Sea change

You can take the cellist out of the quartet, but you can’t take the quartet out of the cellist.

The cellist in this case is Joan Jeanrenaud, a 20-year veteran of the Kronos Quartet. Jeanrenaud left Kronos in 1999 to pursue other projects, something the quartet’s rigorous tour schedule couldn’t quite accomodate.

Jeanrenaud spent some time on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, then back in her home base of San Francisco developing what would become Metamorphosis, billed as “an evening length solo work … using projection, lighting, staging and multidimensional sound sources”.

Many of the pieces from that show appear on Jeanrenaud’s namesake debut album.

One thing from Kronos has definitely rubbed off on Jeanrenaud — the ability to program diverse works into a coherent whole.

Taken individually, the compositions on Metamorphosis are distinct. The tonality of Hamza el Din’s “Escalay” and Philip Glass’ “Metamorpohsis” share little with the electronic processing on Jeanrenaud’s own “Altar Piece” or Mark Grey’s “Blood Red”.

And yet, Jeanreanaud manages to maintain a unified mood throughout the album. All these pieces share a dark frame of mind, a lot of longing expressed spontaneously through improvisation.

In fact, improvisation — or the appearance, thereof — is the most predominant thread through the entire album. Classical music doesn’t allow much wiggle room for improvisation, which makes Metamorphosis all that more expressive.

Jeanrenaud started composing “Altar Piece” as an improvisation for cello and effects processor, while Grey’s “Blood Red” depends on a computer reacting to the cellist’s performance.

Other pieces feel improvised. Karen Tanaka’s “The Song of Songs” centers around the pitch organization for D and its harmonics but feels far more expansive than that. Of course, “Escalay” sounds like an old traditional song, transcribed for a notated performer.

That leaves Glass’ title track to ground the album to a steady pulse.

Metamorphosis could have very well been a Kronos Quartet album, and perhaps, it’s probably tighter than some of her former ensemble’s most recent concept albums. (Nuevo was great, but Caravan is barely memorable.)

While Jeanrenaud has obviously leanred a lot from her two decades in Kronos, Metamorphosis is a nice first-step into more organic expressions.