Returning To Music, Tested By Loss Music was Erik Friedlander's refuge when his wife fell ill. Then, in one week, he lost both. The cellist and composer speaks with NPR's Arun Rath about making the new album Claws & Wings after months out of commission.

Returning To Music, Tested By Loss

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If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

And you might recognize this happy-go-lucky tune. It was used by Apple to introduce the world to the iPhone way back when. It's a piece by cellist Erik Friedlander. So much of Erik's music has this exuberant, almost dance-like feel. It may be no surprise that he married a dancer. Lynn Shapiro was also a choreographer and a poet. She died of breast cancer in 2011 after a battle that lasted 10 years. Her memory inspired Erik Friedlander's latest album. It's called "Claws & Wings."


RATH: Erik's relationship with Lynn began as a musical collaboration.

ERIK FRIEDLANDER: I was playing cello in a - for a dance company and she was dancing. And I saw her across the room, and then we were in the same piece. And then, well, dancer and musician, it's a natural. And we met and dated for about five years and then got married in '89.

RATH: You know, I've been surprised by how many brilliant musicians I've met who actually can't dance. Are you a good dancer?

FRIEDLANDER: No, I'm not a good dancer. In fact, we were trying to collaborate once on a piece where I would kind of half perform or perform a little bit. And it was pretty sad.

RATH: I imagine that as a musician and composer, your art is something that's been sort of therapeutic to you. And I know in the past you've done music sort of been based, inspired by your childhood so you used it as a way to kind of reflect on yourself. Was it something that through this process and through Lynn passing away, did you turn to it frequently?

FRIEDLANDER: You know, during the years - difficult years, I did take refuge in working. And it was a place where I could make the rules, where I could control what I could control. And it should be said that I went out and injured myself about the week after Lynn died. I - my daughter - I have a 15-year-old daughter. And we had an argument before she went to school, and she walked out and slammed the door and left her lunch on the table.

So I thought it would be a good opportunity to kind of mend the wound of the argument by - I grabbed the lunch and got on my bicycle. And it was a little rainy outside, and I slipped off and absolutely tore, completely, a ligament in my left thumb. So I was really left without any outlets. And...

RATH: So that - I mean, that kind of injury meant that you couldn't play at all, right?

FRIEDLANDER: I couldn't play at all.

RATH: I can imagine how awful that must - because you go through this unbelievable loss, this unspeakable loss, and then within a matter of days your one outlet is also just robbed from you in that way.

FRIEDLANDER: Right. Right. It was almost comical. It was almost comical. It was like, no, you're going to stay home and you're just going to be thinking about this, which was actually good, I think. You know, I always try to turn a negative into a positive. And it was just - so by the time - Lynn died in November. By the time July came around, I was, you know, I was starting to feel like there was a glimmer of possibility, you know, again, and kind of, life marches on and you either get on the rollercoaster or don't.

And so I was feeling like I wanted to get back on, but I was still kind of immersed in the atmosphere of Lynn's death. And so I decided to write from that place.


RATH: What are you seeing in your mind when you're playing a piece like, let's say, "Dancer?"

FRIEDLANDER: "Dancer" is a - Lynn was a dancer, and I see her being so happy as a choreographer and dancer working with her dancers in the studio. You know, she became a writer later in life and wrote a book of poems and started a memoir, which unfortunately she never finished. But she was never happier than working with dancers in the studio. And working meant dancing with them body to body, physical contact.

So that's what I think of her, you know? And she was always a dancer. You know, once a dancer - she had that dancer physique, the dancer posture, a crankiness about all the little aches and pains, you know? So I think of her in her happiest.


RATH: It's very - I don't know if subtle is the right word for it, but it is music where your accompanists - there's an awful lot of meaning, it feels, in the empty spaces between the notes.

FRIEDLANDER: Right, right. And that's the place where I was. And I was thinking about Lynn - because I was in the hospital room when Lynn died. And I was thinking of her jumping off into whatever that is that - where she goes. I mean, I'm not very religious, but I still feel like there's some journey there. And I was thinking about myself in the same kind of silent, meditative moment, jumping off into the future, moving forward.

So I wanted it to have an optimistic feel, a celebration of what I knew was Lynn and my relationship and what we achieved as a couple: 23 years of marriage and a daughter. And that feeling of silence is that same jumping off.


FRIEDLANDER: It's an attempt to reconcile the kind of sadness with moving forward with, OK, it's going to be a rocky terrain, but I can still make headway. And I think Anne Lamott talks about grief being a lazy Susan. So, you know, it's not going to always be tough, but it'll swing around and maybe be difficult at times. And so there's moments of melody, there's moments of meditation and there's moments of optimism, and there's moments of reflection and sadness.


RATH: What's interesting, you talk about this sort of circular nature of grief, and it was something that's amazing over the course of the album. By the time you get to the last track "Cheek to Cheek," there's more, I think, maybe serenity there. And there's definitely beauty there, but it doesn't resolve.

FRIEDLANDER: Right. "Cheek to Cheek" is something my wife would do with my daughter. She'd put her cheek next to my daughter's cheek and say, together, together, together, kind of like an incantation. And it was something she did often. You know, I think of these kind of happy moments and, yeah, I definitely felt that track was optimistic, was a feeling of moving forward. With some pain, yeah, but moving forward still.


RATH: Erik Friedlander is a cellist and composer. His new album is called "Claws & Wings." Erik, thank you so much for sharing all this.

FRIEDLANDER: Sure. Thanks for having me, Arun.


RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

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