The Way I Play: Joan Jeanrenaud — Rich Pickings

Interview by Laurinel Owen

The Strad, June 2004 Vol. 115 No. 1370 page 596

Joan Jeanrenaud on pizzicato, a rarely analyzed technique that is so vital in modern repertory

Most of us learned our instruments playing works written before the Twentieth Century. However, composers of the last 50 years or so have developed expanded tonal palettes that require string players to use techniques that go far beyond the ability to simply play in tune with a beautiful sound in 4/4 meter. We have to strike, strum and drum the instrument, stroke, tap and rap with the wood of the bow, play behind the bridge, use electronic devices, and accompany computers all while counting like mad. When approaching contemporary music it is easy for the uninitiated to think, “this is loud and weird”, but in fact, you have been given a chance to open a toolbox containing more tools. Through the process of analyzing you will find effectiveness and beauty. A classical background shouldn’t scare you off – but should give you the best foundation in which to listen with open ears and explore the sound world of your instrument.

A common example of the “extended” techniques required in avant-garde music is pizzicato. Many cellists feel that pizzicato is simply plucking the string and give little thought as to how to pluck. Within the musical context, however, there can be a great variety of reasons why pizzicato is used and, therefore, we need to find different ways to pluck. I like to think that we have the ability produce as many colors in pizzicato as we can in arco where we use bow speed, pressure and placement to create infinite variation.

During my years with the Kronos Quartet I was introduced to the vast diversity of sounds possible on our instrument. This includes pizzicato. For instance, one of the choices you have is where on the string you pluck. Most often we pluck between the fingerboard and bridge, but there are other options such as plucking close to the bridge to get a tight non-resonating sound or up on the fingerboard for a softer, more ringing tone. I’ve even pizzed in the peg box and behind the bridge. You will discover that through expanding your musical vision you can pluck anywhere.

Next consider how you will pluck: pull the string to one side or the other, lift up, or push down. Bass players use a lot of pizz and during Kronos’ work recording several jazz CDs Eddie Gomez and Ron Carter, both terrific bass players, I learned how to get their sound. The cello is so closely related to the bass that I have often tried, within the string quartet, to imitate their role – that of the rhythm section. To sound like a bass I learned to pull the string to the right with the index or middle finger.

I also realized you can use your thumb, 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th finger to pluck as well as different parts of the finger. Flesh can be used to our advantage, but don’t discount the nails. Penderecki’s first string quartet, though only six minutes long, is like a dictionary of extended techniques and uses a lot of nail pizzicato. Be careful, you can pull the nail off! Sometimes a paperclip or some sort of pick will be asked for, but there is not always enough time to grab one. I remember that Hank, Kronos’s violist, after much experimenting, used a credit card to pluck. Sometimes, if the composer realizes the technique is physically impossible, he might find a solution like changing the notation to col legno batuto. Of course, some players don’t want to hit their bows on the strings, so pencils can be used instead.

Alternating two fingers on the right hand like a guitarist allows for much faster pizzicato. This can work especially well with string crossings.  Practice the passage without the left hand using only the right hand, but playing on the correct string with the finger pattern you have decided on. This simplification will allow you to concentrate on one problem at a time.

Hamza El Din, an Egyptian composer and oud player, wrote a piece “Escalay” that one of his students transcribed for the quartet. My part was mostly pizzicato, but I couldn’t get the right effect – I wanted it to sound more like an oud (a plucked instrument with sympathetic strings). I tried all types of strumming, then left and right hand plucking. If you alternate between hands there seems to be more movement in the sound.

The American composer John Zorn wrote “Cat o’ Nine Tails” that was composed on 26 index cards. Each card was a completely different type of music. One of these cards was a one octave C major scale that was supposed to sound like someone stomping up stairs. In this case, I had to find a perfect place to pluck on the cello to make the music sound like someone pounding up steps: the pizzicato had to evoke an image. I went near the bridge for a tight, loud sound. In the same piece I had a Jack-in-the-box pizzicato, which was the doll boinging out of the box. Here I used lots of vibrato. You have to rely on your ear to decide just how much vibrato. There are infinite variations. (I will never forget the first time I heard the La Salle Quartet play Schönberg. Jack Kirstein’s fast wide vibrato on the C string was so moving that I worked on changing my vibrato.)

Another technique we used a lot was tremolo pizzicato, which creates a shimmery sound. I had to practice moving my finger back and forth really fast while staying right on one spot. The sound is very soft, but interesting because moving from right to left the nail hits the string.

Over the years I developed many calluses playing certain works. Worse were the blisters, especially when we rehearsed passages over and over while the others played arco. Before you know it your fingers are bleeding. I learned a great trick from an Italian army officer of taking a needle and thread then passing it through the blister leaving the thread behind, which allows the blister to drain.

Finally, a word about amplification. Since Kronos’s work with Steve Reich that involved playing with pre-recorded tapes they always perform amplified, which can make certain things like being heard in pizzicato easier, however, this takes great care. The Concertgebau, for example, doesn’t need much, but we played in some real barns. For pizzicato to be heard by 1000 people we found we needed amplification and never traveled without our sound engineer. Musical intention is the point and through experimentation you will find the colors and variety of tone are endless.

During her 20 years with Kronos Joan Jeanrenaud worked with hundreds of composers, performing more than 2000 concerts around the world and making over 30 recordings. In 1999 she left the quartet to pursue a solo career. Her most recent recording, metamorphosis, was released by New Albion Records. See for further information.

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