By the time he started pursuing a formal education in the avant-garde, John McCowen had already traversed to both ends of the spectrum of rock popularity. During the 2000s, he was singing and screaming in hardcore bands at house shows around his native Carbondale, Illinois. Then, in 2009, he was playing flute and sax in the band Tweak Bird—endowing their ragged sludge punk with jazzy sensibility, a stylistic crossover rarely heard in the genre—while they galvanized arena-sized audiences before Tool got ready to take the stage. From suburban basements to sharing a backstage with one of the most schismatic bands in the world, this range made McCowen’s next career chapter read as quite surprising in comparison. However, going to music school turned out to be more of a practical decision than, on the surface, an unprecedented one: he was a self-taught player and didn’t know how to keep advancing, so he went off to college.
McCowen would eventually refine his approach to clarinet in the same music department where composers like Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, and Holly Herndon once studied. Over the phone, McCowen described Mills College as a destination that was “like the promised land for me.” When he found jazz saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell—one of his biggest heroes, and under whom he eventually studied—listed on their faculty page, “I was like: Jackpot.” For him, Mills was propitious for unconstrained creative evolution, whereas Southern Illinois University Carbondale back home, whose music grad program he attended prior to Mills, leaned conservative regarding experimental methodologies. He found that SIU was “a state school where half the faculty members think you’re bullshit.”
However, McCowen had gotten to know musical porousness back in Carbondale, despite the contemptuous attitudes he encountered at SIU. The clarinetist’s stint in the band Wei Zhongle, now based in Chicago but originally from Carbondale, served as a nexus for his most familiar contexts: the formal performance settings for avant-garde classical, with the informal spaces of DIY/local music culture. The band is headed by guitarist/vocalist Rob Jacobs, with whom McCowen first connected in his Illinois hometown. “The main composer, Rob Jacobs, who writes all the music, was classically trained on violin as a child—that technique is embedded in him—and then as a teenager, like most teenagers do, he tried to really break away from that, like, ‘Fuck that shit.’ When Rob and I became friends, I was the opposite magnetically, where I grew up in DIY music saying ‘Fuck that shit,’ I flipped and was interested in technique and classical music.”
McCowen, Jacobs, and drummer Sam Klickner all knew each other from Carbondale proper, but they spent varying amounts of time on the SIU campus, McCowen the most out of the three. One night they were performing Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” together in an SIU-affiliated student ensemble; the next night, playing in a basement somewhere as Wei Zhongle.
The band has gone through five different lineups; McCowen was part of the first four. He played on the 2018 album “The Operators,” which came out just as the band was transitioning into their fifth iteration. The sound of Jacobs and his players has been in constant flux since their 2012 self-titled debut under this name—before that he put out an album under The Rob Jacobs Ensemble, featuring McCowen—but their sonic mutations have always taken place within the same sort of avant-rock laboratory. Their aesthetic compatriots are Horse Lords and Cloud Becomes Your Hand, with whom they’ve played shows on separate occasions. Medieval classical and traditional Chinese court music have remained important cues for Jacobs since his project’s inception, but “The Operators” veers poppier than past releases, uniting jangly, surfy melodicism with disorienting guitar work highly reminiscent of groundbreaking British rock experimentalists This Heat.
Regardless of whichever clear-cut musical “culture” he found himself within, whether it was DIY or classical, McCowen has recurrently noticed two types of community members: those who are “open about shit and others that are dogmatic and closed-off,” he wrote to me a few days after our phone call. “So, I’m preaching the side of being open about things, because that’s the only way things are going to get exciting in whatever people are doing.”
He continued, “A moment I’ll never forget was a few years back, I heard a self-proclaimed punk say ‘FUCK MUSIC STANDS.’ What an amazingly vulnerable moment disguised as strength, ya know? It’s not that different than seeing a chihuahua show its teeth to a pit bull, ya know? I’ve had classical musicians (and professors) tell me that what I do isn’t music. That kind of response should only motivate someone to keep doing what they’re doing—because you just really fucked with someone’s head. That should let you know that there is something important going on—but also stay humble about your work. Just stay open about things and be honest with yourself.”
On the side, McCowen was developing his own repertoire. After Mills, he decided to settle down in the Oakland area and began working on solo as well as duo clarinet pieces. He’s almost done with an album of the latter kind, five pieces with Madison Greenstone of Switch~ Ensemble, and four of them are already recorded. The first two he wrote in Oakland, the second two while he was a resident artist at Lijiang Studio in Hainan, China; the fifth and final duo will be a longer piece that comprises the second half of the record. McCowen is grateful for having crossed paths with Greenstone. “We just clicked super hard, where she can play my music like it’s no one’s business,” he said. “So we recorded the first four [duos] in San Francisco and hung out a lot; we just work well together.”
Now that he’s not in Wei Zhongle anymore and newly relocated to New York City (at the time of our phone call he’d only been living there for around two weeks), McCowen has ample time to pursue his own music. In addition to his collaboration with Greenstone, he has another solo album coming out in May on Astral Spirit Records, and is currently working on yet another one.
McCowen’s most recent clarinet album, “Solo Contra” (2017), hears his concentration in excavating crazy timbres and frequencies from places where sound isn’t otherwise expected to manifest. At one point, McCowen was wondering whether audience members could discern much beyond his clarinet’s singular high tone. As the player in closest contact with his instrument, McCowen hears beating tones, substantial low-end, sharp harmonics, and other aural shapes that cannot register beyond himself (which is why he now incorporates amplification into his live setup). Icelandic composer Úlfur Hansson, a friend from Mills, was interning at Figure Eight studios in New York and he invited McCowen over from the West Coast; together they figured out how to translate the stage to recording.
Michael Coleman, along with Hansson, functioned as producers/engineers. At first the three of them were pretty cautious in terms of how many microphones they chose to place around the studio space and where, but they weren’t able to capture the precise multitude of tones. “After a while, due to frustration, it was like, ‘Just mic it everywhere.’ ” A maximalist setup of 13 mics, scattered around the room and up by McCowen with his contrabass clarinet, resulted in a vividly cacophonous portrait of a single instrument’s acoustic potentials, a nuanced representation of McCowen’s perspective from when he’s up onstage.
What comes out of “Solo Contra” sounds completely generated, bearing an enormity you’d think could only be achieved through the advantages of pedals and/or post-production. Although he used pedals in Wei Zhongle, playing alone has given McCowen the opportunity to explore “post-electronic” possibilities—employing acoustic means in order to warrant electronic-sounding outcomes. When I mentioned how, on his website, he describes his music with that specific label, he was a little hesitant to embrace it. “I gotta be careful with the fact that I said that,” he said. “I’m not trying to create a selling point or something, it was just something I realized, and it’s something that a lot of people are doing.”
McCowen emphasizes how he’s not at the forefront of a movement, how his processes wouldn’t be achievable if not for the breakthroughs made by Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, and Pauline Oliveros during the latter half of the 20th century. He situates his woodwind playing in a noise and electronic milieu, among players (Horse Lords’ saxophonist Andrew Bernstein comes to mind) more concerned with the limitless nature of acousmatic sound than necessarily remaining faithful to a musical source’s conventional, recognizable semblance—contrary to those dismissive classical musicians and SIU professors who’d offered him their insight. “I want to create those kinds of structures and forms. I’m down to listen to an air conditioner if it sounds good.” ¶