Essential New Music: John McCowen’s “Models Of Duration”

Play Models Of Duration to the unprepared, and they won’t know what hit them. They’ll undoubtedly recognize that they’re facing a barrage of speaker-cone-rending noise, acrid hiss and pulsing sound that’ll induce the listener’s back to get well-acquainted with the contours of yonder wall. But they probably won’t believe that they’re hearing the sounds of one man, in real time, playing an unamplified reed instrument.

The instrument is a contrabass clarinet, a hefty piece of wraparound tubing that’s pitched two octaves lower than the familiar Bb clarinet and is generally used to anchor the bottom end of an orchestra. And the person playing it is John McCowen, a wandering American who currently resides in Reykjavik, Iceland. Rather than use it as a foundational tool, McCowen treats the instrument as a world of sound unto itself. A single, sustained tone can sound like a burning, electrical beam. Pitch that note in precise proximity to another one, and their interactions will generate sounds that flutter and throb at earth-rattling frequencies. McCowen uses circular breathing to extend his notes beyond the length of a normal exhalation, and he also uses the strain that the technique puts on his muscles as a source for intriguing textural variations.

But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Models Of Duration is entirely voltage-independent. For while McCowen doesn’t use any outboard effects or amplification, he retained the services of an engineer who knows how to lasso a big sound and let it run wild without making the needle jump out of the groove. That’s Randall Dunn, who’s manned the board for the likes of Sunn O))), Marissa Nadler, Earth and Oren Ambarchi. Dunn has captured each ripple, rumble and snort, rendering it in larger-than-life detail, like a magnified, ultra-high-resolution photograph. The result is music made according to minimalist principals that achieves the impact of harsh noise.

—Bill Meyer