In the wake of Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win last week for her remarkable short stories, I have been reminded to be more attentive to the small details in life, the intensely personal moments that are also—sometimes shockingly—quite universal.
It’s a particularly excellent frame of mind to be in when approaching Claws & Wings, cellist Erik Friedlander’s latest release with Ikue Mori (electronics) and Sylvie Courvoisier (piano). The album is dedicated to Friedlander’s late wife, the choreographer and writer Lynn Shapiro, who passed away in November of 2011 after a long battle with breast cancer. In interviews, Friedlander has been quite forthcoming about the role music played during that struggle—music being a place that he could escape to, a place he could control. An injury to his left hand right after her death sidelined him for months, further challenging him as he grieved. When he was ready to return to playing, he was still in a place of loss, but ready to wrestle with the experience of mourning and moving forward through music—work which appears on Claws & Wings.
Knowing all of this biography, it’s admittedly tempting to tape a lot of implied meaning over top of the music, but I found those concrete narratives to quickly fade into the abstract musical landscape, the image as messy as love, as complex as life. But the music does move like a dancer in my mind’s eye, and holding onto the idea that this album is a sort of mental pas de deux certainly suits it. The album’s opener, Frail As a Breeze, which is broken into two parts/tracks, sets a tone that is cleanly spare but not chilling—gently whistling electronics, meditative piano lines, the cello answering with sections of pizzicato. The swirling lines of the second part carry themselves with an ear-turning beauty and grace that slips some into the ominous, tearing and scratching at certain turns.
Several shorter tracks cohesively follow, each full of fluid and breath. In Dancer particularly, the electronics keep the sentiments grounded, the reflection never turning saccharine, the cello and piano ever committed to maintaining forward motion. Indeed, as the album moves toward its close, it becomes clear that there will be no explosive displays of emotion. Friedlander’s scoring will glimmer and glide through Swim With Me and refuse to settle until the final moments of Insomnia, but even in Cheek to Cheek (an original, not a Berlin cover) which closes the disc, the distinct optimism is tempered, the journey not over but turning towards the bittersweet.
You can listen to Friedlander speak about his wife and the work on this album during his All Things Considered interview “Returning to Music, Tested by Loss.” He’s also curating/performing at The Stone in New York City all week (October 15-20) and will premiere Claws & Wings on October 16 at 8 p.m.