This summer, my family is planning a road trip. We'll make a few stops en route to Niagara Falls, maybe visit a giant ball of yarn or Lucy the Elephant in New Jersey. But when I think back to the rigors of vacationing with my own parents, I have second thoughts.
They meant well — they wanted to get out of town, do something different, experience new places. But after a few days of living in close proximity, we got on each other's nerves. So my heart goes out to cellist Erik Friedlander, who spent his childhood summers roaming the country for two and a half months in a camper with no AC and no escape.
Friedlander's been smart enough to turn his torments into an acclaimed multimedia music performance, with photos and film clips accompanying his emotional solos. The 70-minute experience manages to include moments of nostalgia, sardonic humor, and positive glimpses of 20th century back road America that critics have praised as idiosyncratically beautiful.
The musician's father is Lee Friedlander, a photographer who was quite happy to stop in the middle of nowhere in 103 degree Arizona heat to take a picture of a rock or a skull. The upside of this for Erik was that he got to see "every state in the union, practically." He also saw his father devote his energies to his art, something that rubbed off on the reluctant young traveler.
"Since I grew up with a photographer, I have an affinity for visuals," says the musician. "I respond to them. People feel like my work has a filmic quality." Friedlander's soundtrack to American roadways includes recurring themes, improvisations, and nods to roots music with connotations that are more geographic than ethnographic.
"I took that in a variety of directions, including banjo finger picking," he says. "I wanted to be able to bring other kinds of music to the cello." As a boy, Erik didn't bring his instrument with him on the long trips — there was hardly room and it stopped him from burning out — but he still continued his musical education nonetheless. Lee was an avid music listener, fixing up a stereo in the back of the cab. On the road, he would work his way through numbered 120-minute mix tapes catalogued by musical style: R&B 1-8, country music 1-8, classical, and so on. It was an aural journey to go along with the physical one.
In Block Ice and Propane, Friedlander promises original compositions, stories, and observations about his travels, photographs taken by his venerated father, snaps from his mother, and road movies shot by a friend. The visual aids clearly state the inspiration for the music, providing Friedlander with a fuller palette to express his ideas.
Narrative interludes are another strong aspect of the show. "I tell the story of my dad discovering pressure cooking and making everything that way — meatballs in three minutes, tongue in seven minutes," he says. In another anecdote, Lee loses his temper in a restaurant and scares his son. These brief recollections have struck a particular chord with audiences. "Everyone seems to have a story. They tell me, 'Oh yeah, my father used to do that too.' When you talk about piling everyone into some kind of uncomfortable vehicle, it resonates."
Friedlander's relatable road journal is really brought to life in Bill Morrison's moving collages of film. Morrison has been making "road movies" all his life, abstract, timeless, and anonymous, his camera passing through other people's lives. "The five or six films add a real lot," says Friedlander. "They convey a lot of what the music does. It's as if time is suspended." He collaborated with Morrison in Dartmouth, N.H., over a two- or three-day period, rearranging his stories and putting the movies in a coherent sequence.
Projected on the wall behind the musician, the films will add to the sense that we're getting into Friedlander's head and experiencing his memories. However, the draw of big-screen images means that Friedlander has to work extra hard to hold the audience's attention. "Everyone is at their most primitive self, attracted by the flickering lights," he says. "I try to wrest away the attention of the viewer, but a lot depends on the audience." Friedlander has found that some people like to sit back and watch, while others like to become actively engaged in the live concert aspect.
Since he improvises, going where his feelings take him, he has controls at his feet to switch images and manage their flow. "This is the most scripted show I've ever done," he says. "There's usually a pool of 30 pieces to work from. The format is set in terms of what I use."
The musician says that Block Ice works best in an intimate venue. It remains to be seen whether attendees of his Memminger Auditorium gigs will get the full intended impact. But they'll certainly enjoy his virtuoso playing that bridges classical élan with modern-day verve; he's played with a wide range of musicians including Courtney Love, Laurie Anderson, and John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats).
After hearing about Friedlander's adventures, the Smith family is having second thoughts about its own three-week trip up north. Like the cellist, I value the time I spend with my loved ones, and I know that a little discomfort and adversity will ultimately bring us closer together. But for the sake of my son and my sanity, I might just stay home and listen to some mix tapes instead.