Student’s clarinet recital closes out studies

By Jake Saunder

For John McCowen, C’s don’t get degrees. A’s through G’s do.

McCowen, a senior from Herrin studying music composition, chose to pursue the clarinet and is on the home stretch of his studies. McCowen presented what he has learned during a clarinet recital Saturday as one of the final steps in receiving his Bachelor of Musical Arts degree. McCowen’s musical journey has been both humbling and enlightening, he said.

McCowen said he didn’t start playing the clarinet until he was about 23 — before settling on the clarinet he cycled through several musical genres and instruments.


“I’ve done a very strange path coming from a DIY hardcore and punk music to classical music,” McCowen said. “In my life though, it’s been very natural.”

Before coming to SIU to study music, McCowen made a living as a touring musician. He spent great lengths of time on the road playing saxophone in a rock band, he said.

“I got to a point where, getting in the van and going to a bar and playing. Doing that night after night, I wondered, ‘Isn’t there more to music than this?’” McCowen said.

McCowen decided to transition to a music school. He chose his instrument after meeting Eric Mandat, clarinet professor and distinguished scholar.

“John has been the ideal student and musician in every way,” Mandat said.

Mandat said McCowen dug into not only the study of music but also the overall organization of sound.

“He is so hungry to learn about everything, all aspects of music, not just the narrow area of clarinet or of modern Western composition,” Mandat said. “It’s pretty impressive.”


McCowen’s recital focused on several aspects of composition, namely solo and group work. Both works were enlivened through a technique known as multiphonics. Mandat has spent years experimenting with the technique, which involves controlling air through the instrument in such a way that sound can be frozen between one note and another note in an overtone series. This produces multiple notes at the same time, something McCowen has worked with at great length, Mandat said.

“Recently we’ve been working on some projects to find ways to use these multiphonics that require a really high degree of control and refinement,” Mandat said.

Musicians must gain strength and flexibility in traditional clarinet playing to work with multiphonics, he said.

“John’s compositions use extended performance techniques like multiphonics a lot,” Mandat said. “He’s found extremely compelling ways to organize the music and control the sounds. It’s really incredible.”

To McCowen, composing is far more than a performance for an evening — music remains alive after the performance and must be continuously nurtured, he said.

“When majoring on an instrument, you just live it,” McCowen said. “Music is the healing force of the universe, and I’m in a field in which I can penetrate the human race by just writing (music).”

McCowen said he presented the recital to explore new and innovative sounds the clarinet can produce. The recital moved from a classical orientation to a more modern approach crafted through McCowen’s dedication.

Matt McGuire, one of McCowen’s friends and previous musical collaborators, was in attendance to observe McCowen’s solo and group efforts, and was impressed with what he heard.

“That was inspiring,” McGuire said. “I’ve never heard him do anything like it before and it was an affirmation of a lot of hard work.”

Jake Saunders can be reached at [email protected]on Twitter @saundersfj or by phone at 536-3311 ext. 254