Faculty Profile - Eugene Friesen
Berklee's Cello Man
The cello was primarily viewed as a classical instrument when Eugene Friesen's father, a Russian-born church musician and conductor, urged him to take it up nearly 40 years ago. Although his musical tastes would later broaden, the 10-year-old Friesen dug into classical music and advanced rapidly. By the time he was 12, he was performing orchestral and choral works that his father conducted in the vicinity of their hometown, Fresno, California. By the time he was in high school, he was playing with the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonic's string quartet and string trio.
Like most teenagers, Friesen also listened to the radio. Hearing symphonic instruments in popular music during the '60s made him aware that there was a lot of stylistic territory to be explored with the cello. "I got into folk and rock music in high school and started playing blues on the cello," Friesen said. "I was in a rock band and had my own band in college. Eventually, I got tired of that scene and realized my limitations as a player."
Friesen redoubled his efforts in classical playing and went off to Yale University where he studied with renowned cellist Aldo Parisot. Somewhat ironically, through his work with Parisot he was drawn to musical realms outside of the classical world. "Parisot is a Brazilian-born virtuoso and an extraordinary pedagogue," Friesen said. "Twice I had the chance to go to Brazil for his summer course. That is where I first heard Brazilian folk music. I felt such a strong affinity for the rhythms and sounds of that music that I knew I would have to get back into some folk and freer music."
During his Yale years, many great orchestras came to the university and Friesen got to see another side of the life of the classical musician. "I had a very naive vision of what it would be like to live in the splendor of the grand music they played," he said. "The truth is quite a bit more mundane. Being an orchestra musician surrounded by that great music is like having an embarrassment of riches. It seems that very quickly one starts obsessing on contracts, benefits, and the conductors you face week to week."
After graduating from Yale, Friesen got a call from saxophonist Paul Winter, whom he had met once in Fresno. "He invited me to his place in Connecticut," Friesen recalled. "We really hit it off and I started playing full time with the Paul Winter Consort around 1978."
It was a great fit for Friesen. Winter's group had developed an alluring sound blending classical and ethnic folk elements with improvisation. Winter's exotic acoustic instrumentationcello, guitar, sitar, soprano saxophone, oboe, keyboards, tablas, bass marimba, and moreand his wide stylistic reach placed them at the fore of the then- emerging new-age and world-music movements.
In the early 1980s, Friesen also took a post at the University of Delaware as the cellist for the Delos Quartet, the university's resident string quartet. It fulfilled Friesen's childhood dream of playing with a great chamber group. "We were playing the Bartok and Beethoven string quartetsamazing music," he said. "The late Beethoven quartets are among the most spiritually nourishing music for a string player, and the incredible passion and rhythmic energy of the Bartok quartets are sensational." When the group took first prize at a competition in France and offers to tour Europe poured in, he had to decide whether to follow his inclinations toward improvised music or focus on chamber music. He chose the former and decided to leave the quartet.
Since then, Friesen has toured extensively with the Winter Consort and is featured on many of the group's recordingsincluding two of their Grammy-winning discs. He has also released four CDs as a leader and has been a sideman on many others. Seeking to explore other rhythmic areas, he formed Trio Globo in 1990 with pianist/harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy and percussionist Glen Velez. In this setting, Friesen draws freely on all of the cello's sonic resources. He contributes walking bass lines, guitarlike chords, and gorgeous bowed lines to the mix.
Friesen keeps his schedule packed with teaching, composing, and a variety of performing engagements. In order to live in Vermont and support his family, a lot of his activities have to be self-generated. "I opted for a life that by necessity demands a lot of diversity just so I can get by," he said. "That has been a challenge and kept me on a learning curve with music and my own playing."
He joined the faculty in 1999 and presently conducts the Berklee String Orchestra, directs a free improvisation lab, and teaches private students. He hopes to see Berklee become the place that technically accomplished cellists seeking a personal path in music will come. "Cello is a very challenging instrument to play in tune. It takes a lot longer for cellists to come into the improvising forum than for other instrumentalists. They have to log a lot more practice hours before they get to where other instrumentalists get in less time."
Friesen has a clear view of what today's student needs to be ready for the musical possiblities continually opening up to string players. "They come here because they love playing rock, jazz, or Celtic music. The orchestra expands their rhythmic palette by exposing them to odd meters and the discipline for playing in a large ensemble. Rather than relating to a drummer, guitarist, or piano player, they have to broaden their listening to be part of a large organism that can be 50 feet across, from one side of the stage to the other. That requires a different kind of rhythmic sense and will help with their employability if they can do it well. I am hoping that our students will be able to play in a variety of situations from an orchestra to a studio session to a solo with total spontaneity. There is a lot of ground for us to cover, but it is a great time to be doing it."