September 11th, 2009 5:33 pm | by MATTHEW KORFHAGE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TBA Diary: On the road with Erik Friedlander

Photograph by Roan Edwards

Erik Friedlander is something of an evangelist for the cello, expanding it into previously unknown territories: in Middle-Eastern pop, say, or with the Mountain Goats, in noisy jazz ensembles with avant-jazz/new music composer John Zorn, or as leader of his own ensembles. Friedlander's new project, Block Ice and Propane, does not mark the first time that anyone has mined folk music from the perspective of jazz or classical, with forebears ranging from Bill Frisell's Appalachian-based post-Quartet material to Bela Bartok's Russian dances, but it is the first I know to convincingly do so using only the very particular sonorities of the cello, that geekiest and most drawing-roomed of classical strings.

Block Ice was part storytelling, part musical performance, a playing of pieces inspired by camper travels with his photographer father each summer in the 1970s and early '80s, complete with slide show of his own family and road films by Bill Morrison. The pictures were commissioned, actually, by PICA for TBA--he had originally done the piece without them--but strangely it was the pictures that distracted, no matter how much I personally liked them. Because irrevocably trained by television and the documentary, we all have a little trouble allowing the pictures to elucidate the music rather than vice versa. And so, while I was very pleased to see the pictures that illuminated the stories, I had to blind them out to hear the music appropriately--that is, to keep it from screening itself into the nostalgia of black-and-white photographs.

Because as it goes, the music required little else in the way of elucidation. Friedlander is easily one of the most gifted cellists of our time, and his wide range of musical interest and acumen allowed wildly disparate influences to jump into pieces that often started with a familiar Appalachian or Western theme, but which transported themselves into occasional Balkan or Sephardic moods, skittered into noisy abandon or sank into drone, sometimes wrung themselves seemingly free of the actual physical capabilities of the instrument. Most of the time, however, Friedlander wound these foreign sensibilites subtlely, lyrically, unobtrusively into the otherwise well-trodden musical pastorality--hymns and diddies loaded down with every romance of that sad and misbegotten and ancient hicktown America we've got in us--and thereby renewed it.

One other aspect of the performance, unexpected: when hearing Friedlander in solo format, one was able to hear all the more clearly his contributions to previous recordings and performances. In particular, it became apparent while seeing Block Ice performed just how indispensable Friedlander had been to the by-turns haunting and harrowing performances in John Zorn's Masada String Trio and Bar Kokhba Sextet, which elegiacally revisited and transformed Klezmer and Sephardic Hebrew music. (Bar Kokhba, for those not versed in their history, was the failed revolt that not only cemented the divide between Christians and Jews, but also led to the destruction of Jerusalem.)

Of course, one thing that a solo instrumental performance will do is reveal the instrument's limitations--that constant, unavoidable hum of the instrument's resonant frequency and base chord that rattled under every note--and it will do so especially when in the hands of a performer as gifted as Friedlander, who is actually able to follow the instrument to its true limits, whether played with the bow or in a manically stacatto pizzicato performed with impossible ease, or milked for the sonorous aftershocks in each note. Which is to say, Block Ice an acheivement I expect not to be followed up (unless by Friedlander himself) but to remain rather forever frozen in its own shape; it took every sonority in the instrument to pull this off, and it was beautiful in part because so unlikely in its success.
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