03/21/2003 11:30p ET
John Nelson - Reviewer
1999 saw the departure of Joan Jeanrenaud from the highly successful Kronos Quartet to pursue her own musical interests. Her tenure with the mighty, iconoclastic Kronos lasted twenty years. I was afraid we’d not get a recording from her for a long time as her touring takes her to Europe including performing frequently in the San Francisco Bay area. So I’m glad to say that her new release, "Metamorphosis", is a sight for sore earsok, forgive the mixed metaphor. The disc derives from her long on-stage performance oeuvre called Metamorphosis. One could look for meanings behind the title with an example being reborn or recreated after leaving Kronos and dealing with personal pain, some of which occurred several years ago.
The music on "Metamorphosis" is deeply personal with all but one of her works either written for her or arranged by her. The first work, "Cairn", is by Steven Mackey. Kronos recorded Mackey’s work "Physical Property" (a take-off on Zeppelin’s album, "Physical Graffiti") on 1993’s "Short Stories". A cairn is a small hill of rock used as a place marker or a burial landmark and was written for Jeanrenaud when her child was stillborn. "Cairn" consists of small repetitive motives with simple lines suggesting a lament. Occasional outbursts from the cello overlay the simple background tracks. I doubt that one can actually attach specific meanings of each part of the music to the tragedy, and in fact, to do so would seem somewhat maudlin. In any case, the music is thoughtfully and sparingly played with Jeanrenaud accompanying herself on several looped celli parts.
"Escalay" was written by Hamza El Din, the Sudanese oud master who is considered the modern father of Nubian music. Jeanrenaud played on his 1999 album, "A Wish", so perhaps this is no coincidence. Escalay means “water wheel,” and according to the liner notes, oxen turned the water wheel in order to irrigate the fields. A person sitting behind the oxen would “express himself according to his age in song and become hypnotized.” Indeed, the multi-tracked celli form an ostinato which, in its insistent sound could put the listener in a trance, while above it, other celli, without being pushed along, make their own dramatic statements like thoughts regained upon temporary lucidity away from the trance. As more cello lines join the ostinato, the “lead” cellos become a bit more insistent themselves but not overdramatically. As the music fades, we’re left feeling as though the music could go on forever without ever becoming tedious. The playing here is wonderful and occasionally Jeanrenaud squeezes oud-like sonorities out of her cello.
Jeanrenaud’s own composition "Altar Piece" was written after attending an exhibit of altars made by artists in remembrance of loved ones. The piece begins slowly and somewhat aimlessly with a wispy harmonic line and then kicks in with some cool-sounding guitar fuzzbox-processed cello tracks. Soon after, another cello enters with full of pain, longing, plaintively recalling, remembering. Jeanrenaud uses several recurring motives that are then varied and layered upon. Her intonation is measured except, of course, for the fuzzbox “ba-booms.”
"The Song of Songs" is a serene piece recalling the Song of Solomon and the passion held between lovers. Over a computer-generated background of gently rising and falling notes, the cello works its way through the piece singing joy and anticipation. The liner notes tell us that Karen Tanaka, the work’s composer, sought to create a sound image that would use contemporary technology to re-create the ancientness of the Old Testament love song.
Originally written for piano, Philip Glass’s "Metamorphosis Four" has been rearranged by Jeanrenaud for four celli. Even if you think you don’t like minimalism, do yourself a favor and give this a listen. Glass knows how to wring melody out of very simple lines. This music commands your attention because of its insistent nature. This music has always sounded like it could be soundtrack music for a scene where a lone woman stands looking out a window to no one while the camera tracks in an arc around her. The arrangement works surprisingly well for four celli, and Jeanrenaud’s sense of pace for this music is exemplary. Her performance is outstanding too.
"Blood Red" opens sounding like a nightmare remembrance of childhood with a sound impression of a child’s music box being recalled but the filter of memory gives the music a weird, warped, diffused far away tune and tone. A computer creates several ethereal cello tracks while the main solo cello voice plays unusual sonorities. According to the notes, the computer works “live” with the cello and judges tempi, pitches, phrases, and loudness to process music. Thus, depending how the cellist plays even the same score with slightly altered dynamisms, the overall computer effects may be different from one performance to the next. Approximately 8’15” into the work the music changes as if entering a new movement with the cello and computer effects sounding more “industrious” (as opposed to “industrial”) becoming faster paced and a little more frenetic. The music evokes images of social insects to me, working quickly and in ensemble. Jeanrenaud met Mark Grey, the work’s composer, when he worked as a sound engineer for Kronos’ recording of John Adam’s Quartet "John’s Book of Alleged Dances".
The performances throughout this disk are outstanding examples of topflight musicianship. The musicality of each piece is brought to full bore by Jeanrenaud. If you like this music, like I do, you’d also do well to search out her previous release, "Rhymes with Silver" (2000), on New Albion Records (NA110).
Copyright © 2002-2003 Matthew Rowe. All rights reserved.
Released: November 12, 2002