The Shocks That Flesh Is Heir To

26JOAN3-jumboThe Kronos Quartet was founded in 1973. They released the first of their 43 studio albums in 1979. I went looking for a copy of the rather obscure Music of Dane Rudhyar after I’d bought several of their more accessible albums, including Monk Suite: Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk; Terry Riley: Cadenza on the Night Plain; and White Man Sleeps. I’m sure I saw them perform in person at least once. I was a fan.

They were known for playing a range of music not usually associated with string quartets (“Purple Haze”, most famously) and also for wearing cool clothes on stage. They were very modern.

My interest wasn’t totally musical though. One of their members was a blonde woman, a cellist with a mellifluous name: Joan Jeanrenaud. I wondered what she was like when she wasn’t playing cello.


As these things happen, the Quartet and I eventually went our separate ways. 

Then, what should pop up yesterday on YouTube but a video of the Kronos Quartet? They were playing a piece of medieval English music: Thomas Tallis’s Spem In Alium

There was something different, however. Where there used to be a blonde woman, there was now a dark-haired man. Where was Joan Jeanrenaud?

From The New York Times in 2012:

It’s still hard to picture the ubiquitous Kronos Quartet without Joan Jeanrenaud. For 20 years there they were: three hip-nerdy guys and one willowy, glamorous woman.

Then, in what seemed eerie emulation of an early role model, the British cellist Jacqueline du Pr茅, Ms. Jeanrenaud was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She took a long-term leave, starting in 1999, that morphed into retirement from the quartet and its arduous six months of annual touring. . . .

. . . the impact of the illness has, in her case, been relatively benign. Ms. Jeanrenaud鈥檚 condition affects her legs. Du Pr茅鈥檚 began with a loss of sensitivity in her fingers, disastrous for any instrumentalist.

Jeanrenaud has had a solo career that’s included teaching, performing, recording and composition. When the Times article was written, her multiple sclerosis was under control. More recently, however, she was filmed entering a room in a wheelchair and slowly repositioning herself before beginning to play. 

Suddenly seeing her again 20 or 30 years later, dealing with partial paralysis, well, what is there to say?


Growing old sneaks up on us. But I suppose gradual is better than sudden when it comes to aging.

YouTube has Jeanrenaud’s 2008 album Strange Toys. This track is called “Waiting”.

PS: The all-American Ms. Jeanrenaud was born Joan Dutcher in Memphis, Tennessee. She attended Indiana University before studying in Europe.

G贸recki on the Turnpike, Not the Turntable

While leisurely gliding home on the聽New Jersey Turnpike this rainy afternoon, I gave up on the rock album in the CD player聽and tried the radio. Listener-sponsored, free-format rock? I don’t think so. Classic rock? Definitely not. Fortunately, Columbia University’s WKCR was聽playing something beautiful. It聽was a slow-moving work featuring聽a聽soprano and orchestra. If I’d heard聽the piece聽before, I didn’t聽remember what it was.

After 20 minutes or so, a young woman with very precise diction softly announced that we had been listening to Henryk G贸recki’s Symphony No. 3, Opus 36, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The orchestra was the London Sinfonietta and the soprano was Dawn Upshaw.

When I got home, Wikipedia kindly revealed聽that聽Henryk G贸recki was a 20th century Polish composer. He wrote the piece in 1977, but neither he nor it became famous聽until 1992 when the very recording I’d heard was released. The album went to the top of the classical charts and has now聽sold more than one million copies, “vastly exceeding the expected lifetime sales of a typical symphonic recording by a 20th-century composer”.

Regarding its surprising commercial success, Gorecki once said: “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music…. Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them”.

One interesting aspect of this story is that, although Polish critics considered it聽a masterpiece, Gorecki’s Third聽Symphony didn’t fare well at all聽when it was first heard outside Poland, at least partly聽because it was a departure from his earlier聽dissonant compositions:

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, recordings and performances of the work were widely criticised by the press outside Poland.The symphony drew hostility from critics who felt that G贸recki had moved too far away from the established avant-garde style…The world premi猫re … was reviewed by six western critics, all of them harshly dismissive. [One wrote]聽that the symphony “drags through three old folk melodies (and nothing else) for an endless 55 minutes”.聽G贸recki himself recalled that, at the premiere, he sat next to a “prominent French musician” (… probably Pierre Boulez), who, after hearing the twenty-one repetitions of an A-major chord at the end of the symphony, loudly exclaimed “Merde!”

Nevertheless, the 1992聽recording caught fire and may now be “the best selling contemporary classical record of all time”. (Maybe I’ll even buy a copy for cruising the Turnpike.)聽Since聽this is the age of Spotify and YouTube, however, a base financial transaction is no longer necessary in order to hear great music聽in the comfort of your own home:

A final note from Wikipedia: The popular success of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs “has not generated similar interest in G贸recki’s other works”. Thus, even in the world of contemporary classical music, it is possible to be a one-hit wonder.

Henryk G贸recki died in 2010 at the age of 76 in Katowice, Silesia, Poland.