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Joan Jeanrenaud: The Beat of the Moment

By Published: February 15, 2011
AAJ: "Altar Piece" from your first solo album, Metamorphosis (New Albion, 2002) was the first composition you released to the world. The piece was situated among works by Philip Glass, Steve Mackey and Hamza El Din. Was that a significant milestone for you?

Joan Jeanrenaud and PC Muñoz

JJ: It was. It was very much more a rock and roll piece. I did it on my electric cello, which really influenced it. It was a nice moment for me. That album reflected stuff I was pursuing after leaving Kronos. I've always been involved in performance art and multimedia stuff. For instance, I did a piece called "Aria," that premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. And when I first left the group, I got into the Fluxus scene with Charlotte Moorman. I did a piece called "Ice Cello," in which I played a cello made entirely of ice. Stephen Vitiello manipulated the tones it made as it melted. The whole idea of questioning where the boundary between the audience and performer is interests me. Is it possible to integrate all of that instead of just sitting on stage and having the performer here and the audience there? That's what I was thinking about during several of those projects, which were very interactive.

AAJ: What are your composition tools of choice?

JJ: I use Pro Tools and Sibelius. I input my music into Sibelius. I used to always use pen and paper, but when I started working on the string quartet for The Del Sol Quartet, I did it right into Sibelius. "Dive" from Pop-Pop is one of the movements for Del Sol. It's a four-movement piece. The quartet version is slightly different. Also, there are no other sounds other than the quartet in their version. The great thing about Sibelius is you can hear what you've done when you've put it in there. It lets me hear it back so I can go "I didn't mean to do that." You can catch things easier than my previous approach, which was sitting there and handwriting my stuff with my cello at my side. Pro Tools is also great because there are certain pieces I've recorded directly into it, particularly when I was interested in integrating other sounds. For instance, I've used the sound of crickets, industrial noises and even volcanic activity. So I would put that stuff into Pro Tools and play cello on top of it. I also have an Echoplex digital looper and Lexicon MPX G2 guitar processor. I realize those are really old tools, but I've had them a long time and they still work very well, so sometimes I go back to that stuff.

AAJ: Last December, you recorded Vladimir Martynov's "Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished)," with Kronos Quartet for their forthcoming album. Describe your thoughts about reengaging with Kronos after such a long absence.

JJ: Vladimir Martynov wrote the piece for Kronos plus extra cello. I think they were always interested in recording it, because it would be fun, given I haven't worked them in 14 years. We recorded it with Judy Sherman, the producer I knew so well when I was with Kronos, at Skywalker Sound. We recorded a lot of stuff there in the past. It was wonderful to play with them again. I still love those guys.

AAJ: In general, how do you look back at your time with Kronos?

JJ: It's much easier for me now to reflect on what Kronos has done and what its influence is on music. When I was in the group, it wasn't something I considered or thought about too much. We always talked about what we were doing a lot, but not about how people perceived it necessarily. It was always "This is something cool we want to do. How can we figure out how to realize it and make it happen?" For instance, when Steve Reich wrote "Different Trains," we started using amplification so we could compete with the sound of the pre-recorded tracks. Music was what always directed Kronos.

People used to always focus on the clothes and everything else. But those guys never wore suits or ties. It seemed crazy for them to do it on stage. They would be totally uncomfortable having that stuff on. So everything came about in an organic way. We thought "We're playing new music. We're not playing what everyone else is playing, so why do we have to wear what everyone else is wearing?" A lot of directions came from that way of thinking. It's not like we ever thought "What kind of effect will this have on an audience?" Our focus was on managing and conceiving projects.

AAJ: During your tenure in the group, you were all as close to rock stars as people could be in the classical music world. What was it like to have such a high profile and sell hundreds of thousands of records in the process?

JJ: It was fantastic, but at the same time, the whole thing happened so gradually. We started out at Mills College in Oakland, California and no-one had ever really heard of us. We traveled around California in Hank Dutt's Toyota. [laughs] It was really small but we managed to fit everything in it. We always felt encouraged to do more of what we were doing, but I don't think anyone in the group thought about ourselves that way. I think they still don't. Now that I'm out of the group, I'm able to realize that Kronos truly played a big part in the direction of music to some extent. But when you're in the group, you don't think about that. You just feel lucky that you can keep doing what you love and make a living at it. We went to so many different places and worked with so many incredible composers. We played at Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Those were all high points for me. When I was in Kronos, I tended to look at what was happening at the moment, as opposed to how things were perceived by the outside world.

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