AMN Reviews: John McCowen – Solo Contra (2017; International Anthem)

You would think that a title such as Solo Contra would be a fairly solid description of an album, but words fail to capture to subtleties and nuances of John McCowen’s recent release (though we will try to describe it anyway). Originally a vocalist in rock bands, McCowen studied under Roscoe Mitchell before releasing this album of contrabass clarinet compositions that sounds unlike anything resembling clarinet music.

Clocking in at only 27 minutes over three tracks, McCowen makes his statements concisely and directly. The opener, Fur Korv is comprised of a series of multiphonic drones. From there, he moves on to Chopper HD, featuring rapid vibrato and discordant walls of sound. Berths 1-3 is the longest piece, at 16 minutes. On it, McCowan begins with breathy, quiet drones that slowly build in intensity. About a third of the way through, he adds rude, wavering dissonances to the mix that continue for the rest of the track, adding a post-industrial flavor.

Solo instrumental albums are difficult to pull off successfully. There are notable exceptions, of course, and it is time to add Solo Contra to the list. McCowan’s sense of space and use of timbre alone make this release a must-hear.