Joan Jeanrenaud: The Beat of the Moment

Anil Prasad By

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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?
Playing it safe is a concept in which cellist Joan Jeanrenaud has total disinterest. Her deep, varied career reflects a restless creative spirit that most recently manifested itself on Pop-Pop (Deconet, 2010), her duo album with producer and percussionist PC Muñoz. The disc seamlessly blends cello, classical, electronica, and hip-hop influences. But, perhaps, the most important element is fun, something Jeanrenaud and Muñoz clearly had a lot of when making the disc. Unlike Jeanrenaud's carefully-architected previous albums, Pop-Pop found her and Muñoz literally making up the album as they went along in the studio. It's a record driven by visceral creative impulses and a desire to capture the duo's collective muse at its most riveting.

"Joan possesses the kind of qualities that would thrill any collaborator: incredible technical facility, boundless musical imagination, an adventurous spirit, and a genuine love for the give-and-take of true collaboration," says Muñoz. "For me specifically, it's a nice bonus that she's also funky. She's from a town right outside of Memphis. She grew up listening to rock and roll and peeking in at the blues and soul music pouring out of the Memphis clubs. In a very real way, her musical ancestry is as much Sun and Stax Records as it is Bach and Cage. That combination makes for a very unique compositional voice. It's always exciting to hear what she's going to come up with next."

Jeanrenaud shares Muñoz's enthusiasm for the partnership. Pop-Pop is a natural evolution from 2008's Strange Toys (Talking House), her second solo album after leaving Kronos Quartet in 1999. Strange Toys, also produced by Muñoz, was comprised entirely of Jeanrenaud's own compositions. It was a significant progression for her after a career previously spent performing expansive works by some of the world's most renowned composers via Kronos Quartet. The ambitious and diverse album found Jeanrenaud exploring a wide variety of neo-classical, avant, and occasionally beat-oriented contexts.

As part of Kronos Quartet, Jeanrenaud scaled tremendous heights. During her tenure with the group from 1978 to 1999, the group recorded 30 albums that sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and performed more than 2,000 concerts across the globe. She also worked with some of the new music world's most influential composers, including John Cage, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Henryk Górecki, Witold Lutoslawski, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn—just to name a few. Her reasons for leaving the highly-influential act were a combination of a desire to seriously pursue the realms of improvisation and composition, as well as a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis that made her reevaluate her life trajectory. Jeanrenaud is confident she made the right choice at the right time. Her ever-evolving, multifaceted solo career, which now also involves composing for other artists, is a testament to following one's instincts.

AAJ: What attracted you to the beat-driven universe of Pop-Pop?

Joan Jeanrenaud: PC Muñoz had a lot to do with that. He produced Strange Toys. I didn't know anything about him or his work before then, but once I met him and worked with him, I was really impressed with his ears. When you work with a producer for the first time, you're not sure if he's going to hear the same things you hear. But it was amazing. After a couple of days, I realized PC hears exactly how I hear, which is great. So I became very interested in his music and what he does. He's very beat oriented. That's part of so much of what he does. I've always been interested in beats and rhythm too. That became my role in Kronos in a way. As the cellist, I was also serving as the bassist and drummer, which are the foundation of every group.

We did a few things with beats on Strange Toys and that made me feel like it was a direction we could go further in. On Strange Toys, I started working with loopers so I could create a lot of different parts, all generated by me. At the time I thought "Am I just recreating a string quartet here?" But it kind of made sense too after all of those years being in Kronos. Certainly, Kronos opened up my ears to so many different possibilities. Michael Daugherty even wrote a piece for Kronos that had beatboxer stuff on it. Kronos also worked with Tony Williams at one point, who wrote a piece for us called "Rituals for String Quartet, Piano, Drums, and Cymbals." I've always enjoyed working with drummers and people who keep the beat, but I've always liked the role of holding down the beat too. So given all of that, it isn't out of the ordinary that I ended up doing stuff like what's on Pop-Pop. So PC and I talked about doing an album involving a DJ and pursuing different mixes. Finally, I said to PC "I love what you do and I think if we do an album together, it will satisfy all of the things we've been talking about in terms of bringing in different sounds." So that's how it happened.

