Joan Jeanrenaud, Cellist, Composer

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Former Rhode Island Street resident, Joan Jeanrenaud, fondly remembers her days practicing and recording cello in what she called the “Darth Vader” house.

“It was an all-black house covered with black asphalt shingles…a black metal fireplace exposed in the front…two studios in the back. I rehearsed there for hours,” said Jeanrenaud.

Jeanrenaud, who lived in Potrero Hill from 1989 until 1992, is a cellist, composer, and, between 1978 and 1999, a member of the Kronos Quartet, a rotating group of four string musicians. The group, which formed in 1973, is known for performing avant-garde pieces and working with a variety of composers. Jeanrenaud played with other long-running instrumentalists in the company’s history, David Harrington and John Sherba on violin and Hank Dutt on viola. 

Today, Jeanrenaud lives and teaches in Bernal Heights, and occasionally performs at The Marsh on Valencia Street. The Hill remains one of her favorite San Francisco neighborhoods. 

“It has incredible views and many great small businesses, including Goat Hill Pizza, Christopher’s Books, and The Good Life Grocery,” said Jeanrenaud.

Jeanrenaud began her musical training at age 11 in Memphis, Tennessee. 

“I started out on the full-size cello, which was unusual for a child. But even back then I was pretty tall. I’m 5’10”,” said Jeanrenaud.

At age 12, Jeanrenaud began studying with cellist Peter Spurbeck, who taught at Memphis State University. Later, she earned a Bachelor of Music at Indiana University. After graduating college, she studied in Geneva for a year under French cellist Pierre Fournier. 

“In fall 1978 I came to the Bay Area to audition for Kronos Quartet… (which) had just secured a residency at Mills College. (Kronos) started in Seattle in 1973, (did a) residency in SUNY Geneseo for two years, and came to San Francisco in 1977,” said Jeanrenaud. 

Jeanrenaud said Kronos initially played classical and contemporary music. Two years after she joined, the group decided to perform only music by contemporary composers. 

“It was a revolutionary thing back then. You used to have to play a classical piece to get an audience. One of the ways we started teaching people about modern works was by getting a California Arts Council grant,” said Jeanrenaud. 

In its early years in Seattle, Kronos created the Kronos Performing Arts Association, a nonprofit organization that allowed the quartet to receive grants for appearing at educational institutions. According to Jeanrenaud, Kronos traveled throughout the West Coast playing and teaching, packing Dutt’s Toyota Corolla with their instruments. 

“We didn’t make much money at all in the beginning. But once people heard us, they were very likely to hire us again,” said Jeanrenaud. “People were not used to hearing works they had never heard before. We introduced a lot of new ideas to them. Kronos allowed people to make up their own minds.” 

The Kronos Quartet played many venues in the City, including the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony, and the Great American Music Hall. In 1999, Jeanrenaud left Kronos after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She wanted to focus on composing. 

“I studied jazz in Indiana (under) David Baker, a trombonist and jazz composer at Indiana University. When I first moved to San Francisco, I took lessons from Joe Henderson, the jazz tenor saxophonist. Then I stopped studying with Joe because the Kronos schedule was too busy. Later, composing became a nice sidestep into my solo career,” said Jeanrenaud. 

Jeanrenaud initially began composing with a looper, an electronic tool for creating music loops. 

“I always gravitate toward low-sounding instruments. I love deep tones,” said Jeanrenaud. 

In 2001, Jeanrenaud released her first solo compact disc, “Metamorphosis.” She issued a second solo CD, “Strange Toys,” in 2008, which was nominated for a Grammy. 

“I wrote a lot of the pieces for myself. I gradually developed my skills,” said Jeanrenaud.

As Jeanrenaud learned more about composition, she began writing pieces for Bay Area dancers and dance companies, including Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company, and ODC/Dance Company, based in the City. 

“I got away from the looper and started incorporating nature sounds into my work. I composed environmental pieces with the sounds of crickets and water, and performance art pieces. My stuff is pretty easy to listen to. It’s very tonal and rhythmic,” said Jeanrenaud.

Jeanrenaud now teaches five students, who range in age from a young girl to a 70-year old man. 

“One of my students plays a Korean string instrument called a “haegeum.” Although she’s not a cellist, I like teaching her because a lot of things are similar between her instrument and a cello,” said Jeanrenaud.

Jeanrenaud said one of her favorite things to teach is extended technique; how to play alternative sounds on an instrument. In string instruments, extended technique includes bowing the instrument’s body, plucking the strings, and “chewing,” loosening the bow hair and placing the bow, bow hair side up, against the back of the instrument. 

“I especially like using a string instrument as a percussion instrument. You can tap on it in different places. There’s thousands of different ways to make music on a cello,” said Jeanrenaud.

Jeanrenaud advises beginning musicians to remain open to a wide range of sounds and experiences. 

“I’ve played a cello made of ice and that went well. I don’t create only a narrow little space of what I like. I leave myself open. That helped me define myself. I developed a preference of what I like to play,” said Jeanrenaud. “When I was performing, I paid attention to how performers executed the piece. When I started composing, I started listening to what I really liked about the piece.” 

Jeanrenaud also advised students to find good teachers. 

“My teachers gave me a lot of technical information. When you learn how to play well, you’re not restricted. Developing musical skills opens you up to do a lot, more than you thought possible at first,” said Jeanrenaud.