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Saturday, December 7, 2019

Interview with John McCowen

John McCowan. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

By Keith Prosk

We’ve fondly reviewed clarinetist and composer John McCowen’s Solo Contra, 4 Chairs In Three Dimensions, and Mundanas I-V. With his nuanced approach to the multiphonics of the clarinet family, he’s surely one of the most exciting players to have developed in the past decade. Here, we touch on the thought behind his music, where he’s coming from, and where he’s going.

K: One aspect of your work is exploring the “dimensionality” of the clarinet. I interpret this as anything from multiphonics from a solo clarinet, to using clarinets in duo or quartet, to cataloging the techniques and timbres of the clarinet. Maybe the physicality of it too, from how air and sound physically acts at a certain point on or in the instrument to interactions with the environment and resonances. What do you actually mean by this? And why choose the clarinet?

J: You're pretty dead on. I use "dimensionality" to describe the layers of sound and the interactions between those layers. An aspect of this type of playing that I love is those interactions(which include beating patterns and pitch fluctuation), and how they vary depending on air pressure. I guess these are common aspects of what can be considered drone music.

I chose the clarinet because I was a saxophone player with an amazing clarinet teacher, Eric Mandat. I didn't feel I had a distinct voice on the saxophone, and my attitude was pretty set in thinking the ground had all been paved in regards to the sax. But as Eric opened me up to the possibilities and I kept experimenting, I found my own voice and saw a lot of possibilities. Everyone reading this should check out the music of Eric Mandat. My approach is directly related to his. His work is extremely deep and unique. He's influenced me greatly.

K: A decent chunk of Mandat's work focuses on clarinet duos, trios and so on up to sextets, a path that you appear to be following at this point. I'm guessing this is primarily to create layers that are physically difficult or impossible for one player to create simultaneously, opening up new possibilities for layer interactions. But is there something else Mandat is trying to achieve with these ensembles? Is there something else that you're trying to achieve with these ensembles? And do you think you'll compose for clarinet ensembles and solo clarinet for some time, or are you already thinking of incorporating other instruments in the near future?

J: I’ve been most influenced by Mandat’s solo music, pieces like The Jungle, Illinois Central, and Chiral Symmetries.

I’m always trying to expand the layers one clarinet can create. That’s my main focus. But my duo music for instance, was due to the limitations of one instrument as well as ideas of counterpoint in that style.

I’ve mainly composed for clarinet due to my immediate access to the instrument. But I don’t have any interest in being a “clarinet composer” exclusively. I’ve written works that don’t involve the instrument and I am working on music for chamber situations. I’m also trying to hear what a working group for my music would be like. I just try to follow what I’m hearing.

K: Beyond mentioning the dimensionality of the clarinet, you've also likened it to an acoustic synthesizer. Some of your work does sound like the undulating sine waves of early analog synths, but is there another meaning there?

J: The acoustic synthesizer is essentially a polyphonic tube based on the interactions of a fundamental and it’s partials. “Dimensionality” is a descriptor of these relationships. This is essentially additive synthesis within a tube controlled by air pressure. The relationships between partials can create combination tones, etc. I’m way into it.

K: Ah, OK. But just to drive the point home and clarify for both me and our readers, you can play a tone (a fundamental) with overtones (it's partials) and the waveforms of those overtones interact to produce new waveforms (combination tones, etc.), which is the definition of synthesis (an aspect of dimensionality). I was hung up on the image of a Roland TR or something, but now I'm thinking any polyphonic instrument can be a synthesizer.

It's my understanding that partials and their interactions become more difficult and eventually impossible to hear or consciously sense. But, of course, they're still occurring and interacting. Is this where your use of Boethius' musical classifications comes in, with some of your work referring to musica humana and mundana, which I understand to refer to the unsounded yet felt vibrational harmony between humans and the unheard vibrations of the natural world respectively? Or is there another reason that you refer to this classification system?

J: I should clarify that this begins with multiphonic playing. This phenomenon occurs when the air is allowed more than one exit point in the tube, then through air speed and pressure, air can be guided through multiple exit points. I’m referring to a multiphonic as having a fundamental and proceeding partials (aka harmonics, overtones). Due to the long tube of the contrabass clarinet, the ability to create dense and multifaceted multiphonics is increased. The partials I can access only go up into the 20s or 30s at most. Which isn’t really that high because the clarinet, due to it being a cylinder, only has access to odd harmonics. But the most partials I can access simultaneously is around 5-6, but this is only a few, more commonly 2-3.

My interest in the concepts of Boethius doesn’t go beyond audible sound, really. It has more to do with my interest in what may constitute “music of the spheres” or “human music”. I’m very interested in sounds that have nothing to do with human creation. For instance, those videos on YouTube of what are supposedly the sounds of tectonic plates moving that sound like brass from the gates of hell. But also the idea of “human music” as sounds from the industrialized world, like the spectral drones of U.S. muscle cars from the mid-20th century.

