Monday, January 10, 2011

Famous? Whom?

Barbara and I went to a performance by Eric Friedlander at the Kirkland Performance Center last Friday. He is a cellist and composer – but not what you think. He writes and plays jazz, folk-rock, indie pop and other genres not often associated with cello. Moreover, he not only bows his cello but plucks it – think guitar (his other instrument) with four strings. He has played for and with many big name artists but this was a solo performance of his own music. He played, spoke directly to the audience to explain the context in which his music lives, and showed photographs taken by his father, Lee Friedlander. (You just knew there had to be photography in here somewhere, eh?)

Until Eric was 17 or so his family took an extended road trip – a couple of months – every summer. These were working vacations for his father who both photographed for his personal work and for the many assignments he did for commercial clients – and he took family snapshots. The family, Lee and his wife Maria, Eric and his sister gypsied back and forth across the country in their pickup truck with a camper shell on the back while Eric and his sister watched the world go by, daydreaming from the over-cab picture window of the camper. The music in this performance represents memories – wonderful or not so much, exciting or tedious – of these trips. The photographs Eric used in this performance were a few of the family snapshots his dad took. A filmmaker friend supplied Eric with grainy, home-movie looking, black and white film of (mostly) southwest scenery viewed from a moving car. The films ran during most of the music.

I’m often not keen on multimedia performances but this one really worked. Much of the music is dissonant and harsh but heard in context and accompanied by the visuals it was very effective. There is a CD of the music, “Block Ice and Propane” (the two staple necessities for an extended camping trip) but I doubt that the music would interest me by itself.

As an aside, Eric Friedlander uses a cello with a carbon-fiber body for his traveling instrument. Nearly indestructible, it is a beautiful, graphite-silver grey with a clear, commanding, exceptionally strong voice. He even used a practice mute on it for one moody piece that demanded a soft, dreamy voice.

He stated in his introduction that he had been reluctant to put this program together because he didn’t want to use his father’s fame to promote his own career – a valid concern for an artist with coattails that he could easily grab. Lee Friedlander has some pretty serious coattails – three Guggenheim fellowships, landmark shows at NYMOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and most other major art museums (SAM in 1989), roughly ten published books of his work.

Still, my next thought was that outside the more-or-less hardcore photography community Lee Friedlander’s name is likely not a household word. Just for fun I did a brief, unscientific survey of about 60 well-educated, literate acquaintances. The oldest is nearly 90 and the youngest 16. I excluded only those acquaintances that I know to be passionate about photography. The survey question: “Do you know who Lee Friedlander is?” Exactly one person answered yes.  I should have excluded her because her late husband was a devoted photographer. Three people proposed that Friedlander must be associated with the local jewelry shops of the same name.

I’ll bet that there were more people at the performance because of Eric Friedlander’s having played for Courtney Love than because of his dad’s photography.

“Famous” – at least as measured by name recognition – and “photographer” seem not to play well together unless the person in question is Ansel Adams or, perhaps, Annie Liebovitz.  I’m sure that the same is true of other artists. A couple of years ago, the Seattle Symphony featured John Lill, a spectacular British pianist with a string of accolades a yard long, who played Tchaikovsky’s 2nd piano concerto. I had never heard of him even though I’m pretty passionate about classical music. My daughter tells me that a world-ranked bagpiper, Jori Chisholm, lives in the Seattle area. Did you know that?

Now an NFL quarterback or Lady Gaga would probably fare better on my survey.

Part 2 of this post (coming soon to a computer near you) will have to do with Lee Friedlander’s photography – seeing some of it at his son’s performance reminded me of how much I like it.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't have recognized the name out of the blue, but once you said "photography" it would have clicked.

    Fame is a funny thing like that. Context counts for a lot.