Block Ice & Propane sounds like some people’s worst nightmare: paying to sit and look at a stranger’s old vacation pictures for an hour. There’s no escape; audience members are not allowed to leave mid-slideshow. All the old cliches are there, Mt. Rushmore, a cooking grill, gas station signs, mom looking shy, kids wearing goofy clothes.
But what if those clichés could be put to a better use? How about a visual accompaniment to some soulful cello playing, bracketed by good-natured storytelling and some abstract road movies? What if the vacation snaps were by a professional photographer who has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art? And what if the images were decades old, adding a touch of pathos to all those shots of quiet, undeveloped land?
This is cellist, composer, and improviser Erik Friedlander’s concept. He uses it to develop an album’s worth of clever, enjoyable, and hypnotizing melodies. His audiences don’t want to escape. They’re hooked like a streamlined camper whipping down Route 66.
Friedlander is almost bald with the merest traces of hair on his head. He wears a tasteful blue shirt and gray pants that match his charcoal-colored cello. In his subdued outfit, he looks ready to melt into his dark surroundings until his slideshow starts lighting up a large screen behind him. It’s a collection of his parents’ photographs from road trips they used to take with his sister and his dog. He has bitter-sweet memories of these trips, following his father around from job to job without a vote on the matter.
During the show, Friedlander plays what he feels, using a foot pedal to switch to pictures that fit the music. His original compositions are part folk music, part film score, part abstract emotion. Some suit the black and white photography perfectly; others are more obscure. The musician introduces each of his tunes with an anecdote, an observation or an apology as he retunes his cello.
“Road Weary” is a good example of Friedlander’s unusual style. For this piece he uses his bow but simultaneously picks his cello strings as if it were a guitar. Moving his fingers briskly up and down the neck, he uses the music to tell a story of a truck on the road, its passengers yawning (the bow moving slowly back and forth). He adds an Arabian feel to suggest a desert passage. In the background, a black and white film shows a passenger’s point of view, watching clouds and treetops pass by at a crawling pace.
The techniques are unorthodox, but the results are great. The same applies to “King Rig,” which has an insistent long-haul rhythm, taking the audience from an imaginary A to B. There’s film again, this time showing trees and poles and pylons and wires whizzing past like the staves of a music sheet. This is followed by the much slower “Solitude,” representing a feeling the musician used to get when he passed through strange towns. The tune captures a traveler’s anonymity and loneliness with Spanish guitar licks and a wistful edge.
To introduce “Cold Chicken,” the cellist recalls the time when his dad blew up in a restaurant. Usually, the family ate on a picnic table in whichever state park they were staying at. But one time they’d plumped for a real meal. The service was slow and the food arrived cold. Erik’s father Lee lost his temper, and took his plate into the kitchen; his family could hear him yelling all the way from their table. “Cold Chicken” is a brief response to that memory, full of emotions — surprise, fear, embarrassment. We can hear Lee stomping to the kitchen and Erik’s heart racing, quickly followed by his feet as his family flees the establishment.
It’s hard to take a road trip without at least one gasket blowing, so it’s easy to chalk Lee’s explosion down to the stress of all that traveling. Lee was a professional photographer, shooting album covers, teaching classes, all with his loved ones in tow. His pictures are projected to prove it — no serious commercial work, just shots of his family and a few of the sites they saw. But he obviously enjoyed life on the road too, covering thousands of miles and at one point becoming obsessed with his pressure cooker. His specialty: tongue, which he’d slap down in front of the kids and enjoy their disgusted expressions. Erik realizes that the camper was a kind of pressure cooker too, heating up tempers until something had to give.
“Pressure Cooking” is a slow tune that emulates shallow breathing in the hot summer heat. This is followed by “Winking at Highway 7,” which uses both an Arabian flavor and a rhythm reminiscent of an East European folk jig. Another piece with a similar feel, “Yakima,” is dedicated to Friedlander’s Uncle Neil. This sugar beet farm philosopher was an ex-bootlegger and friend to mosquitoes who entertained the kids when they visited him in Washington state. The cellist pays tribute with a jaunty, toe-tapping number.
The films that accompany many of these compositions are by experimental moviemaker Bill Morrison. Over the years, he’s shot views from moving vehicles: blurred trees, rain clouds, desert rock formations, and the asphalt disappearing beneath his tires. His images certainly fit the music, but there’s nothing spectacular about them. Many vacationers have stuck a video camera out of a car window and filmed the world rushing by. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the filmmaker has shot the footage by some more complicated method; it’s certainly very smooth, and some of the footage conjures a floating or flying sensation. But no amount of slow-mo or processing can change the fact that Morrison’s work is far less imaginative than Friedlander’s.
Not all of the music is tied to a specific anecdote or emotion. In “Rusting in Honeysuckle” and “Dream Song,” the musician strums his strings like a harpist, rekindling the lonely feeling he built up in “Solitude.” When Friedlander does share his personal memories with the audience he does it in a conversational manner that suits his fairly quiet, unassuming personality. He has points he wants to hit in his shows — the story about the cold chicken, the day it was the dog’s turn to have a tantrum, and the park ranger who skinny dipped in a hot spring. But his actual delivery is unforced and presumably unscripted. There are no tall tales here.
Stuck in the canned heat of their camper, young Erik and his sister watched jealously when an Airstream trailer zoomed past them. Friedlander has written a tune about it called “Airstream Envy,” contrasting the sounds of busy, excited activity in the camper versus a gliding, graceful Airstream. As he plays, some of his plucks are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them fast. He wraps up the show with “Night White,” a wind-down meditation on riding in the dark, watching headlights flash by as the family rushes from the Midwest to their home back in the East.
Lee Friedlander didn’t give his family a choice when he took them across America, but we never see them complaining. Most of his photos are posed, kids smiling, or mixed-bag shots of street signs, people met en route or faces half-reflected in mirrors. The composition is always tasteful, mannered,and professional. Lee was undoubtedly driven by his work.
Erik also incorporates photographs by his mom, primarily in black and white. They’re not easily distinguished from Lee’s. They’re less clinical but still compositionally correct. They help to give a good sense of life inside the camper, particularly in portraits of Lee in varying moods of serenity and determination. We also see him with his son, young and often half-naked with a full head of dark hair. The performer chooses to structure his show by theme, so we skip in and out of eras, fashions and hairstyles. It would have been poignant to see the children grow up in a more chronological way, to see their youth slip away, but Friedlander avoids such obvious tricks.
Friedlander’s playing is beautiful. Everything else — the photos, the films, the narrative — is the icing on the cake. But there are a couple of lumps that should be smoothed out. The lighting needs to be tweaked so that reflections on Friedlander’s cello don’t bounce onto the screen. Bill Morrison helped him to expand the show so he deserves kudos for that; still, we would have liked to see films that were more than moving wallpaper. The most notable mini-movie, an angle on the road below a car, is distracting with its flashing streaks of white. So something subtler and more tangential wouldn’t go amiss.
Some audience members would have preferred a slicker presentation from Friedlander, but we liked his impromptu speaking style, and we definitely appreciated his playing. We’d like a return visit from this master cellist, if he can put up with the drive down here.