Only a year after celebrating fifty years on Earth, master cellist Erik Friedlander faced the premature departure from Earth of his wife, choreographer and writer Lynn Shapiro. She succumbed in November of 2011 after a long battle with breast cancer. Claws & Wings sets to music his grief, the reconciliation with his loss, and renewed assurance that life does indeed go on.
Some of Friedlander’s best albums have been autobiographical: the widely praised Block Ice and Propane conjured happy memories from family road trips as a child; Fifty: 50 Miniatures For Improvising Quintet was the aforementioned event marking his 50th birthday that, at least indirectly, also referenced his Jewish heritage.
Claws & Wings is like those other two personal projects in that it doesn’t fit neatly into an oeuvre that is wildly diverse and idiosyncratic to begin with. Friedlander constructed a set of compositions that are diffused mood pieces as much as they can be thought of as songs in the conventional sense.
He could have easily pulled off this record solo, since his cello is so full of clarity, emotion and subtleties. He didn’t but by carefully choosing his help, this might have turned out for the better, anyway.
Sylvie Courvoisier, who has worked with Friedlander before on Fifty, provides a mostly minimalist piano and a little bit of spinet, a sort of a mini-harpsichord. Ikue Mori, who in a prior life was the founder and drummer for the no-wave band DNA, brought her laptop to the sessions and added atmospherics that are decidedly not of the Merzbow variety, giving these performances a certain celestial quality that acoustic instruments can’t quite achieve. The two always remain in the background, like extra illustrators who sketch out the scenery while Friedlander paints the central subjects. Songs don’t end, they just evaporate into the ether.
“Frail As A Breeze, Part 1″ begins with sparse notes dribbling out from a piano, with just a hint of otherworldly electro-effects. Friedlander fashions an attractive plucked cello articulation, the other two just placing accents on it. “Frail As A Breeze, Part 2″ boasts a gorgeously plucked ostinato, and Courvoisier takes it over as Friedlander reaches for a bow. The middle section is a shapeless air of despair, before a return to original, defined ostinato.
“Dancer” is a spot where the marriage of technology and traditional sound works particularly well. Watery sounds from Mori’s laptop accentuate Friedlander’s precisely plucked progressions, paired with Courvoisier to spin a simple but resonant theme. “Swim With Me” wanders tentatively in dark shadows at first, but the songs moves along more assuredly from there, blossoming into a delicate waltz.
The album ends just the way it should. “Cheek to Cheek” is a circular, hopeful melody. Friedlander dubs a pizzicato cello over a cello or two played arco, as Mori’s sounds resemble birds chirping. Through this music, he’s letting us know he’s holding up well and looking forward to brighter days ahead. He’s also letting us know that while his wife has departed, his muse remains deep inside of him and strong as ever.
Claws & Wings will hit the street October 1, via Skipstone Records. Visit Erik Friedlander’s website for more info.