K: That's super interesting. I feel like I would characterize the car as an instrument. And that human music comes from the body, like what a body communicates to an audience with a rapid or a resting pulse, a heavy or a light footfall, a yawn, a sigh, a laugh, grinding teeth (for audible examples) - the dynamics of our movement. Imagining what music of the spheres could be leads you down interesting paths for sure; since we talked about waveforms, I'm currently imagining the "compositions" that the earth writes, like a tsunami wave from a marine earthquake, when a terrestrial earthquake writes its waves on the surface or in a fence, how a river becomes increasingly sinusoidal as it approaches the coast, or the ripples of a tidal flat preserved in rock, for instance.

Since you've mentioned tectonics and Eric Mandat, I'll mention that I actually attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which is your hometown, for some graduate work in geology (never finished though). Beyond the mentorship of Mandat, does your music reflect southern Illinois or your experience there in any way? The geography, culture, climate, history, people, etc?

J: Oh whoa! Such a small world. Go Salukis.

Being from Southern Illinois is a big influence for me. I had a lot of space and time to develop. Most people think of Illinois as corn fields, and for suuuure we have those. But, we also have the Shawnee National Forest.

Carbondale had a bustling DIY scene the whole time I lived there. It was a regular touring stop for a lot of bands from all over. So, the scene I came out of was DIY eccentrics improvising and playing in bands. I booked a regular improv series there for a year or so. Which was groups of all local musicians doing free improv. The local radio station had a DJ named Dave X, who also booked a regular noise/improv festival. He also had a weekly 4am-6am slot where he played noise, improv, field recordings, etc. A good number of musicians I grew up with there have continued to develop awesome work to this day.

K: Unfortunately, I never visited Shawnee or the other parks and forests in the area but I spent some time paddling the beautiful lakes there. And I wasn't even aware of this kind of music when I was there, but it sounds like a rich scene.

I understand you started as a vocalist in that scene. Do you carry your experience as a vocalist over to your clarinet technique in any way, or have any interest in doing so? Like through non-traditional embouchures (something like Nate Wooley's Syllables comes to mind) or speaking/sounding through the instrument (for example Josh Sinton's krasa). Or do you have any interest in composing for vocalists in the future?

J: Yeah I started out as a vocalist in a hardcore band. I did that for maybe four years? I feel like the main lessons I took away from that time are the dangers of being egocentric. After that period I became a quieter person and wanted to focus on wind playing. Which was a less painful way to express myself. I heard Albert Ayler and didn’t see much difference between what he was doing and what I was doing in a punk band. But even when I was a vocalist, I was listening to a lot of late John Coltrane and Sun Ra. I think I was just interested in extreme music no matter what the style.

I don’t really see that vocal style influencing the playing I do now. I don’t use that vocalizing-while-playing style of multiphonic, either.

I have composed for vocalists in the past, but I currently don’t have any plans to do. But I am interested in the voice for sure; whether it’s madrigals, modern auto-tuned pop, or what Charmaine Lee is developing.

K: I'll have to check out Lee, I haven't listened to her before.

Beyond Lee, Mandat, Ayler, Coltrane, and Sun Ra, are there any musicians or specific recordings or performances that have particularly inspired your work, especially recently? And beyond what you've mentioned about southern Illinois, anything outside of music and sound that has inspired your work, especially recently?

J: A lot of recordings by the late recorder player, Frans Brüggen. Especially his recordings of the Handel Recorder Sonatas and Jacob Van Eyck's Der Fluyten Lust-hof.

Besides that, seeing live music is incredibly inspiring for me. A good performance leaves me focused and inspired for days.

As far as influence goes, I have to give respect to Roscoe Mitchell. He was an equivalent mentor just like Eric Mandat. Roscoe really helped me clarify what I was trying to do. He’s a true master of structure and form.

Others that have really influenced me is the glacial patience and development of Elaine Radigue, and the work ethic of athletes like Steph Curry and Kobe Bryant.

K: I've been spending some time with Radigue's Occam Ocean 1 & 2 recordings lately (and saw Nate Wooley perform his occam earlier this year). It's an absolutely breathtaking project, and I particularly enjoy the focus on the individuality of the performers and their technique. And you studied with Mitchell while attending Mills College. Between her legacy with the school and collaborations with Radigue, I feel like there's a connection to Pauline Oliveros somewhere...
But I suppose my final official question is, who are you rooting for in the 2019-2020 NBA season?

J: Oh, for sure. Pauline has also been an influential person. I had the privilege of taking a few classes with her. I’m a huge fan of the early electronic music she did (like II of V, etc) while in Toronto.
Hah! As far as basketball goes, I mean, I was living in Oakland during the reign of the Warriors, and now I live in Brooklyn and the Nets have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Deandre Jordan. But I’m also rooting for teams like the Clippers and the Trailblazers. Just anyone but the Lakers, really. I just wish tickets to NBA games were cheaper.

K: The Nets certainly have the capacity to blow up. And all those western conference teams are looking great - they all have ex-Spurs talent on them ;)

Thank you so much for your time, John!