Mesmerizing Contrabass Clarinet Atmospherics From John McCowen

by delarue

One of the most subtly magical atmospheric albums released in recent months is John McCowen’s Solo Contra album, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a trio of solo compositions for contrabass clarinet. McCowen is a protege of Roscoe Mitchell and has a background in punk jazz; this album brings to mind the former if not the latter. Lesley Flanigan’s experiments with speakers and audio feedback are another strong point of comparison. McCowen’s formula seems simple but is actually very technically daunting: to employ this relatively rare, low-pitched instrument to produce surrealistically oscillating, keening high textures via tireless circular breathing.

Gritty, simmering ambience rises out of a mist as the first track, Fur Korv gets underway. Valves pop delicately in the room’s tantalizing natural reverb; high harmonics build slowly and disappear in a second.

It’s amazing how many of those harmonics McCowen is able to simultaneously tease out of the horn in the second number, Chopper HD, a study in burred high frequencies. Much as the sonics often evoke a circular saw, or a loose fanwheel that could use some grease, it doesn’t appear that McCowen uses any electronic effects to make his job easier.

McCowen’s magnum opus here is the practically seventeen-minute suite Berths 1-3. Digeridoo-like spirals contrast with barely audible, breathy white noise; as the pitches grow higher and more acidically scratchy, it’s a clinic in rattle and hum, a treble counterpart to the diesel-beyond-the-bulkhead ambience of Gebhard Ullmann’s BassX3 project. This isn’t music that will hit you over the head, but you can get completely lost in it.