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The Music of American Power: A Conversation with Erik Friedlander

Erik Friedlander is not new to the symbiotic potentials of photography and solo cello composition. His Walker-commissioned cello suite Block Ice and Propane (first performed in 2009) was based on childhood memories of traveling around the United States with his photographer father, Lee Friedlander. He developed Block Ice and Propane into a live show entitled Taking Trips […]

Erik_Friedlander_American Power_

Erik Friedlander. Photo: Claudio Casanova/AAJItalia

Erik Friedlander is not new to the symbiotic potentials of photography and solo cello composition. His Walker-commissioned cello suite Block Ice and Propane (first performed in 2009) was based on childhood memories of traveling around the United States with his photographer father, Lee Friedlander. He developed Block Ice and Propane into a live show entitled Taking Trips to America, in which he accompanies his solo cello performance with a presentation of his father’s photographs and his personal recollections of his family’s travels.

Friedlander’s collaboration with photographer Mitch Epstein began in 2011, when Epstein asked him to accompany his presentation of his American Power collection at Les Rencontres d’Arles, a photography festival in Arles, France. Epstein had taken the photos for American Power between 2003 and 2008, and published the book in 2009. Friedlander composed the American Power suite in the spring of 2011 and first performed it with Epstein’s photographs in a Roman amphitheater in Arles that July.

Since their presentation in Arles, Epstein and Friedlander have created a fully realized evening-length performance of their collaborative work on American Power. In an intensive two-day residency at the Walker, Friedlander and Epstein worked with New York-based choreographers Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar on the staging and performance of American Power, crafting the world premiere to be performed on November 1. I had the chance to chat briefly with Erik Friedlander during a break in the rehearsals to learn more about his work on the music of American Power.

How did your work on American Power begin? What was the composition process like?

Mitch Epstein contacted me when he was awarded the Prix Pictet for his American Power photographs because he wanted to accept the prize in a more unusual way. We met at a coffee shop in lower Manhattan, and he gave me a copy of the American Power book and asked if I would be interested in composing some music in response to the photographs.

I loved the idea. I felt like it had a lot of potential. I took the book home and leafed through the pictures and then just kind of got a feeling, an impression, and started to compose. I wrote the music—at least the initial pieces—in a couple of weeks. I didn’t respond to any one particular photograph; I responded to the idea of power—electric power, and water power, and nuclear power, and oil—all the different kinds of power. I abstracted those ideas from the pictures and then just observed how they affected what I wrote, and went with that.

What is it like to play on stage with the photographs? How do you create a dialogue with the music and the photography?

Well, that’s tricky, I’m not sure how to exactly describe it. I am an improviser, so I’m used to responding to other musicians and to their music. My father is a photographer, so I grew up with photography; it’s something I’m pretty familiar with and comfortable with. So I watch the flow of the photographs and try to create a sort of live movie score, responding to the pictures in an active way—the music is not completely subservient to the pictures. Sometimes my playing steps forward in front of them, and sometimes it recedes behind them, so there’s a dialogue between the music and the photographs.

The solo cello performance contributes a unique quality to the project. How do you think it might be different if American Power had been composed for different instrumentation?

It’s hard for me to say because I’m just a cello player; the whole basis for my performance is my cello playing. But there’s something about the cello—you’re vulnerable to the audience when you’re solo, and I think people appreciate that. For any instrument–really, any person, any artist–if you can reveal yourself in a way that is real, the audience responds. There’s something there for them to grab on to.

You performed your Americana-inspired Block Ice and Propane suite at the Walker in 2009. How does that project differ from American Power?

In the case of Block Ice and Propane, I was picking specific pictures that suited my story, and the pictures are there to enhance the music and work with the particular pieces that I composed. American Power is more of a one-on-one interaction, a dialogue between the music and the photographs. I think my music and my performance were more dominant in Block Ice and Propane. Everything else was there to elaborate on the music.

But the way I deal with the pictures and improvise with them is very much the same, because that’s just intuitive; responding to the flow of the pictures is the same process for me for both Block Ice and Propane and American Power.

Erik Friedlander and Mitch Epstein present the world premiere of American Power on November 1, 2013, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater. A Q & A with Friedlander and Epstein follows.

Learn more: Watch Senior Performing Arts curator Philip Bither’s 2009 interview with Friedlander about his performance Block Ice and Propane. Read Epstein’s interview with photographer Paul Shambroom on the American Power photo series.