Kofi Forson in Conversation with Joan Jeanrenaud
Joan Jeanrenaud, born in Memphis, Tennessee, was cellist with the renowned Kronos Quartet. She left the group after twenty years to pursue improvisation and work as composer. Her recording Strange Toys received a Grammy nomination. Currently based in San Fransisco, Joan’s commissioned works include the string quartet Del Sol, the multi-media piece (In Between), AXIS Dance Company, Austin Ballet (Savoir Vivre)…Among her grants are a San Fransisco Art Commission grant and Peter S. Reed Foundation grant. She continues to perform with a variety of musicians in the Bay Area.
The following is a phone conversation.
Kofi Forson: It’s quite the pleasure to have this conversation. I have fond memories of listening to recordings by the Kronos Quartet and watching televised performances. So thank you again for this opportunity…You grew up in Memphis.
Joan Jeanrenaud: Yeah…I grew up in Memphis. Yeah…
KF: I think of Memphis, Tennessee as hotbed for civil rights and rock and roll. How did you go about playing the cello?
JJ: It was great growing up in Memphis for a number of reasons. It was known for its blues scene and then of course there was Elvis. You couldn’t get away from Elvis. They would play his music all the time. I went to a girl’s school ‘cause my mom taught there. She had three daughters. We all went there for free. In the music department there was a woman who taught Suzuki violin. I was a little older than the kids taking violin. I had tried some other instruments with her. She suggested the violin but I thought that was way too high and so she said how about the cello. I started playing the cello with other violinists right away. Because she wasn’t a cellist she sent me to Memphis State University to study with a cellist there. My family was not musical at all. It wasn’t like I was surrounded by the music going on in Memphis. I heard it on the radio and t.v. but basically I was much more classically trained. There were several composers at Memphis State…One composer sent me to join the union at age sixteen so that I could do back up string section for a lot of pop records. That was a really great influence. Looking back it’s too bad I didn’t play the blues or the bass.
KF: How fundamental is rock and roll to your musical upbringing? I think about a whole slew of classically trained performers who tend to shun the blues.
JJ: I didn’t shun it at all. It was great. I listened to way more blues than I did classical. You couldn’t avoid hearing all that music. There were a lot of sessions in Memphis at that time…Stax Records…Isaac Hayes. Sun Records of course but Stax was a bit more active in my later teens. Probably most of the music the country was listening to was what I was listening to.
KF: A lot of people myself included have this notion that classically trained musicians know nothing but classical. Does your love for music stem from the fact that you grew up in Memphis?
JJ: Sure. I think now the younger generation of classical music players pay attention to rock and roll, blues and jazz. It certainly is important to our musical heritage. In Europe where string quartets got started if you were the third child you played the cello. The first or second child would play the violin or piano. You would then have a trio. Americans never thought that way. I think now classical musicians are more aware. I went to Indiana University to get a bachelor’s degree in music. Particularly there most of my friends were in the jazz department. I took Improv courses. A lot of these guys were in bands but unfortunately I was never in a band at that point and time. It wasn’t until I came to San Fransisco that I got invited to join a band. This came later to me. That was about the time I left Kronos. So I got to explore all of this on a hands-on basis by playing music with other people…more of that genre, free-form, rock and roll or jazz.
KF: Fundamentally, American music is based on a variety and different forms of music. How does that inspire your notion of music?
JJ: When I was a kid I got a dulcimer. That’s very much Appalachian folk music. I guess I was very much interested in music and sound and whatever I was lucky enough to be exposed to.
KF: Non-classical music fans have always been attracted to Kronos. Why do you think this was the case?
JJ: It was probably the composers the Kronos started working with. David Harrington (founding member) was always interested in composers… people writing music now essentially. So I think it’s the composers that brought about the interest, because we were really interpreting the music of the composers. A lot of those composers had influences that ranged from all over the world. You’d have African composers who were interested in music that came from out of their tradition.
I’d never forget working with these musicians… I learned that all four parts are equal not so much to take away one of these parts and have the piece make sense. But in Western music you take the melody line and it would make some sort of sense. But with their music every part is dependent on the other. It was a huge revelation to me. And so I think for those who weren’t classically inclined but were interested in Kronos…I think it had to do with the composers.
KF: Some of the people you worked with included John Cage and Phillip Glass. What was it like to be a part of the Songs from Liquid Days recording and have a chance to work with Phillip Glass?
JJ: Oh Phillip is great. We had a long association with Phillip. We had done the Mishima soundtrack and a lot of other projects with Phillip. And so that’s how Liquid Days came about. Phillip is a great composer. He’s amazing. He’s always composing. He’s very prolific. He produces a lot of material.
His first quartet was considered to be Company written for Samuel Beckett plays. His third quartet... I think he wrote them all for Kronos and so we had a close relationship with him.
