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Friday, April 19, 2019

John McCowen - Mundanas I-V (Edition Wandelweiser Records, 2019) ****½

By Keith Prosk

We’ve covered composer and clarinetist John McCowen’s Solo Contra and 4 Chairs in Three Dimensions, noting his awe-inspiring approach to multiphonics, dimensionality, and resonance with the clarinet family. Mundanas I-V is five compositions for two clarinets that further explore those elements, performed by McCowen and Madison Greenstone across 33 minutes. Greenstone is a promising, newer voice that appears to mostly dwell around the sphere of avant-garde classical performance for the moment and can also be heard on Morgan Evans-Weiler & Michael Pisaro’s Lines And Tracings. McCowen has doubled down on his multi-faceted mode before, with the sublime Clarinet Quartets nos. 1 & 2, which is more traditionally, beautifully musical but seems less skilled in technical performance and extended technique as well as sound engineering than this recording - it feels as if what two could do in the quartet is done by one in this duo. Additionally, McCowen has recorded a “Mundana no. 2,” appearing on HUMANA/MUNDANA, but this is a separate solo composition that is not the “Mundana II” intended for duo performance found on this recording.

The word mundana refers to Boethius’ De institutione musica, in which the Roman philosopher outlined musica instrumentalis, musica humanas, and musica mundanas. Instrumentalis refers to music as we know it, from both tools and the voice. Humanas is the unheard harmonious spiritual vibrations between people. Mundanas is the inaudible vibrations and resonances of the natural world. It makes sense then that the complex close-mic’ing to capture otherwise unheard vibrations and resonances of a vessel with wind blown through it might be closer to mundanas than instrumentalis. And this duo might be closer to two trees communicating through a mycorrhizal network than two musicians improvising with each other.

Much of “Mundana I” and “Mundana V” sounds like sine waves shifting in and out of sync, amplifying and resonating, like staring at a ceiling fan in and out of focus; this is cut by multiphonic, tense, glassy purrs that also phase in and out with each other. They are both multi-tiered, complex commentary on counterpoint and harmony, as every composition here seems. “Mundana II” switches out the synthesizer-like sound waves for an alien melody and “Mundana IV” is exotic bird calls and responses and warbles and gurgling. “Mundana III” is contrasted against the drones and dense sonic spaces of the other pieces by utilizing pronounced rests, silence, though every piece is so quiet that the steady streams of circular breathing and key clicks are part of the music. It’s more cognitive than body music, but it’s deeply resonated with my spirit. Absolutely enchanting.

Mundanas I-V is available digitally and on CD.