John McCowen shares his research on the contrabass clarinet with a riveting new solo album | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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John McCowen shares his research on the contrabass clarinet with a riveting new solo album


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Although clarinetist John McCowen is a founding member of the Chicago art-rock band Wei Zhongle, I only encountered his playing long after he moved to California for graduate studies at Mills College. Earlier this year his contributions to a tape by the Vibrating Skull Trio knocked me out; his overblown lines push things into the red and pulse with intense energy. I’m even more impressed after hearing the stunning new Solo Contra (International Anthem), a deep dive into the microscopic qualities of the contrabass clarinet. McCowen’s playing on the recording is purely acoustic, but he employed 13 microphones on his instrument to pick up every minuscule sound, key clack, and breath (an approach reminiscent of what reedist Colin Stetson does in a more pop-oriented direction). Over three extended pieces, his striated long tones glisten with sour harmonics, cavernous overtones, and breath surges that make the music expand and contract in visceral waves. On “Chopper HD” the upper-register squawks weave in and out of a low-pitched drone like live wire spasming on the ground, while “Berths 1-3” is a gritty exercise in dynamics with wild swings in density and harmonic effects that make it sound like he’s sitting behind a bank of electronics instead of an unwieldy reed instrument. The results are unabashedly exploratory, and McCowen engages in his investigation of sound with a natural sense of flow that keeps pulling me back in. He’ll play music from the album as part of an International Anthem in-store, which also features a set by Ben Lamar Gay with video artist Kim Alpert and a screening of an animation created by Damon Locks for Alien Flower Sutra, the project of Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly.   v

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