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John McCowen: Solo Contra

Daniel Barbiero By

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John McCowen's Solo Contra presents an EP-length, finely-sketched portrait of a rarely heard instrument: the contrabass clarinet. It also marks the most recent stage in an eclectic path through music that's taken him from the extremes of raw energy to the subtleties of timbral micro soundworlds.

After having been involved with hardcore punk as a vocalist, McCowen took up saxophone and flute, subsequently studying bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet with Eric Mandat at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. McCowen then went to Mills College in Oakland, where from 2014-2017 he studied with Roscoe Mitchell. The three sound essays that make up Solo Contra were recorded in July, 2017.

From its feedback-like opening through passages of buzzing sounds recalling a cross between a cicada and a saw going through wood, to its dynamically aggressive finale, Solo Contra is a timbrally sophisticated examination of the unconventionally-played contrabass clarinet, all done with purely acoustic means. Over the course of its 28 minutes, McCowen explores a well-developed repertoire of extended techniques to create rich overtones, astringent multiphonics, and sustained drones. Breath is the crucial hinge on which all of these phenomena turn. The pattern of McCowen's breathing forms the resulting sounds with a plasticity that extends and circumscribes them and, as with the most effective acoustic timbre music, creates a sense of audio space as something palpable and encompassing. For the recording, McCowen used multiple microphones to pick up sounds from all over the instrument; these sonic reminders of the physical realities of the mechanical workings of the contrabass clarinet and the effort of the performer serve to anchor the performances.

Track Listing: Fur Korv; Chopper HD; Berths 1-3.

Personnel: John McCowen: contrabass clarinet.

Title: Solo Contra | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: International Anthem


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