The Sky Is the Limit for ex-Kronos Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud


The cello is made out of ice. There are no strings, just a solid block of frozen water, cut to the exact specifications of Joan Jeanrenaud's 1750 Venice-born Deconet. "That solid ice version of my acoustic cello," Jeanrenaud says, "it's always so amazing. A cello made of solid ice is really the most beautiful object."

Jeanrenaud, formerly of Kronos Quartet, is describing her various post-Kronos musical adventures, one of which is a four-hour performance piece titled, appropriately enough, Ice Cello. It is a remounting of Ice Music for London, a bit of early-'70s performance art by the late avant-garde musician Charlotte Moorman and pioneering conceptual artist Jim McWilliams. Jeanrenaud has performed her own higher-tech version of the piece four times since departing Kronos to launch an even more adventurous solo career.

The ice cello, Jeanrenaud explains, is played using a series of bows fashioned out of saws and barbed wire and sandpaper, accelerating the melting of the ice, which begins to come apart in drips and pieces. Five microphones capture the sound of the water as it hits a surface beneath the cello. A sound technician electronically manipulates the watery "music" and four speakers positioned around the room create a sonic environment of merging splashes and splattering H 2O.

"That's one of the beautiful things about that piece," says Jeanrenaud. "The whole thing about ice is that it changes. It starts out as water and changes into ice, and then it changes back again as it melts. Ice is all about change, it's all about the process of being transformed from one thing into another."

The same could be said of Jeanrenaud. She ended her 20-year stint with the world-famous Kronos in 1999, eager for something new, but uncertain what it might look like. Clearly, change is a force that keenly interests the accomplished performer and virtuoso cellist. It's no coincidence that her first major post-Kronos performance piece—an evening-length theatrical event featuring compositions by Philip Glass, Karen Tanaka, and others, and released last year on CD by New Albion—was entitled Metamorphosis.

"Leaving Kronos was a huge change," Jeanrenaud says. "And a lot of what I'm doing is not necessarily what I had expected to be doing, but it's so exciting to discover where my path is leading me."

For one thing, Jeanrenaud, who still lives in San Francisco, has been working with such fearless composers as Fred Frith and Annie Gosfield. The latter, a young New York composer who taught at Mills College in Oakland, California for a semester in 2003, spent a year composing a piece for solo cello and recorded machine sounds, tailor-made to Jeanrenaud's abilities and daring-do tastes.

"It's beautiful," says Jeanrenaud of the 13-minute piece, which premiered in November at Mills. "It's a whole soundscape. You can identify certain sounds and machines—you know it's a saw when the saw sounds happen—but it's more than that. It's all used very effectively."

While Jeanrenaud has always been interested in electronics, performance art, and multimedia, she knew she wanted to expand her experience with improvisation. That said, she's been more than surprised at where those explorations have taken her.

"I'm actually composing now," she says with a laugh, "and that's something I never thought I'd do." With the encouragement of such heavy-hitters as Larry Ochs of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Nubian oud master Hamza El Din, and the great experimentalist Terry Riley, Jeanrenaud has taken gradual steps toward trusting her own compositional instincts. Metamorphosis, fittingly enough, contains one of Jeanrenaud's first compositions, a nine-minute piece for cello and "looped" cellos called "Altar Piece."

As her metamorphosis continues, Jeanrenaud is finding more and more opportunities to write music. San Francisco's edgy Other Minds Music Festival has invited her to create a new piece, which she'll be performing in March. Around the same time, she will be appearing with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra under conductor Kent Nagano for the premiere of a new concerto by Karen Tanaka during BSO's 21st Century Cellos program.

As for what's next, Jeanrenaud hints that there might be another Charlotte Moorman revival in the near future. "I've been thinking of doing 'Flying Cello,'" she says, referring to another Jim McWilliams collaboration, which featured Moorman suspended in the air on a harness, with bow in hand, and her cello suspended from a separate rigging.

"As they passed each other in the air," Jeanrenaud says, "Charlotte would take a swipe at the cello. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?"

*This article appeared in Strings March 2004
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