Earlier this week, Erik Friedlander released his 12th album, in his fiftieth year on earth. Those facts may not be so important to you, but the music that marks both events just might. Especially if you like the army of sounds, both familiar and strange, that Friedlander wrests from a cello. Alchemy, as he calls this new record, is really reverse alchemy: the process of deconstructing the graceful, formal instrument into its primal components. As a virtuoso on this instrument and a restless musical soul, Friedlander frequently tends toward breaking down his cello into its base components and rebuilding it from the ground up, but Alchemy is a more concerted effort to do so.
The last time we were sizing up a Friedlander disc, it was for the bass/cello/drums oriented Broken Arm Trio (2008), but Alchemy is more akin to 2007's Block Ice And Propane, whereby it's just Friedlander and recording engineer Scott Solter, but with some occasional cello choir overdubs, sampling and programming. Not surprising, since many of these tracks were recorded during the Block Ice sessions.
Alchemy begins with the beguiling melody of Glow," which has a slightly odd but enchanting undercurrent of gloom. Friedlander creates a bed of dreamy atmospherics using effects and a cello choir for selections like The Wrong Answers" and Gentle Bonds," then plucks his cello pizzicato like an expertly picked acoustic guitar for the gentle folk tune Lee Av." Alchemy" explores a circular pattern where Friedlander moves notes up and down amidst two stationary notes. For Halo," Friedlander solos both with and without a bow in front of a section of cellos.
There's also several short vignettes on this album; six of tracks run two minutes or less and all but three run beyond the three and a half minute range. Often times, those 100 second tunes is where Friedlander lets it all hang out, such as Jim Zipper from Broken Arm Trio. The Zipper"-like cut on this album is called Wag (For John Berryman"), recorded right after he and Solter read a Berryman poem ("Dreamsong #14"), and Friedlander uses the fresh verses in his head to eke out some scratchy, screeching scary sounds from his cello, made even more hair-raising by Solter's studio manipulations. The two minute Out Out" begins with abrupt scrapes, followed by an urgent squeal, and then suddenly settles into solemn ambience for the second minute.
Just like that last song Out Out," Alchemy as a whole is Friedlander's expressions of contrasting moods using the double bass's little brother. This isn't a turning point in this master cellist's recording career, but a slight progression. Which is nevertheless some pretty impressive work. If there's anyone who can turn people into fans of the cello, it would have to be the instrument's foremost living talent, Erik Friedlander.
Alchemy is a digital-only release by Skipstone Records that adds tracks to the 10" vinyl release of the same name. Visit Erik Friedlander's site here.