The idea was for the album to be all pretty short tunes. We call it "the pop record that's not pop." [laughs] That was always in our thinking. We'd think "Wouldn't it be great to make a pop record? How would we do that with the cello and beats, using our skills?" We thought it would be great if it got played in dance clubs. Whether that happens or not, we'll see. [laughs]

AAJ: Are there any electronic musicians of note that inspired you to explore this direction?

JJ: I've always listened to people like Tangerine Dream, and Michael Hoenig is a good friend of mine. Pat Gleason, who I was married to, is also an excellent synthesist. He did Vivaldi's "The Fours Seasons" on a Synclavier. Wendy Carlos is someone else I like. I remember hearing Switched on Bach (Columbia, 1968), and that was a big thing. I got to meet Wendy and became very interested in what she does. There have always been people in my past that have enabled me to be aware of what's going on in that field.

Joan Jeanrenaud and PC Muñoz

AAJ: How did the collaborative process with Muñoz work?

JJ: We just went into the studio and constructed the music, which is very unusual for me. That part took awhile to get comfortable with. Usually, you pay for your studio time, so when you go in, you know exactly what you're going to do and you record it. But this album was a great opportunity in which PC and I went to the studio and worked out the music together, more like pop people do. At first that was hard, because I felt Justin Lieberman, the engineer, and PC were just sitting there observing. It's such a private thing when I work on music at home, so to be doing it in front of those guys in the studio was awkward at first. Then I got used to it and realized it was a very good collaborative environment because everyone could immediately talk about things as they happened and try out different ideas.

Sometimes PC would give me a beat pattern and I might say "PC, that's too regular, give me that in 5/4 instead of 4/4." And then he would generate something else, send it to me and I would work with that beat structure. Just like I often do at home, I would fool around with this material, create layers, and see what works together. But then there were certain times like on "33 1/3" in which I actually generated the material and PC added the beat stuff on it afterwards. So we would go back and forth a lot in different ways. There were also certain times when I made a mistake, but ended up liking the mistake. Sometimes, instead of looping something eight times, it would get looped seven times, and I would think the result was interesting. A lot of stuff like that happened.

AAJ: Did Muñoz have a background in new music prior to working with you?

JJ: Not really, but he's worked with a lot of singer-songwriters, which was valuable for me. He's very familiar with the structure of pop tunes—the verse-chorus thing. So these tunes were sort of based on that structure, even though we didn't adhere to that at all. A lot of the time, it was something we would talk about. We would have things come back as a refrain. PC influenced me in that way. PC doesn't read music, so even when we did Strange Toys and did edits, he would take notes on his phone which were so clear. That was amazing to me as I have to write this stuff out in a score. But he's able to do it all in his head. A lot of improvisers work that way, but I rely on the classical tradition of having something written down. I wish I could do it the other way more.

AAJ: Strange Toys was your first foray into creating an entire album of original material. What spurred you into pursuing the universe of composition so deeply?

JJ: It came about because the Talking House label said they wanted me to record a CD. I had a lot of material I had worked on since I left Kronos. Also, after I left Kronos, I started improvising, because I knew that was something I wanted to do more of. I said "Great, now I have the time. That's what I'll do." As a composer friend of mine said "Once you start improvising, you'll start writing music." And that's exactly what happened. So the first 10 years of my writing and that accumulation of material is what ended up on that recording. The label left the pieces that went on the album up to me, so I chose to focus on documenting my own writing. I took the stuff I liked best and put it together.

AAJ: Tell me about your background in composition.

JJ: When I attended Indiana University, I was fortunate to learn a lot from really fine teachers, composers and players. I took one semester of composition. I knew Fred Fox well and played in his contemporary music ensemble. I also took improvisation classes, as well as lessons from David Baker and Joe Henderson. But I never had the time to concentrate on that side of things. All of the years with Kronos paid off tremendously though. I performed such a wealth of music and worked with so many composers. I got a lot from those experiences which helped me when I started working on my own music.

The Del Sol Quartet just commissioned me to write a four-movement piece for them. Last year is when I started writing music for people other than myself. It was a good step for me to get away from the looper to write for that context. The looper is useful, but it's also limiting because you're kind of locked into a tonality, but there are a lot of things you can do with that too. But I was getting to the point where I thought it would be nice to do something in which I'm not looping. In general, I'd like to get to the point where I'm writing more and more music for other people, and it's starting to happen. The Estamos Ensemble also had me write a piece for them. In addition, Cornelius Dufallo, a violinist in New York, had me write a solo violin piece for him.



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