ArtsATL > Music > Review: Of clarinets and crystal, John McCowen’s music resonates but searches for an audience

Review: Of clarinets and crystal, John McCowen’s music resonates but searches for an audience

John McCowen Clarinet Quartet with members of Spiral of Sound Crystal Bowl Choir. (Photo by Mark Gresham)
John McCowen Clarinet Quartet with members of Spiral of Sound Crystal Bowl Choir. (Photo by Mark Gresham)
The John McCowen Clarinet Quartet with members of Spiral of Sound Crystal Bowl Choir. (Photo by Mark Gresham)

Only a handful of listeners showed up for this past Friday’s concert by the John McCowen Clarinet Quartet and members of the Spiral of Sound Crystal Bowl Choir at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, but the ill-attended, curiously timed 6 p.m. performance was deserving of a much larger crowd of new music aficionados.

Composer, clarinetist and improviser John McCowen assembled the ensemble for the explicit purpose of performing his own Quartets 1 and 2. The group originated in Carbondale, Illinois, where its four members — clarinetists Derek Emch, Tim Fitzgerald, Jon Goodman and McCowen — were all in the clarinet studio of Dr. Eric Mandat at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Goodman and Fitzgerald play together as the new music duo Gremlins, which has also championed music by McCowen in its concerts. Emch is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in contemporary clarinet performance at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

McCowen completed his undergraduate studies at Southern Illinois this year and will head to Mills College in Oakland this fall to study with Roscoe Mitchell and earn a master’s in music composition. McCowen is originally self-taught as a clarinetist, emerging from an aural tradition of music making and influenced by the music of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. Besides his quartet, he currently plays clarinet in two Chicago-based groups, Wei Zhongle, which is in the midst of completing a CD project, and Vibrating Skull Trio, with which McCowen performed last Monday at Chicago’s Elastic Arts Foundation before heading down to Atlanta.

Friday’s concert at UUCA opened with McCowen’s Quartet No. 2, described by the composer as “an exploration in polyrhythms [that] employs unique microtonal fingerings, allowing dense textures to occur.” The listening experience is a little more direct. Most prominently, one hears the small rhythmic gestures that weave and play against each other to create a singular overarching gesture of shifting textures and colors. Those gestures attract the ear’s attention more immediately than any perceptual worry over microtonality. In short, the music can be likened to a flowing stream.

The Quartet No. 1 constituted the second half of the hour-long program. The piece is a single overarching motif, but with a rhythmic pace in great contrast to the other Quartet. McCowen calls it “a slow work for four clarinets influenced by the timbral possibilities of the instrument itself.” That includes, he says, utilizing the natural intonation unique to the clarinet’s harmonics to create, in his words, “a distinct soundworld.”

But this particular performance brought another twist to it. Although written for four clarinets, McCowen created additional parts for a set of large crystal bowls, played by three members of the Spiral of Sound Crystal Bowl Choir — Mary Akerman, Lucy Banks and Candace Keach, the group’s director, who is also a flutist and “sound therapist.” The Spiral of Sound ensemble has been performing since 2006, initially with six players, and has since perhaps become best known among the city’s “musical spiritual healing” community.

In the long, ethereal tones of the 11 crystal bowls, the clarinets found musically sympathetic, compatible sounds. Designed for sonic performance, these bowls are played with soft mallets, either by striking the bowl softly to initiate a sound or by stroking the glass for a sustained sound. It proved a fascinating combination, with the slowly evolving music creating an effective atmosphere for meditation and deep listening.

Friday’s concert in Atlanta was the first stop in the group’s four-city southern tour. The quartet returned to Atlanta on Monday to record both of McCowen’s pieces at 800 East Studios with producer/audio engineer Martin Kearns. They are now headed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for ClarinetFest 2014, where they will perform on Sunday.

McCowen’s group should plan on returning to Atlanta to reprise these quartets, but at a different venue — perhaps Erikson Clock or {Poem 88}, just to name two — where they could draw a larger and interested new music audience, offering them a second shot at what they missed this time around.

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