Strange Toys

Joan Jeanrenaud

Grammy nominated solo CD by cellist, composer Jeanrenaud featuring cellos, electronics and percussion.

Lauded throughout the experimental and avant-garde world for her "incredible cello technique" (Annie Gosfield) and as "the queen of all us cellists" (Wendy Sutter), in her previous solo album Metamorphosis, and as a member of Kronos Quartet for over 20 years, Jeanrenaud staked her claim as a virtuoso cellist and interpreter of other composer's works. Now, with Strange Toys, she is the sole composer of all the music.

Minimalist, polyrhythmic, organic, and electronic all at once, Jeanrenaud's work is accessible to listeners unfamiliar with contemporary classical music, thanks to her bold experimentation with electronic beats, unusual instruments, spoken-word, and other unique elements. Jeanrenaud's extensive use of looping and effects, paired with exquisite solos and perfectly-placed guest musicians, makes for a breathtaking sonic aesthetic comparable to Steve Reich, John Adams, and other contemporary composers who bridge the gap between the ancient and the new.

In 1978 Joan became the cellist of the Kronos Quartet. Her work with Kronos included more than 30 recordings and over 2000 performances that took her to virtually every major concert hall worldwide including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, London's Royal Festival Hall, Sydney Opera House, Teatro La Scala, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Buenos Aries' Teatro Colon, Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow and Tokyo's Suntory Hall. While with Kronos she worked with hundreds of composers and contemporary artists: John Cage, Terry Riley, Astor Piazzolla, John Zorn, Henryk Gorecki, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Tony Williams, Elliot Carter, Hamza El Din, David Byrne, Philip Glass, Joan Armatrading, Kevin Volans, Frank Zappa and many others.

Time Out New York / Issue 668 : Jul 17–23, 2008

Strange Toys — Steve Smith

During her 20-year stint in the Kronos Quartet, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud blazed countless musical trails, in the process leaving her mark on new works by countless grateful composers. After resigning from the group in 1999, she embarked on a journey of self-discovery—initially through improvisation, alone and with artists such as guitarist Fred Frith and koto player Miya Masaoka, and now as a composer.

Strange Toys, Jeanrenaud’s first collection of her own works, bears the mark of hands-on experimentation. That’s not to suggest no premeditation went into these 14 pieces, composed from 2001 to 2007. On the contrary, each is a perfectly sculpted gem of mood, poise and concision. But Jeanrenaud’s music doesn’t make a mystery of its improvised roots; in most of her pieces, the process of construction is laid bare. Axis, for instance, loops a bouncy, echoing rhythm line, over which Jeanrenaud layers a tawny, rumbling low melody, then a soaring high one.

Thanks to her penchant for looping, Jeanrenaud sounds like a team player even when she goes it alone. She’s also happy to feature friends: Alex Kelly takes the lead in Transition, a warm, fuzzy quartet for two cellists and two viola da gamba players. Elsewhere, percussionist William Winant and multi-instrumentalist Paul Dresher make valuable contributions. And PC Muñoz, the producer responsible for the disc’s rich, detailed sound, provides electronic beats in Kaleidoscope, a quirky, catchy delight.

Despite warnings, cellist's urge to compose won out Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It's not as though she didn't know what she was getting into.

When Joan Jeanrenaud left the Kronos Quartet in 1999 after two decades as the group's cellist and started improvising short tunes on her instrument, she understood perfectly well that she was dabbling in a musical gateway drug. But she couldn't stop.

"All my composer friends told me, 'If you start improvising, that's going to lead to composing,' " Jeanrenaud said recently at her Bernal Heights home. "And they were right."

It started gradually - a solo piece here, a duet there - but soon she was moving on to the harder stuff. Dance scores. Performance pieces. Multimedia installations.

Now, at 52, Jeanrenaud is a performing composer with a satchel full of scores and no end in sight.

The most recent outgrowth of all this creative activity is "Strange Toys," a compulsively listenable - one might even say addictive - CD on the San Francisco indie-rock label Talking House. Produced by sound artist PC Muñoz, the disc features 14 short numbers that have developed out of her improvisations over the last eight years.

All of the pieces - which Jeanrenaud will perform live at the Great American Music Hall tonight - are centered on the robust, rhythmically buoyant sound of her cello, but that's where the similarities cease. Some are languid reveries, others aggressive, hopped-up explosions; some call for marimba, vibraphone or string quartet, others for no more than a cello and an electronic looper.

