Erik Friedlander, Playing the Cello with Pluck The masters of cello have learned how to wrench mournful, longing sounds from their instruments, with the tug and stab of a bow across the four fat strings. But Erik Friedlander has a different approach: he often strums and plucks the strings instead of bowing them.
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Erik Friendlander in Studio 4A - 08/04/2007

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Erik Friedlander, Playing the Cello with Pluck

Erik Friendlander in Studio 4A - 08/04/2007

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: The masters of cello have learned how to wrench mournful, longing sounds from their instruments, with a tug and stab of a bow across the four fat strings. But cellist Erik Friedlander has a different approach.

(Soundbite of a cello being plucked)

LYDEN: Friedlander strums and plucks the strings instead of bowing them. Gone is the low rumble. It's replaced by a delicate, almost ethereal sound.

(Soundbite of a cello being plucked)

LYDEN: Friedlander's new CD of mostly plucked cello is called "Block Ice & Propane." He says these songs are inspired by the family road trips he took as a child with his father, the illustrious photographer Lee Friedlander, at the wheel.

And Eric joins me now in NPR's performance Studio 4A with his cello.

Thanks very much for coming.

Mr. ERIC FRIEDLANDER (Cellist, "Block Ice & Propane"): Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: This plucking a cello is nothing new in the world of classical music but it's a seldom-used technique. So how does it account for 90 percent of what we hear on this new CD?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: I've always had a thing for pizzicato, for plucking the cello. When I started out, I began by doing it as - in a kind of jazz way, learning from jazz bass players. But then, recently, I've been thinking about my early guitar playing that I used to do before I picked up the cello, which - I picked up the cello in third grade - but before that I was a guitar player and I learned all sorts of folk finger-picking techniques and things. And so I really wanted to bring that technique to the cello and see what would happened, what kind of music could I make.

And, gradually, as I got into it, I saw I was going in this direction that had kind of a roots feel and open-strings ringing and buzzing around like a banjo or a folk guitar, and so that's where it started. And then I just, you know, kept working and improvising on those ideas and that's where this record began.

LYDEN: The cello is so associated with classical music, but these songs come across us as folk music, almost, and they are road songs, really. I mean, could these songs have been played on a regular six-string guitar?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Maybe. I think you'd lose some of the specialness of what the cello does bring, even though, I think as a folk instrument, it's maybe not in the league of guitar, you know.

LYDEN: So you bring a lot, but what does it bring?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Well, it has that kind of almost like an oohed(ph)-like kind of dark atmosphere that it brings, and it adds a layer of a little bit of mystery and a little bit of plaintive kind of quality that I think the guitar can have but doesn't have just naturally, just ringing the strings, you know, playing the strings.

LYDEN: Let's hear one of your new songs. The first track on the CD is called "King Rig."

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: "King Rig," yeah.

(Soundbite of song "King Rig")

LYDEN: Whoa(ph) if that makes you just want to get huh(ph) then…

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Oh, great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: It's like the truck is a runaway.


LYDEN: You almost hear the Doppler effect in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: You do. I mean, the sound coming out here and then going away the way it does in the runway.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Oh, that's cool.

LYDEN: That's cellist Erik Friedlander here in NPR's performance studio with the new song called "King Rig." And it's a very exciting road song, and a lot of songs in this new CD of yours were inspired by your family camping trips out on the road, which I guess your father, Lee, took with you all each summer.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Yeah. You know, until I was about 17, we would go out on these trips of two months, two-and-a-half-months long. And we traveled in a camper, a '66 Chevrolet pickup truck and a camper shell on top of that. And, you know, that was our, kind of, our home for two months. And I tell you when I hear these songs back, I'm back in that camper and it's really not so much the specific places but just the vibrating, the road going behind, the white lines, you know, that whole thing and some.

LYDEN: Now, I have to tell you that with me these songs are every bit of the pun intended, striking a particular chord because I got taken on family camping trips each summer.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: You, too, ha?

LYDEN: But with a trailer.


(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: And I think you have a song on the CD, "Airstream Envy."


LYDEN: Well, we used to have a silver trailer, not the Airstream, but its rival, the Avion, which was very, very, very close.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: The Avion. I don't remember those.

LYDEN: Well, they took off on the Airstream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Where did you go? Where did you go on these trips? I mean, your father was known for these giddy(ph) pictures of America, so I guess you were going to get the images.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Right. Well, actually a lot of the trips were based around gigs then he would plot the trips going from one job to another. And that covered state parks and national parks, KOA campgrounds, which was a big, popular one for my sister and I because they had pools and pinball machines.

LYDEN: Remember them very, very well.