KF: What did you learn from John Cage?
JJ: When I look back on my experience with the Kronos Quartet they were really phenomenal. I’ll never forget being in John Cage’s apartment in New York City.
We were putting together a quartet and were rehearsing in his apartment. All four of us were in different places. It wasn’t in the standard quartet formation. It was spacially noted. It was thirty pieces for a string quartet. Each piece is a minute. It varies. You set your parameter. You can play each movement forty-five minutes to a minute and fifteen seconds. But once you determine the time you want to take you have to stick to that. You have to play everything accurately in the time you decide. It was different every time you played it.
And so we were in John’s apartment. He was talking about how everything relates to music and sound… like a car honking down the street. All of a sudden the telephone rings… he’s so cute… he looks at me and says, “Oh and the telephone.… ” (Laughter)
KF: What was the transition like from growing up in Memphis to joining a group the magnitude of Kronos?
JJ: You have to realize in ’78 no one knew who the Kronos was. I was taking a chance by joining the group. We were in residence at Mills College. It gave us somewhat of a foundation to build upon. I knew Hank Dudd, the viola player. He joined the Kronos a year before they had a cello opening. We both went to Indiana University together. I went to Geneva, Switzerland to study with Pier Fournier. Hank joined Kronos that same year. It worked out perfectly so after my year was up I joined the Kronos. I went and auditioned and got the job. I was very interested in contemporary music. That was not the focus of the group. They would play one contemporary composer on a program. Whether it’d be Brahms or Mozart…
It was two years after I was in the group that the four of us decided to focus on contemporary music. For a number of years we played all contemporary music but we were playing music from 1900 on. We would play the Debussy quartet which was 1898 and the Rivell quartet which was 1902. But then again we played a lot of Bartok and all the really known classical composers.
And of course we played Carter and Cage up until we got to the point where we were playing music that was written for us. But now that’s exclusively what the group does. There was a transition from playing what a standard quartet would play to only playing contemporary music to then playing music that was written for the group. All of this was over a long period of time.
KF: Whose decision was it to interpret Jimi Hendrix’s music?
JJ: That came about because there was a guy named Steve Rifkin. We had done a lot of his arrangements. I think it was David’s idea for him to arrange Purple Haze. And so he did an arrangement and gave us music to the piece. The cello part for instance was like quarter notes. It doesn’t sound like the bass part when you hear it. That’s a difficult thing to write out. He gave us a basic frame work. It was like listening to Hendrix, interpreting it and trying to make it sound appropriate.
KF: That was one hot recording. (Laughter) It was so brilliant. Obviously I knew the Jimi Hendrix recording but to hear it that way - the way Kronos Quartet did it - it was just amazing. To watch the group perform it as well was quite the treat.
JJ: I’m so happy you liked it.
KF: After twenty years you stepped down. What plans did you have for the rest of your career? Obviously since you left you’ve done a tremendous amount of work.
JJ: There were a number of things. I had my first episode of (MS) Multiple Sclerosis. That then made me really think about how I wanted to live my life. And Kronos is on the road six months out of the year. I knew that was probably unhealthy thing for me to continue doing. At that point Kronos was rather successful and so it was the best decision for me to step down.
I had always wanted to study more improvisation. So I dedicated more time to that. I studied with a variety of musicians in San Fransisco including Fred Frith. This then led me to composing. I knew I was interested in improvisation and electronics. The electronics helped me get into composing. An example of this is my album Strange Toys. It was like music I could play by myself but I could have more than one part.
KF: You’ve had quite a following here in New York. What memories do you have of working with musicians like John Zorn?
JJ: We worked with John Zorn a lot around that time. John wrote some really great pieces for Kronos. He really influenced us a lot as well just as far as the different kind of sound you could make with a stringed instrument.
KF: I’m very interested in your commission work. What is it like to compose for a dancer?
JJ: I’m fortunate enough to compose for several dancers in the Bay Area. I guess it starts with improvisation. I would do one thing. The dancers would do another. Then we would make a note of it and connect it to memory. We assembled the pieces that way.
KF: It’s quite remarkable the extent of work you’ve done since leaving the Kronos Quartet. Any chance to work with them again..?
JJ: I played a piece with them recently. Somebody wrote a quintet. Vladimir Martynov wrote a piece for quartet plus extra cello. That was great. I got to play with Kronos again. I hadn’t played with them for ten years.
KF: What an extraordinary career. It’s always a challenge when a member of an ensemble veers off to go solo. You’ve done well. It’s exceptional and I congratulate you whole-heartedly Joan.
JJ: Thanks Kofi. All the best to you.
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Kofi Forson is a writer, POET and PLAYWRIGHT living in NYC. His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.