Looping was Jeanrenaud's first path into original work, a way of building up musical textures without collaborators. Many of the pieces on the disc begin by setting up a repetitive rhythmic groove, before Jeanrenaud starts spinning out long and astonishingly beautiful melodies on top.

"Working with electronics in that way helped me figure out how to develop my musical ideas," she said. "And even though a lot of my stuff was pretty simple and tonal anyway, the loop reinforced that - because once you've established a framework, then you're stuck with it."

For more than 20 years, it looked as though the framework of the Kronos Quartet would be the one to define Jeanrenaud's career. A job that she lucked into after getting her bachelor's degree at Indiana University had turned into one of the most successful and demanding enterprises in contemporary music of the late 20th century - and new music wasn't even her first love.

"Originally, I was interested in chamber music. I thought I'd get a little job with a chamber orchestra in Europe somewhere, and that would be that. I thought about orchestral auditions, but I was never good at auditioning, so I was glad I never went that route.

"I was interested in contemporary music, and I even studied composition. What mostly happened was that all the student composers pegged me as someone who would play their music. Most of the other students were just geared to playing their concertos, and I was open to other stuff."

Shortly after graduating, Jeanrenaud got a call from her Indiana schoolmate, violist Hank Dutt. He had joined the fledgling Kronos Quartet, founded some years earlier in Seattle by first violinist David Harrington; now the quartet had a residency at Mills College in Oakland but were two musicians short. Jeanrenaud joined the group, along with second violinist John Sherba, and never looked back.

"It was perfect timing for me. I thought, 'I've studied long enough - now it's time to get a job.' And because we were at Mills, there was a little salary - maybe four or five thousand a year, but that seemed good to me."

Feeling the strain

It still seemed good as the quartet grew in stature and achievement - touring tirelessly, releasing dozens of recordings and premiering many hundreds of new works by living composers. But by 1999, Jeanrenaud was starting to feel the strain, and there were two reasons.

One was the onset of multiple sclerosis, which first appeared in 1996 and was formally diagnosed two years later. The other was a growing sense that the scope of the operation was getting away from Kronos.

"Looking back, I think my decision had a lot to do with MS," Jeanrenaud says now. "But at the time I thought it was artistic differences - and growing pains.

"It was so great in the early years, when we did everything ourselves and made all our own decisions. We all had our little areas. I had a lot to do with how we looked. Hank handled the financial stuff - we used to call him Hank the Bank - and David was in charge of artistic decisions.

"And as it started to get bigger as an organization, we had less input. I think a lot of organizations have that problem - like the head of a computer company who gets ousted when they're the one who started it."

The diagnosis of MS also put a strain on relations with her colleagues.

"It isolated me in a sense, because I was the issue. Maybe there was a way to get around it, but I wasn't even suggesting that because I was already getting frustrated. I thought, 'There are other things I really want to try, and I won't be able to try them if I stay in Kronos.' "

The eventual separation was difficult but amicable. Jeanrenaud took a year's leave, replaced on a temporary basis by Jennifer Culp. When Jeanrenaud didn't return, Culp's position was made permanent; in 2005 Culp was succeeded by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler.

Whippet-thin and garrulous, with a big, toothy smile and a bottle-blond bob, Jeanrenaud is an effusive conversationalist. Although her bourbon-flavored twang is evidence of her small-town Tennessee roots, her time on the West Coast has turned her into a true Californian.

Jeanrenaud professes great pride in her time with Kronos, and is pleased to see the group's successes continue unchecked. She remains on the board and is on good terms with her former colleagues. But she's focusing on her own activities now.

The effects of MS are concentrated in her legs, and she walks slowly and with difficulty. But from the waist up, her faculties are unimpeded.

Busy, busy

That enables her not only to continue playing, but to undertake other projects as well. She teaches privately at Mills and has become what she calls the "in-house cellist" for bands on the Talking House roster.

And next month, she and visual artist Alessandro Moruzzi will unveil "Aria," an installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that involves live and pre-recorded music.

"It's complicated to describe," she said, "but not that complicated in actuality. It's a cube, 20 feet by 20 feet, made out of scrim material, and video images are projected onto it that the audience can see from inside or outside.

"There's a platform inside the cube where I will perform on the first and last nights. On the other nights, there will be a cello hanging there that the audience can blow on to trigger the sounds of me playing."

So, some patrons will get to hear her in person, and others not?

"Well, one reason I wanted to do this was to see if I could back away from performing and just have my music out there. It's hard, because I'm known as a performer. But it's time for me to let my music stand on its own. I'm not getting any younger."

To learn more about Joan Jeanrenaud and hear samples of her music, go to

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