David Friedman - Mallet man

John Robert Brown

David Friedman is giving a percussion workshop. On the vibraphone he demonstrates a note-bend effect by sliding a second mallet from the node, to press on the note he's already sounding. The students listen, attentive, like kids watching a conjuror. Then Friedman uses two mallets to play subtle harmonics. Next he beats from both above and below the bars, using two mallets one-handed to sandwich the note, rattling the metal to achieve a mandolin-like effect, a tremolo. Then, bending over the vibes, Friedman places his open mouth above the resonator, mouthing silent shapes to modify the sound. Finally he draws a double-bass bow across the end of the note bar to create a ghostly parody of a musical saw. Clearly, Friedman loves to share this exploration. He is in the UK to perform with Birmingham Conservatoire percussion and jazz ensembles, as part of a Percussion Day.

'As a kid I studied jazz drums,' he says. 'Then my teacher told me he felt I should get a classical education. So I auditioned at Juilliard School of Music, who accepted me. I started playing classical music, but also maintaining my interest in the marimba and the vibes. When I was 18 or 19 I started playing Mozart string quartets, and Bach sonatas and partitas, on the vibraphone and marimba!

'I started arranging lute music by Silvius Leopold Weiss, John Dowland and Robert de Visée, for the marimba. That was what I wanted to do at the time, I wasn't into jazz improvisation. During my education at Julliard I got interested in jazz again. I played the sonatas and partitas, and improvised on them. I've always kept my interest in Bach.' Last year Friedman's trio played at the Bach Festival in Leipzig, at the Moritzbastei in the heart of the city, the only remaining part of the ancient city fortifications.

For his early professional work in Manhattan Friedman played general percussion. 'Then I started doing studio work,' he says, 'while I was still at Julliard. I was playing for jingles, at the same time subbing for the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. At the Metropolitan Opera I played for the New York première of Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten, with Karl Boehm. I was 18 or 19 years old, playing the glass harmonica part on the vibraphone. Among the other classical gigs I got a call to do the Bernstein Mass, with Bernstein conducting.' The piece calls for a huge percussion section. 'At one point I looked up and who was standing next to me but Leonard Bernstein himself. He said, "I'll bet that you didn't learn how to play like that at Julliard." I said, 'You're right!'

Towards the end of his studies at Juilliard, in the late 1960s, Friedman met Luciano Berio, who formed the Julliard Ensemble. 'Berio asked me to play percussion in it. That was a nine-piece ensemble. Cathy Berberian was the singer. We recorded several pieces of Berio's, including Chemins, with Walter Trampler playing viola. Later we recorded Folk Songs by Berio, with Cathy Berberian. Vinko Globokar wrote some music for us, and I played a piece of Sylvano Bussotti. Pinchas Zukerman was on tour with us. I met all of these, including Stockhausen, through Luciano.

'Working with Berio was a fantastic experience, but frustrating because that was the point where I'd realised that I wanted to be a jazz player. Berio had a tremendous influence on my harmonic thinking, actually. In my later jazz playing I noticed that I utilized a lot of the harmonic language that Luciano was using, in terms of cluster harmonies.' Friedman draws parallels with painters like Jackson Pollock, who utilise splotches of colour. 'I became interested in creating sounds that weren't necessarily related to scales or harmonies, but were like paint on a canvas - big swirls and splodges of sounds,' he says. 'I still work on playing unrelated scales, to create a different kind of sound.' In his workshops Friedman demonstrates fast linear passages that have no connection with any particular harmony, but are more gestural, like a long brush stroke on canvas.

Friedman's exit from the contemporary music world was strong-minded: 'Abruptly I decided, 'That's it!' No more classical music, no more modern music. I remember selling all my drum set, selling all my percussion. From now on, it's only mallets. I got very heavily into vibes and marimba.

'It was almost like I moved from the classical world direct into the jazz world. The first thing was my acquaintance with Hubert Laws, who also straddled both worlds. He subbed with the New York Philharmonic, a fantastic classical flautist. He heard me on a jingle. I started recording with him, bassist Ron Carter and jazz pianist and composer Bob James. All of a sudden I had moved out of the classical world directly into the jazz world, playing with Horace Silver, Chet Baker and Wayne Shorter.'

Today Friedman heads the jazz department at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. He has been there since 1989. With a string of marimba publications and CDs to his name, in his spare time he travels worldwide to give workshops and concerts. I observe that he seemed to move from the top of the classical world to the top of jazz and jazz education. 'Why not start at the top and work down?' he says with a smile.

This article first appeared in Classical Music magazine, 20th January 2007. Used by kind permission.
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