Like many kids across the country, Erik Friedlander took a musical aptitude test in third grade. "I can't remember why, but they handed me a cello," he recalls. "It might have just been because they had enough violins, or because I was a little bit taller than the other kids."
That was how, at an age when most of us were grappling with the idea of whether we wanted to become an Olympic athlete or a movie star, Friedlander was introduced to what would become his passion and his career. As a session musician and collaborator, Friedlander has become one of the most in-demand cellists in the country. He's also gaining momentum as a solo artist, fueled most recently by Block Ice & Propane, a new album of compositions and improvisations he's released on his own Skipstone imprint.
After years of playing others' work in larger ensembles (which he continues to do), Friedlander was convinced by producer Michael Montes to create and record solo work. His discography to this point includes Maldoror, an album of improvisations inspired by the poetry of Isidore Ducasse. (He also writes commercial works, including a rather ethereal LendingTree.com jingle.)
Block Ice & Propane is, on the whole, not exactly what most would expect from a solo cello album -- and it's plenty different from his past work with John Zorn's Masada String Trio and his guest spots with bands as diverse as Hole and The Mountain Goats. Contrary to traditional cello technique, Friedlander stresses fingerpicking on the record, playing pieces that might as easily be the work of a folk-inspired virtuoso guitarist (John Fahey jumps quickly to mind).
Friedlander, whose first musical passion was guitar (he began at age 6), came to play in this novel manner after experimenting with plucking during improv collaborations with other musicians. "It's something I'd never really explored," he says, "I'd always thought of the bow as the voice of the cello. So then I turned that on its head, using the pizzicato."
The result was a roots-oriented sound that proved as evocative for Friedlander himself as it is for the first-time listener. "As I'd work on [the fingerpicking songs], I'd have these memories about America; I'd think about how it's not just New York," he says, referring to his hometown and the scene in which he thrives. The songs brought to mind the road trips across the country that his family took in the summer when he was young. "I'd think about being in that camper, rolling along the highway at night." Those memories ultimately became the central concept for Block Ice & Propane.
What Friedlander does here is unique among cellists and more complex than what guitarists of a similar mind play -- he points out that the cellist playing this type of music faces the dual challenges of lacking a fretboard and having only four strings to play against each other. "I imagine you could do nice versions on the guitar," he ponders, "but it might sound wrong."
In addition to the plucking and folk overtones, Block Ice & Propane is punctuated with a few more experimental improv pieces. He brought the modus operandi at work in Maldoror -- reading tests as inspiration, then entering the studio to cut a track in one or two takes -- to create the improv pieces for the new album.
The variations in texture and mood throughout the album feel organic and thoughtful, not forced -- rather than alternating mathematically, a few fingerpicking pieces will be followed by a more atmospheric track. In a contrast with the rest of the album, "Airstream Envy," the most complex of the bow pieces, recalls Aaron Copland's majestic treatment of Americana.
For Friedlander, forging ahead with his instrument isn't necessarily always about finding something "new" in the sense of the minimalist avant-garde's projects and ideals. Yet he feels at home with the downtown scene in New York, a community that encourages the sort of unique creativity he exhibits: "There wouldn't be freedom if it had to all be one thing, free jazz or whatever."
Erik Friedlander with DBL D (featuring Rick Gribenas). 8 p.m. Fri., July 27. Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Pitt campus, Oakland. $10 ($15 at the door). All ages. 412-361-2262