LYDEN: There's one really wonderful kind of classic American family pic here of your mom, your dad, you two kids and, of course, the dog.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Yes. They used to say, why don't you get a saddle and ride him. He's a big dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Yeah. That picture is - it's the '70s fashions. They never go out of style.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: It's the hippie family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: So when you came to do this album, did you start with the images or did you start with the music?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: The music started first and sometimes when you're practicing, these things float into your mind and I started thinking about these trips. And I realize that it was a kind of American kind of music and so much of my early experience with America was these trips.

LYDEN: "Airstream Envy" is one of the songs on the CD, and it's not plucked. You used a bow for this one. Could you tell me the story behind the creation of "Airstream Envy"?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Right. Well, my sister and I would ride above the cab of the pickup in the camper, which I'm sure is quite illegal now.

LYDEN: I think so.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Probably, like a lot of things. And so we would just watch the world go by. And also we started seeing that these sleek, silver - they look like ammunition - airstreams going by. They're just so beautiful. And we just couldn't imagine what life was like. They just seemed so much more luxurious than the life we were living in our camper with our block ice and our propane stove. And so this piece, I call "Airstream Envy." And I realized after listening to it, it doesn't really have that kind of green, envy sound. It's more like the magnificence of what life - what we kind of imagine life was like in the Airstream.

(Soundbite of song, "Airstream Envy")

LYDEN: That's beautiful. You know, for me, it has a turn-of-the-century feeling.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Yeah. It has a little bit of that kind of bagpipey(ph), droning thing kind of going on.

LYDEN: Cellist Erik Friedlander. He's our guest here in NPR's performance studio. And the song is called "Airstream Envy."

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Oh, yeah.

LYDEN: I should mention your father is the photographer Lee Friedlander, one of America's most extraordinary photographers and really known for American subjects and recording artists for Columbia Records like Rey Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, back in the '50s and '60s. Do these people have an influence on you musically?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Well, they were always around, kind of, on recordings. So my father installed a big stereo in the cab of the truck, which, you know, we didn't have air-conditioning, so the windows were open the whole time and just blasted music. I don't think it was in even one specific saying. It was just more that music was around all the time. And neither my parents are musicians but the music was just always there.

LYDEN: But you did. You mentioned picked up the cello in the third grade and the fourth at the guitar so…


LYDEN: You just did, you know, naturally.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: I guess so. That's a little vague to me exactly (unintelligible) why I picked the cello. I have no idea.

LYDEN: Was there a moment when you knew that you were going to be a musician?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: I think it was pretty late on, when I kind of found myself playing in a band of fantastic jazz players in New York City with Harvey Swartz and Randy Brecker and - I was in way over my head. But I was one of the few cellists who maybe was free or something in New York. I'm not sure. But I had -I was in the situation and it was just so extraordinary. I just felt like, oh, this is something I must continue to do, you know?

LYDEN: What do you think you share with your father's sense of taking the camera and going to new situations? I mean, is there something that when you think about music, are you, in any sense, using your art and instrument the way that he use his?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: I think that the main thing is the idea of being very - this is hackneyed but it's true - in the moment and being able to be open to what's happening at the moment and not try to pre-plan too many things. And that's what being a good improviser is about is. It's coming into a situation and just being very open to what's around you. And I think that's always what he does. He's never - he made plan if he wants to photograph something but it's then, in the moment, just figure out what - how the frame is going to be filled.

LYDEN: What did he had to say about these road songs dedicated to those trips in "Block Ice & Propane?"

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: I think he gets a kick out of it. Yeah. I think he gets a kick out of it.

LYDEN: Erik Friedlander, thanks a lot for being with us, for taking us on the road with you.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: Erik Friedlander's new CD is called "Block Ice & Propane." It will be released on August 14th. Erik joined us here in NPR's performance Studio 4A. Would you play another piece for us?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Sure. Sure. This is called "Night White." And oftentimes when we would return home from these trips, we would get to kind of, maybe Ohio or in that area and then it was just (unintelligible) home.

LYDEN: And home with just outside New York City.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Outside of New York City, yeah. And that meant driving into the night and pulling over at truck stops. And this is very unusual because my father is kind of a farm boy and works on those hours - early to rise, early to bed. And so driving into the night was kind of magical, especially since we were up in the top of the camper, looking out over the whole panorama at night, with the night driving and the lights and the highway and sometimes pulling over for rest stops for an hour's worth of sleep and it was kind of magical. So this is "Night White."

(Soundbite of "Night White")

LYDEN: And if you'd like to see Erik Friedlander in action, visit our Web site for a video of his techniques,

And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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