Friday, February 27, and Saturday February 28, cellist and composer Erik Friedlander returns to the Wex in American Power, a new collaboration with photographer Mitch Epstein that examines how we coexist with our diverse sources of energy and power. Performed live, Friedlander’s haunting score illuminates a series of images drawn from Epstein’s acclaimed volume American Power, whose focus Epstein says was “to photograph the relationship between American society and the American landscape, and energy was the linchpin.” These images include the pivotal photographs that first inspired this thematic series, which he took during a trip along the Ohio River Valley.
Together, Friedlander’s evocative music and Epstein’s images and anecdotes about the people and places he visited during his photo project avoid easy polemic, preferring to investigate notions of power, whether electrical or political.
Before American Power the performance was American Power the book. Epstein and Friedlander had history; they were friends and had previously worked together on a multimedia piece, and Epstein was familiar with Friedlander’s performance Block Ice & Propane, which combined his music with photography by his father, Lee Friedlander, and road movies from Bill Morrison. When he was awarded the 2011 Prix Pictet photography prize for his American Power photo project, Epstein invited Friedlander to collaborate with him for a presentation at the Les Rencontres d'Arles festival in France. From there, the two worked together on an album for American Power, and received a commission from the Walker Art Center to further develop a performance. The Wex is the second stop for that performance, which heads to London in June. You can get your tickets for the Wex performance here.
Below, the pair discuss their collaboration.
On adapting American Power
Mitch Epstein: I wanted to open up the project to be something larger. I…wanted to see what would happen if (Friedlander) got the pictures, responded to them musically, composed compositions....(the idea was to) create a conversation that could be the result of his music and my images and some storytelling that gave an entrance to the behind-the-scenes experience of making the work….Sometimes, what’s interesting when you’re an artist and you’ve made work and released it out into the world, is to get it out of the studio and see what happens, how does it interact with the environment? In this case it was how would another artist interact with it, what might he bring to it, and how might that alter the way in which I would go back and think about it in new ways.
Erik Friedlander: I opened up the pages (of the American Power book), and all of these incredible pictures, which told such a layered story, I felt like I could respond to them….I wrote about half a dozen pieces and I wrote them without thinking about a particular sequence of pictures—or without a particular picture at all—I just went after it, after the project as a composition project and let the pieces be strong on their own and then see where the chips may fall by then sending the compositions to Mitch and his team. They started sequencing pictures with them, and so we started this, Mitch always says, “conversation”—it’s a nice analogy....We worked together with the pictures and music and different sequences, and then I wrote more music—and I’ve even written some more music for this performance….What we did at d'Arles is kind of the bare bones of what you’ll see here, so the structure is strong, but it needed some presentational élan added to it. (Directors Annie B Parson and Paul Lazar) helped us flesh it out and make it “theatrical.”
ME: What was interesting was (to look for) a way to make it almost more operatic, to sort of deepen the conversation between music and pictures and voice/storytelling, but to do it in a way that would have a flow and meaning and do it in a way that would have a larger kind of resolved piece.
EF: Mitch's idea to bring me in was to kind of take it away from the normal, slideshow-and-photographer-talking-about-the-work. Annie B and Paul took it even further away from that. Where you were standing at a lectern, talking, now you're moving around, and we're working in this “studio.”
ME: We also worked with my collaborator and partner Susan Bell, who knew the project inside out because she lived through it as I was involved in it. And so she helped to develop the script and to, in a way, just distill some of the more important anecdotal passages. Also, a key passage was for it to illuminate the themes are hand, which are “what is our cultural relationship to energy, living in America post-9/11, the issues of security and surveillance”—but also our sort of long-developed relationship to land and to ownership. And how to do that in a way that wasn’t didactic, because my pictures are not didactic, they’re not prescriptive, they’re not one-dimensional in that way, and I think that’s where we worked hard to keep some of the mystery of it, because that’s what it is.”
The audience experience
EF: "I hope they're left with questions in their minds. As Mitch said, it's a little unsettling. It's not prescriptive, we don't say, “this is wrong, this is right, and this is what has to happen”—I mean, we're just kind of presenting the issues. I also think they should be left with kind of a feeling of what it's like to be an artist
ME: I think it’s as much about that as anything. It’s about going on a journey...you’re kind of invited in, and there’s a larger journey of, you know, how I came to this project and worked through it and then came out of it, but then it’s also the journey of how we shaped this thing itself, which is the result of our collaboration. So I think it’s very bold, and it’s very transparent and I think it’s taken on qualities that are more operatic in a way.
EF: And yet it’s kind of gentle and humble in a way.
ME: There was no kind of model to follow.
EF: That was kind of exciting.
ME: In a way, that’s always the most interesting thing. You really don’t have to sort of adhere to a certain genre and you can break through to things you hadn’t thought of before…. (American Power) has had an opportunity to grow, partly because we left it for a while and are coming back for it, and so we’ve had a chance to do other things and then see where we could still go further with it. That doesn’t always happen, you don’t always go back to something and even have enough interest to be motivated to do it, and yet the thing itself is larger than either one of us, or any single story or picture. It has its own life. Also for me, given that the project began in Ohio, it’s meaningful to sort of come full circle so many years later and see that the work holds a screen, holds a wall, and has become something very different than I ever would have imagined.
—Jennifer Wray, marketing & media assistant