Eugene Friesen, a Grammy-award winning cellist, the author of Improvisation for Classical Musicians – and also a composer who incorporates the songs of birds and whales in his works. As “CelloMan,” he uses masked characters, stories, comedy and the recorded songs of birds and animals to make music accessible to audiences of all ages.
Eugene Friesen is “CelloMan,” a Grammy award-winning cellist and composer who teaches at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He is also the author of the 2012 book Improvisation for Classical Musicians. In this exclusive Green Interview, Friesen speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about how he integrates the sounds of the natural world into everything he does. He plays the cello as a squirrel might play it, as a bear might play, as a great master like Pablo Casals played it. His compositions embrace the songs of whales and songbirds. He is also a great believer in listening deeply and paying profound and contemplative attention and being truly present in the world, activities that our traditional educations, whether in music or in other disciplines, really attempt to drive out of us. In a sense Friesen’s musical orientation is to go beyond the formalities of his classical training and back to our original state of simply being in the world, making harmonies with our fellow creatures.
Improvisation with Nature
Friesen is well known for integrating nature sounds into his cello pieces. In particular, his piece “Humpback Harmonies”— “music for cello and humpback whale,” features the songs of whales, recorded using underwater microphones, and his own improvisation on cello. Friesen explains in The Green Interview how his own practice of listening to the sounds of nature is inspired by dadirri, or “deep atunement” practiced by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. He says the listening practice is a form of mindfulness. “Listening, for me, is a kind of litmus for being in the present moment because if you are truly listening you are in the present moment… and you open yourself to the kind of information that might be coming to you through that kind of layered and mysterious language that the Earth speaks, whether it’s water, whether it’s wind, whether it’s the voices of creatures.” Friesen says that he allows the sounds from nature to “inhabit” him and in that process he’s able to “locate” the chords and times signatures and the dynamic for his improvisation.
In the 1990s, working with a mask-maker and a theatre director, Friesen developed a program called to help make music accessible to young listeners. He would don the masked heads of a squirrel or a bear, for instance—and these creatures would play the cello in their own unique way. “With CelloMan, I wanted every kid to feel like they had a friend who played the cello and also to show that different personalities—like these masked characters—would approach the instrument in a different way and could use that instrument to express something unique inside of them.”