Maldoror is the first solo recording by cellist Erik Friedlander, a New York improviser who's worked with John Zorn, Ellery Eskelin and Laurie Anderson, among others. It's filled with weighty pauses and languid sustains, and its harmonic and melodic content has more to do with classical music than jazz.
The problem is how to evaluate it. Should Friedlander be compared to improvisers who create spontaneous-sounding records and have developed unique approaches on string instruments, people like Leroy Jenkins, Mat Maneri, Charlotte Hug and Mark Dresser? Well, no – not because Friedlander lacks their ability (judging only from Maldoror, he might have that sort of talent or he might not), but because his playing is a lot more traditional than any of those people.
Also, Maldoror doesn't sound spontaneous. Friedlander's people claim that it's improvised, but there's very little aural evidence to prove it. In a sense, Friedlander probably deserves credit for that: it takes a great deal of skill to improvise pieces that sound as balanced and complete as these. Still, there are few risks taken or surprises to be found.
Maldoror also suffers from a related and far more troubling problem: Friedlander doesn't dig particularly deep. He borrows from a number of interesting styles, but the end results are superficial. He often plays in a slow, glissando-heavy manner that pales in comparison to stylistically similar but weightier (and, admittedly, through-composed) precedents like Chinary Ung's Khse Buon or Yuji Takahashi's Mimi No Ho. Friedlander's occasional uses of Lachenmann-like extended technique effects (especially on a track called "Here Comes The Madwoman": those noises are so crazy, man) lack the exploratory drive of the many improvisers who are trying to use similar techniques to develop a genuinely personal language.
“Well,” Friedlander might respond, “you're missing the point by looking at any given minute and expecting to hear me in there. I have a lot of influences, so it would be a waste to confine myself to any one genre. The me reveals itself over time: I'm a cultured person and an excellent musician, and my musical personality emerges as you hear me play in a lot of different contexts, and maybe hear some common thread running through them.”
Or maybe, “Man, the whole struggling to find a personal voice thing is so played out. That's so Romantic with a capital R.” Well, okay. I do like a good John Zorn or Ken Vandermark record as much as the next guy, so I'll play along and unpack this a bit more: the real problem with the postmodern feel of Maldoror is that it often just manifests itself as a bunch of obvious reactions to texts.
Each of the 10 pieces on Maldoror was inspired by a different text by 19th century poet Isodore Ducasse. Read any of the words (reprinted in the CD booklet), then click to the appropriate track. You won't be surprised by what you hear. Ducasse's "I Am Filthy" begins, "I am filthy. Lice gnaw me. Swine, when they look at me, vomit." Friedlander's "I Am Filthy" predictably begins with a belching long tone on a de-tuned cello string.
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The goal of most soundtracks is to help us feel and understand what the creators of a film want us to feel and understand. But the sounds used in soundtracks have very little inherent emotional or explanatory value. Instead, soundtracks help us feel and understand as the result of very specific cultural connections we have to various elements of soundtrack music. There is nothing inherently dreamy about series of rapidly ascending and descending whole tone scales, but we recognize them as dreamy because we've often heard them used as the soundtracks to dream scenes. The dream sequence whole-tone soundtrack is self-perpetuating. It is used in Film X to convey dreaminess because it has been used in the past to convey dreaminess; it will continue to convey dreaminess in the future in part because it was used to convey dreaminess in Film X.
There is nothing wrong with this phenomenon, of course, and all good soundtracks and all good pop music depend on it. There is also a serious danger in it, though: for many bad soundtrackers, sounds have fixed meanings, and their relationship to the rest of the film can become predictable. Many good soundtrackers and songwriters are aware of this danger, and they try to tweak or subvert the associations their sounds create by changing the sounds or their context.
This danger should be particularly worrisome to fans of experimental music, who, by the way, likely form a majority of Friedlander's intended audience. Most good experimental music requires new sounds, as free from associations as possible. There isn't any music, experimental or otherwise, that delivers completely new sounds, but experimental music is best when it doesn't obviously sound like anything you've heard before.
Which brings us back to what Erik Friedlander is doing. Friedlander is a bad soundtracker, nicking ostensibly “avant garde” techniques and matching them with exactly the emotional/explanatory associations you'd expect (string-scraping extended techniques are insane, scordatura is freaky-dirty, tick-tocking pizzicati are mathematical). Maldoror is actually the antithesis of experimental music: Friedlander isn't exploring sound, he's relying entirely on what we already know about it.
It does seem a bit strange and disappointing to me to hear “experimental” sounds used to such non-experimental ends, but I'm willing to accept it when it's done well. When John Zorn isn't trying to create his own sounds, he's a good soundtracker. He tweaks familiar collections of sounds and makes us rethink the way they're typically used. On "Speedfreaks" from 1991's Grand Guignol (which isn't literally a soundtrack), Zorn's Naked City cycles through genres like a 6-year-old who just got a radio for Christmas. Naked City's extremely brief takes on country, dub and other genres are familiar (in fact, they're effective because they're familiar), but the usual context of those genres has been radically altered. Elsewhere on the same album, he places bad lounge music next to thrashy noise, to similar effect. This is the real promise of Zorn/Friedlander style-borrowing, at least to me: culturally relevant sounds are arranged in new ways, producing new works that lead us to rethink the nature of those sounds. With Maldoror, there's no rethinking going on.
I could even look past that if the sonic results were particularly meaty or fun, but they're not. The bulk of Maldoror is slow, sliding and expressive, but it's skimpy compared to the aforementioned Ung and Takahashi pieces, which are slow-moving, sliding and expressive pieces that are far more finely crafted and intricately detailed than Friedlander's. (It should be noted that those pieces also differ from Friedlander's in that they don't do the genre-hopping and they attempt to establish a personal vocabulary of sounds.)
Maldoror has received overwhelmingly positive reviews so far, which is strange for an album that isn't even very exciting on the surface. It's possible that the album's pristine sound (the production is terrific, and Friedlander is obviously a skilled performer) has convinced a number of critics that Maldoror is the sort of roughage they need to consume to better themselves. Then again, maybe they just hear something I don't.
By Charlie Wilmoth