Clarinet Quartets #1 & #2

by John McCowen
May 3, 2016

Upon listening to Clarinet Quartets #1 & #2, one senses a uniquely well-tempered musical ethos — one which emphasizes both clarity of composition and flexibility in performance, respecting academic history without cowing to trivial self-explanations. The two compellingly stringent soundscapes on this release branch from the multifaceted musical experience of composer, clarinetist, and researcher into extended tonalities, John McCowen.

John has cultivated a singular identity as a composer and performer over the past five years through his pieces for chamber music and solo clarinet, exploring modes of re-rendering tonality in the midst of the increasingly decentralized tradition that is academic composition. What makes John’s perspective in this field so intriguing is his ability to produce work that is novel, enjoyable, and fun, all the while prototyping structures which address the fluidity of instrumental technique and artistic voice. Here is a calm proficiency in the object-ness of style. John’s idiosyncratically rigorous aesthetic locates his artistic identity somewhere within the lineage of quiet revolutionaries like Robert Ashley and Maryanne Amacher.

While both quartets mediate experiences with psychoacoustic phenomena found in spectral harmony, there is a marked difference in the orientations of the two pieces.

Quartet #1 is non-pulsed, drone-oriented — a progression of quiet technical fixations through a field of tonal events where voices gradually swell and reharmonize. While there is a strong feeling of forward motion in the work, it is as if we are following our own feet; like navigating the impenetrable mist of a mountain path, both performer and listener must remain open, aware, vigilant towards an unknowable landscape. John’s score for the quartet is explicit in much of it’s content, yet leaves aspects of pacing open to the performance, producing entirely unique events through the subtle imbrication of each voice and texture. It is by this affect that the piece maintains its elusive, centrifugal intensity; each subtle crescendo feels new and alien from the others as the broad-tone trills wind around dissonant pastels to expose and re-bury the beats and shifts of a flexing binaural plane.

In a point of obvious contrast, Quartet #2 has a distinct pulse throughout its roughly 20 minutes. While this work is more strict in it’s notation and in the dictation of its events, durations are still decided at the discretion of the performers. This second quartet proceeds logically from the first, working with new constraints upon an essential material which the first quartet mined in raw form. This is not to suggest that the two are co-dependent in their material or should be considered within a hierarchical progression. Rather, they seem to be sibling works which share natural genes, differing by their uniquely nurtured qualities. As is often the case in minimalist music, Quartet No. 2 invokes the figure of a sequence or grid; however, in contrast to the hallmark Minimalism of Philip Glass et al, John’s arid clicking and relentless semi-tone trills at the beginning of the piece manifest an inarticulable joke — a koan addressed to the myth that tone and rhythm may be different. They are in fact fundamentally not different. From this point the ensuing trance proceeds with an implacable quality that, rather than developing the theme, seems to bake it like a rock in the sun.

In addition to the more obvious shared features of these works (such as the stretching tonal trills and the unique timbral and harmonic identity) Clarinet Quartets No. 1 and No. 2 relay a refined philosophy of composition and clear aesthetic frame. It is within this flux of sober analogisms to physics and the hypnotism of ascetic poetry that we find this work — not completed, but disposed for new interaction with the forces that miraculously arrange the grains and patterns of experience. —

clarinetists john mccowen derek emch tim fitzgerald jon goodman recorded in Atlanta by Martin Kearns mixed and mastered by David Allen in Portland