonist John Zorn, or a pop gig like those with Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love, or one of his own scores for film.

"Actually, no," he says, "Couples therapy." The 44-year-old laughingly adds, "Don't worry, it has nothing to do with Maldoror."

Maldoror is his first solo disc, after a half-dozen as leader of cross-cultural jazz ensembles Chimera and Topaz. It's based on the book Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautreamont, the pseudonym of Uruguayan immigrant Isidore Ducasse. He wrote it in Paris in 1868, at half Friedlander's age, and died two years later, unmourned till the surrealists rediscovered him a half-century on.

Friedlander came to it when the composer Michael Montes - after years of pushing for a solo disc - cornered him in a Berlin studio and surprised him with printed pages of Maldoror excerpts. Friedlander read them one by one and, with tape rolling, improvised musical responses, all in about an hour.

In the book, Lautreamont rhapsodizes over evil of every persuasion, from murder, pedophilia and the rape of Christ to erotic union with a shark. Its preface, which inspired Friedlander's first track, warns the reader may find "the deadly issues of this book will lap up his soul as water does sugar." No wonder he fears I'll jump to conclusions about his private life.

Yet relationship counselling is another accidentally apt metaphor. Here more than ever, Friedlander is mediating between cultural odd couples: 19th and 21st centuries, classical and jazz, beauty and brutality, spontaneity and structure. As Lautreamont's notorious line goes, it's "the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella."

The idea of jazz cello sometimes feels that incongruous to the son of 1950s jazz photographer Lee Friedlander (who shot covers for Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus), despite praise like being a voted a "rising star" in last year's Downbeat poll.

Jazz cello can be traced from Oscar Pettiford in Duke Ellington's band through Abdul Wadud in the 1970s loft scene. Today it can even be found in the hands of Peggy Lee in Vancouver, or Kye Marshall and Matt Brubeck (son of Dave) in Toronto. Yet it remains a bit like a leggy, brandy-toned Bacall striding unexpectedly into a bar full of stubbled, scotch-soaked Bogarts.

"I think it's the timbre, the texture," says Friedlander. "I used to play Broadway shows, and the most basic player with a sax or clarinet could play five notes and sound more 'jazzy' than I would after slaving over a tune for five hours. The sustain of the cello - there's nothing cool about it, I mean in the Miles Davis sense. It's too intense."

Its strengths are nearly as tricky. "It has a warmth and resonance that's fantastic. Everyone responds: 'Oh, I love the cello.' But I need not to be so restricted by that preconceived notion of what the cello sounds like. It can be raucous, ugly, aggressive - and it needs to be.

"Although I've sometimes gone too far trying to be that way."

Wittingly or not, Montes may have struck close to that dilemma in choosing Maldoror - a beginning of the modernist inversion of morality and rejection of beauty that would define 20th-century art.

"Lautreamont was clearly trying to shock people," says Friedlander. "Which I found funny at times, living now. But I had to be aggressive and find something I could respond to, without bowing down to it too much. It's hard not to be impressed by the economy of it, what he crammed into a small space."

In turn, Friedlander coaxed from his strings his own pizzicato and bowed compressions of the poet's pranks and agonies, from the skittering madwoman to the swirling starlings, the pretty boy's heart torn from his chest and the "stern" elegance of mathematics. Yet like many artists who no longer identify with the old protest against pleasure, his vocabulary harbours harmony as much as dissonance, turning Ducasse's anarchy to elegy, maybe for modernism itself.

The exercise also broke down the compositionally-oriented Friedlander's resistance to free improvisation. "Complete freedom is nowhere," he says. "As an audience member I get frustrated and angry when players just lob one idea after another that has no connection, no tension that can then be released."

Yet with Maldoror the only structure is conceptual. "Once I start, I try to deal with what I have just played, not just cast it aside. I tell a story." How will he approach it in concert? "That's the crux of the problem. To recreate the same music or process would be a little deadening mentally. So I'm touring the spirit of the record, creating something in the moment."

For this first solo tour, including stops at Montreal's La Sala Rossa tomorrow and the Rivoli in Toronto on Sunday, he's rehearsed basic frameworks for Maldoror and other pieces by Zorn, banned Iranian pop star Googoosh, and even his teenage rock hero Carlos Santana.

But he got a surprise in a trial solo run at South by Southwest in Texas last month, for an audience waiting to hear rock band Mr. Bungle (whose singer, Mike Patton, has his own side group named Maldoror): "Without exception these kids were more interested in the improvising. I couldn't play 'out' enough for them. When I did something prepared, you could feel the energy drop immediately. . . .

"Maybe people are ready for something different."

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 17 at 1:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)



I met Eric at the old Houston location of the Knitting Factory in the summer of 88 at a Sonny Sharrock show, or was it Elliot Sharp with the Rollins Band rhythm section? It was a great time to be in the Lower Eastside. He was a terribly nice fellow. I presume his increased work flow is partly due to his succession of the Tom Cora throne and his wonderful demeanor...thanks for the memories...

Posted by Phil on July 18, 2007 4:08 PM



It's probably not that much more so than the classic professions - that lawyers and doctors beget lawyers and doctors is no doubt similarly true, although artists & writers & musicians may be more prone to marry (or, as the customs of the tribe may go, shack up with) each other. The endogamy is just disillusioning because as a kid, if you don't know the art world(s) you think of artists/musicians/writers as these people mysteriously marked out by talent & fate to step out of their miscellaneous obscure circumstances into this special role.

That it doesn't really work that way makes sense (especially as you stop thinking that artists are quite *that* special) - but it's still occasionally startling to realize *how much* it doesn't work that way. I never would have been startled by that so much with other professions - but then for a long time I never would have thought of art as a "profession" either.

Posted by zoilus on July 18, 2007 12:07 PM



Do you find the art world to be more endogamous than other professions?

Posted by mwanji on July 18, 2007 5:39 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson