As the applause started at the McGuire theater, its curtain revealed a disarmingly simple set-up for Erik Friedlander, just a cello and a laptop controlled with a tap of his foot. The evening’s performance of Block Ice and Propane was a mix of performance and storytelling, giving the audience a glimpse into not only the genesis of individual songs’ composition, but the experiences that inspired Friedlander to write them in the first place.
Rather than just a nostalgic look back at a by-gone era of family road trips, Block Ice and Propane explored many of the complex, and often contradictory, emotions that occur with any kind of journey, not just one on Route 66. Two in particular captured these emotions, “Homesick Melody” and the “Night White.” The first, a sadness for home countered by the excitement of the new, while the second, the melancholy of having a journey come to an end, buoyed by the comfort and happiness of coming home to the familiar. Friedlander’s music matched these moods perfectly, especially in conjunction with the images of the second piece, consisting mostly of dividing lines superimposed on each other, as Friedlander played elastically with time through melodies both melancholic and fulfilled.
The metaphor of the highway dividing line functions equally well for the pictures Friedlander chose from his father’s collection. These ranged from some of his well-known photos to intimate family shots in tents and campgrounds. So much of these pieces blurred the lines between familiar, rarefied, mundane, and surreal, the result not only of Friedlander’s eye, but also his ingenious usage of reflection, shadow, and perspective. There was the subtle reflective shot of a couple viewing Mt. Rushmore through binoculars, while the faces presented themselves in the window behind them; elsewhere in the performance, Friedlander displayed a double-exposed photograph, with the background a shot of clouds and the foreground a shot from the passenger seat out through the driver’s side now gloriously-illuminated window. If Friedlander’s photos captured moments in the journey, Bill Morrison’s video captured the movement of the journey itself, as clouds, scenery, and headlights whooshed past the camera.
The show verged on the predictable at times, with the music solidly illuminating the narrative and the images. For instance, “Cold Chicken,” a piece inspired by the elder Friedlander storming into a restaurant kitchen to forcefully return the dish that gives the piece its title, was appropriately chaotic and angry. “Pressure Cooking” featured long, sustained notes punctuated by jerks of the bow across the strings, while the easy-going, jaunty melody of “Yakima” deftly portrayed the personality of his Uncle Neil.
Sometimes, the visual dimension created a dissonance with the music accompanying it: on “Big Rig,” Friedlander’s bouncy, jig-like melody perfectly matched the scenery flying by in Morrison’s film, yet the clouds above that scenery had a strange, almost elongated and independent motion to them, a remarkable moment of visual disjunction, like seeing hubcaps mistakenly spinning backwards.
Such predictability, however, never really lessened my enjoyment of the performance. Part of this is due to Friedlander’s complete mastery of the instrument. At times, his cello sounded like a cross between a guitar and harp. Other times, using more extended techniques, it could sound equal parts scratchy and eerie, with a tuning fork used to haunting effect. The fact that this multitude of sounds was accomplished without digital processing makes it all the more remarkable.
Unfortunately, the concert ended far too soon, barely breaking an hour, which was more of a disappointment than anything within the concert itself. There wasn’t much more to be played from the CD, but especially for a show that cost more then $20, there could’ve been a bit more given to the audience, either in the form of playing the rest of the CD or playing other works as encores.