Joan Jeanrenaud: A Fourth Approach to Performing Music

A Fourth Approach to Performing Music: Excerpt #08

FRANK J. OTERI: You said that you took a movement class this morning. One of the things that we tend to be so hush-hush about in music is its physical nature. We say music is artistic, and we often don’t look at it as a physical process and in many it’s analogous to Olympic level athletics. You can’t win a piano competition from just interpretive skill; you also need the physical stamina to go through that process. Certainly you were involved with playing probably the most physically grueling pieces of music ever written, the Feldman Second String Quartet. What was that like?

JOAN JEANRENAUD: You know it was a great experience because of Morton. Kronos knew Morton pretty well because we had played his First String Quartet, which was only 90 minutes long! We worked with him on it. So then when his Second String Quartet came along, he called us up and said, and apparently there was a group that was going to play it and they broke up over trying to learn this piece. So Morton said, “Oh there’s this piece that would be interesting if you’d guys would play it, it’s a little longer than the last one.” So Morton sends us the score, and it’s 124 pages. So we started looking at it, and was Morton’s music, and seemed really beautiful. Then one day we said, “You know, this seems a lot longer than a couple hours. Why don’t we play 20 pages and time it and see how long it is. It was an hour long. So then we realized this piece was going to be 4-5 hours long, and we called Morton and told him that. And I think Morton probably knew all along, but the initial performance of that piece was in Canada, and was being broadcast on CBC, and the concert started at 8, and the national anthem was going to go on at midnight no matter what, so we said to Morton, unless you want your piece cut off by the national anthem, we should make sure it’s going to be 4 hours. So Morton made a bunch of cuts, which were basically repeats that he took out. So for the first performance it was just under 4 hours. But Hank and I had timers on our stands so we knew how we were doing so we could speed it up sometimes. So it worked out really well, and we played it that way and called it our 4-hour version. There was a performance that was more than 4 hours, probably 5 or 4 1/2 or something like that. But then, we when we first did that piece, we were pretty young, we were in our 20s. It came up again a few years ago…

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, for the Lincoln Center Festival, I was going to go to that…

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Well they came up and they asked us to do it and there was a big discussion in the group because Hank has the hardest time, and it makes sense. He’s got the heaviest instrument to hold up.

FRANK J. OTERI: You never remove the bow.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: You never even have a chance to put the instrument down. That’s the problem. And it’s really, really soft, so you can’t relax into your instrument, you have to hold the bow up. For me it’s probably the easiest just because I think it is an easier position. So there was a big discussion about whether we should do it or not, but then we said O.K. We’ll try it. And then we started rehearsing it, and I think it became really clear to everyone that we could have substantial damage as far as things like tendonitis. Then of course if you get tendonitis it takes a whole year to recover, and you can’t play at all. So then it didn’t seem like the right thing to do at that time. But I think we probably could have done it when we were younger, but there were other circumstances.

FRANK J. OTERI: I know the Flux Quartet finally did a New York performance, which I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend, so I’ve never heard this thing.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: I never found out how long their performance was.

FRANK J. OTERI: Apparently it was a zany free-for-all with people walking in and out, and it was at Cooper Union where every sound you make, even a pin drop, you can hear, which really destroys the sanctity of quiet music like his.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Even though that always happened when we played that piece, the people come and go which I always kind of like because you know, there could be somebody in the front row and after a couple of hours they might get up and leave, and then somebody else would come down and sit in the front row. People would go, and they’d come back.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting because his music is really made more for recordings than concerts.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: I think it’s the best way to hear it.

FRANK J. OTERI: It really is because it’s so quiet. And I’d even go as far as to say, and I’m a vinyl junkie, it’s music for CDs. It really really is.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Because you can make it sound beautiful.

FRANK J. OTERI: The reason why I bought a CD player was to hear Piano and String Quartet.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Yeah, it’s a great piece.

FRANK J. OTERI: I had a collection of about 25 CDs at this point in my office but I didn’t have a CD player at home. I was a vinyl nut. Finally, I couldn’t listen this piece in the office, I really needed to be home to experience this, so I went out and bought a CD player for this piece.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: That was the piece to do it for!

FRANK J. OTERI: I think so. And it still is one of my favorite pieces of his. I know that there are plans to record the Second String Quartet, I think a quartet based in Germany is doing it.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: I always thought that would be a great idea.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you guys never recorded it.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: No, and I was really sorry that we didn’t. I always wanted to record that piece. But you know Kronos has a lot of material, and there’s no way you can record it all. I mean finally there was so much material coming in that there was no way we could perform it all. So you have to make some sort of choice, and it doesn’t really mean that, it’s not making a judgment on a piece whether we play or not, or whether we record it or not, it’s a matter of setting priorities sometimes. That’s one of the things we talked about but never got done, and I’m sorry it didn’t happen.

FRANK J. OTERI: This brings us back to what we were saying earlier, this whole notion of collaborating with the composer, in a weird kind of way, and not to knock down Feldman, this is the kind of piece that really wasn’t created with any sense of what the performers need to do.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Oh no.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s the kind of thing where you wonder what would have happened if the performers were working closely with the composer. Maybe it would be a different situation.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Um, I don’t know.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, because he might have done what he wanted to do no matter what. I’m thinking of the Reich Octet which is now called Eight Lines because he realized that it was physically impossible for just eight people to maintain that. There are now other people waiting in the wings to take over…

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: And maybe that’s the way to do the Feldman String Quartet, with eight people, and change off so you don’t have that carpal tunnel potential.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Yeah. That may be. We were even trying to figure out, you know, if we could have bungee cords hanging that would be attached to your arms so you wouldn’t be holding up as much. We thought of things like that. But then, that makes it a really big project so it never got to that point. But trading off performers, there’s something of Reich’s, oh 18 Musicians

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh that’s amazing to watch.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: It is. And I thought it’s so wonderful visually and of course musically it makes a lot of sense. But of course I’m kind of a purist when I think of a quartet, and I thought well, you’d be able to hear the difference in sound.

FRANK J. OTERI: Although with Reich, the two pieces he’s written for quartet thus far are really triple quartets.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Yeah, then that’s different. It’s like the bigger you get, in some ways it actually can get better if you have different players because those little difference make it sound better.

FRANK J. OTERI: I recently heard a performance of Vermont Counterpoint live with 11 flutists which was really cool. It was hard for them to stay together at times, it was not conducted, but it was really great anyway. I have a whole new appreciation for that piece. I’ve always loved it, but seeing the physical process and hearing what could happen was magical.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Exactly, even though you hear it and it’s an interesting experience on CD, really there’s so much stuff that it’s really great when the whole experience is there. But I guess that’s kind of what I’m interested in now, even the whole multi-media thing is really just so that it creates this total experience instead of just a sonic one, it’s visual, it’s everything, hopefully.

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