In 1998, after two decades and 30 albums with Kronos Quartet, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud left contemporary classical music’s most popular and daring combo to forge her own path as a composer-improviser. Her second solo recording, Strange Toys, provides stunning proof of her commitment to both innovation and accessibility.
As she writes in the liner notes, the central concept at work on this follow-up to 2002′s extraordinary Metamorphosis (New Albion) is the artist’s desire “to become an ensemble of players, though playing all the parts myself.” Thus, many of the tracks feature Jeanrenaud overdubbing syncopated four-string phrases in the studio, or looping them electronically and performing multiple lines simultaneously, until a richly layered, organic sound evolves.
A spacious quality pervades even the most dense sections on this recording, which makes it easy to hear how each strand of the music weaves together. For example, “Kaleidoscope,” a plucky two-minute vignette, overlays a dramatic arco melody on top of a staccato riff and a fresh electro-beat; while the solemn 13-minute epic, “Transition,” creates a lush darkness filled with contrapuntal lines from a string quartet of dueling cellos and violas.
Equally engaging is how the selections arise from a variety of launch pads. “Tug of War” builds mightily from a hypnotic drone; “Axis” plays off a fascinating cyclic motif, amplified by a subtle yet persistent echo; and “Ink Blot” mixes simple, bouncy lines with sweeping bowed overtones that compel attention from the first to last notes.
Jeanrenaud never sacrifices enjoyment for purely academic invention, which explains why she’s the avant-garde cellist who will most likely appeal to the widest audience.
- Sam Prestianni