Collaborative movements

Kansas-born cellist to team up with Prairie Wind Dancers

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Hillsboro-born cellist Eugene Friesen's music is rather hard to classify.

Music stores typically file it in the new-age section, but Friesen prefers to say his music transcends boundaries.

"Our music is at the other end of the new-age spectrum: new, instrumental music," says Friesen, who plays both solo and with the Grammy Award-winning Paul Winter Consort. "It has tried to create its own genre, which is a cross-section between world music and jazz."

The fusion has been inspirational for Lawrence's Prairie Wind Dancers, who have collaborated occasionally with Friesen and will do so again at Friesen's Saturday concert at the Lawrence Arts Center. Proceeds will benefit the Prairie Wind Dancers.

Troupe choreographer Candi Baker continues to be impressed by Friesen and his music.

"We very much enjoy working with Eugene," she says. "His music is both beautiful and challenging. He's such an artist; there is such an integrity."

Collaboration on the prairie

Friesen, a graduate of the Yale School of Music, began his relationship with the Prairie Wind Dancers in 1997, when the troupe was in residence at PrairieFest in Winfield. Friesen's first symphony, "Grasslands," made its debut there. At the urging of The Land Institute director Wes Jackson, Friesen had returned to his native Kansas from his home in Vermont in the mid-1980s to begin composing pieces inspired by the prairie.

The Prairie Wind Dancers designed choreography for the resulting 13-piece symphony, which Friesen performed with the Paul Winter Consort at PrairieFest and, later, at the Smoky Hill River Festival in Salina.


Special to the Journal-World

Hillsboro-born cellist Eugene Friesen has returned to his native Kansas to play a concert at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H. The concert will benefit the Prairie Wind Dancers, who have designed choreography to several of Friesen's songs and will perform with him during the show.

The music-dance collaboration continued when the troupe choreographed movement to "Prairie," a piece Friesen composed after being inspired by poet Carl Sandburg and painter John Steuart Curry.

Composing the symphonies presented a unique challenge for Friesen

"In a way, it's ecstasy because it's the pinnacle of creative activity," he says. "But on the other hand, you feel like you are really challenging your abilities as a musician, and you wish that you were better."

Despite the challenge, Friesen has enjoyed working with Baker and the dancers.

"I found them to be so flexible and so imaginative," he says. "It was a real pleasure to work with them."

'In the Shadow of Angels'

Friesen was born in Hillsboro to Mennonite immigrants and began studying cello at the age of 10. He knew by 13 that he would have a future in music.

"I remember loving Peter, Paul & Mary so much that I thought, 'I am just going to play music the rest of my life,'" he says. "Even at that point, I knew the cello was going to be part of that path."

Though Friesen began by playing in his school orchestra, he soon joined rock 'n' roll bands in high school and even started his own in college. It was there he began to develop his unique style of music, which fuses classical, jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll and experiments with different time signatures and tempos.

Friesen's latest solo album, "In the Shadow of Angels," challenges musical boundaries.

He experiments with an electric cello and uses acoustic cello to simulate other instruments, such as guitar, bass and drums. He even uses the recorded sounds of a humpback whale on a duet.

Friesen's performance style is also unique. He combines comedy, improvisation, storytelling and masks to communicate his music to audiences.

"I would say that the world of dance and film helped to pave the way for a more theatrical way of thinking about musical performance," he says. "I just love using every tool at the artist's command to try to create a meaningful listening experience."

Friesen says the title "In the Shadow of Angels" was inspired by his own good fortune in his career, as well as the opportunities he's had to work with some wonderful musicians.

"I have felt like a lot of my voice as a player has been developed in response to some of these really brilliant musicians I have been able to work with," Friesen says.

Friesen will play tunes from his new album, as well as some classical Bach pieces at the arts center concert. The Prairie Wind Dancers will join him on stage for three numbers.

Friesen is excited about his reunion with the Prairie Wind Dancers. Returning to Lawrence will be a real treat, too, he says.

"Of almost anywhere in Kansas, that's where I could live," he says. "Art, music, restaurants and bars. The intellect. It's amazingly sophisticated."