San Diego Union-Tribune: For Birds, Planes & Cello

by George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune

Call it pure coincidence or a happy case of musical serendipity. Either way, two of this month’s most arresting new albums feature the cello, although the manner in which it is used on Miya Masaoka and Joan Jeanrenaud’s “For Birds, Planes & Cello” is dramatically different that on Jorane’s “The You and the Now.”

The former is a wildly experimental yet beautiful instrumental opus on which the cello often plays second fiddle to the sounds of planes approaching Lindbergh Field and the sounds of more than 150 species of migratory and native birds in a Mission Hills canyon near the airport. The latter is a left-of-center pop album on which the cello and Jorane’s supple vocals are happy equals.

The common denominator between these otherwise disparate albums is the cello, a four-stringed instrument all too rarely heard outside of string quartets and symphony orchestras. Richly expressive, it can sound full-bodied or tender, earthy or ethereal, with the only limitations being the skill and imagination of the artist.

Jeanrenaud, 49, launched her solo career in 1999, after spending 20 years in the acclaimed Kronos Quartet, the daring San Francisco ensemble that explored the outer reaches of contemporary classical, avant garde and World Music. Her most recent collaboration with Masaoka, a cutting-edge composer, koto player and electronic music maverick, was on the 2003 album “Fly Fly Fly,” which also featured Larry Ochs of the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

Jorane, 29 (real name Joanne Pelletier), is also classically trained, if not yet a master of the instrument like Jeanrenaud. Jorane’s previous album, 2001’s “16mm,” was entirely instrumental. “The You and the Now,” her third release, emphasizes both her cello playing and singing. Jorane’s offbeat sensibilities are perhaps best demonstrated here by her collaboration with the Turtle Island String Quartet on a pulsating remake of Donna Summer’s 1977 disco hit “I Feel Love.”

She also shows great promise as a songwriter, whether on her own (the tango-inflected “Pour Gabrielle”), teaming with Lisa Germano (the wistful ballad “Good Luck”) or essaying “Pour Ton Souire” (“For Your Smile”), an eerie tone-poem by (and with) veteran U2/Emmylou Harris producer Daniel Lanois.

Those craving music that relies neither on words nor conventional voices to make an impact should seek out “For Birds, Planes & Cello,” an unusually subtle 54-minute composition by Masaoka. Her electronically modified koto playing is nowhere to be heard on the album, which finds her carefully mixing together the voices of dozens of birds with the roar of jet engines and Jeanrenaud’s delicate cello filligres (created specifically to match the timbre and sonic frequencies of the birds and planes, which were recorded by San Diego’s Marcos Fernandes, a mainstay of the Trummerflora collective).

This requires patient listening to appreciate, but those who take the time will marvel at how ingeniously Masaoka can challenge and change perceptions of what is, and isn’t, music. By the album’s conclusion, Jeanrenaud’s piercing extended cello techniques are almost indistinguishable from the bird calls and jet roars they accompany. It’s a potent reminder that what matters most in Masaoka’s visionary work is the whole, not the individual components, and that intriguing music may be as close as the next hillside or canyon.