Music Interviews
10:03 am
Sun October 6, 2013

Returning To Music, Tested By Loss

Originally published on Sun October 6, 2013 3:06 pm

Cellist and composer Erik Friedlander lost his wife of many years, dancer and choreographer Lynn Shapiro, to breast cancer in 2011. She'd been diagnosed a decade earlier, and Friedlander says music became a place of vital release for him as her condition worsened.

"During the difficult years, I did take refuge in working," he says. "It was a place where I could make the rules; where I could control what I could control."

In a bit of irony so precise that Friedlander calls it "almost comical," he lost access to that refuge just a week after his wife's death.

"I have a 15-year-old daughter. We had an argument before she went to school, and she walked out, slammed the door and left her lunch on the table," Friedlander says. "So I thought it would be a good opportunity to sort of mend the wound of the argument: I grabbed the lunch and got on my bicycle. And it was a little rainy outside, and I slipped off and absolutely tore, completely, a ligament in my left thumb. So I was really left without any outlet."

The injury took months to heal, during which Friedlander had plenty of time to think; the new album Claws & Wings is his first since that difficult period in his life. Friedlander recently spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about finding his way back to a place of creativity. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

And you might recognize this happy-go-lucky tune. It was used by Apple to introduce the world to the iPhone way back when. It's a piece by cellist Erik Friedlander. So much of Erik's music has this exuberant, almost dance-like feel. It may be no surprise that he married a dancer. Lynn Shapiro was also a choreographer and a poet. She died of breast cancer in 2011 after a battle that lasted 10 years. Her memory inspired Erik Friedlander's latest album. It's called "Claws & Wings."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Erik's relationship with Lynn began as a musical collaboration.

ERIK FRIEDLANDER: I was playing cello in a - for a dance company and she was dancing. And I saw her across the room, and then we were in the same piece. And then, well, dancer and musician, it's a natural. And we met and dated for about five years and then got married in '89.

RATH: You know, I've been surprised by how many brilliant musicians I've met who actually can't dance. Are you a good dancer?

FRIEDLANDER: No, I'm not a good dancer. In fact, we were trying to collaborate once on a piece where I would kind of half perform or perform a little bit. And it was pretty sad.

RATH: I imagine that as a musician and composer, your art is something that's been sort of therapeutic to you. And I know in the past you've done music sort of been based, inspired by your childhood so you used it as a way to kind of reflect on yourself. Was it something that through this process and through Lynn passing away, did you turn to it frequently?

FRIEDLANDER: You know, during the years - difficult years, I did take refuge in working. And it was a place where I could make the rules, where I could control what I could control. And it should be said that I went out and injured myself about the week after Lynn died. I - my daughter - I have a 15-year-old daughter. And we had an argument before she went to school, and she walked out and slammed the door and left her lunch on the table.

So I thought it would be a good opportunity to kind of mend the wound of the argument by - I grabbed the lunch and got on my bicycle. And it was a little rainy outside, and I slipped off and absolutely tore, completely, a ligament in my left thumb. So I was really left without any outlets. And...

RATH: So that - I mean, that kind of injury meant that you couldn't play at all, right?

FRIEDLANDER: I couldn't play at all.

RATH: I can imagine how awful that must - because you go through this unbelievable loss, this unspeakable loss, and then within a matter of days your one outlet is also just robbed from you in that way.

FRIEDLANDER: Right. Right. It was almost comical. It was almost comical. It was like, no, you're going to stay home and you're just going to be thinking about this, which was actually good, I think. You know, I always try to turn a negative into a positive. And it was just - so by the time - Lynn died in November. By the time July came around, I was, you know, I was starting to feel like there was a glimmer of possibility, you know, again, and kind of, life marches on and you either get on the rollercoaster or don't.

And so I was feeling like I wanted to get back on, but I was still kind of immersed in the atmosphere of Lynn's death. And so I decided to write from that place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DANCER")

RATH: What are you seeing in your mind when you're playing a piece like, let's say, "Dancer?"

FRIEDLANDER: "Dancer" is a - Lynn was a dancer, and I see her being so happy as a choreographer and dancer working with her dancers in the studio. You know, she became a writer later in life and wrote a book of poems and started a memoir, which unfortunately she never finished. But she was never happier than working with dancers in the studio. And working meant dancing with them body to body, physical contact.

So that's what I think of her, you know? And she was always a dancer. You know, once a dancer - she had that dancer physique, the dancer posture, a crankiness about all the little aches and pains, you know? So I think of her in her happiest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DANCER")

RATH: It's very - I don't know if subtle is the right word for it, but it is music where your accompanists - there's an awful lot of meaning, it feels, in the empty spaces between the notes.

FRIEDLANDER: Right, right. And that's the place where I was. And I was thinking about Lynn - because I was in the hospital room when Lynn died. And I was thinking of her jumping off into whatever that is that - where she goes. I mean, I'm not very religious, but I still feel like there's some journey there. And I was thinking about myself in the same kind of silent, meditative moment, jumping off into the future, moving forward.

So I wanted it to have an optimistic feel, a celebration of what I knew was Lynn and my relationship and what we achieved as a couple: 23 years of marriage and a daughter. And that feeling of silence is that same jumping off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DANCER")

FRIEDLANDER: It's an attempt to reconcile the kind of sadness with moving forward with, OK, it's going to be a rocky terrain, but I can still make headway. And I think Anne Lamott talks about grief being a lazy Susan. So, you know, it's not going to always be tough, but it'll swing around and maybe be difficult at times. And so there's moments of melody, there's moments of meditation and there's moments of optimism, and there's moments of reflection and sadness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")

RATH: What's interesting, you talk about this sort of circular nature of grief, and it was something that's amazing over the course of the album. By the time you get to the last track "Cheek to Cheek," there's more, I think, maybe serenity there. And there's definitely beauty there, but it doesn't resolve.

FRIEDLANDER: Right. "Cheek to Cheek" is something my wife would do with my daughter. She'd put her cheek next to my daughter's cheek and say, together, together, together, kind of like an incantation. And it was something she did often. You know, I think of these kind of happy moments and, yeah, I definitely felt that track was optimistic, was a feeling of moving forward. With some pain, yeah, but moving forward still.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")

RATH: Erik Friedlander is a cellist and composer. His new album is called "Claws & Wings." Erik, thank you so much for sharing all this.

FRIEDLANDER: Sure. Thanks for having me, Arun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. Thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.