On "Wellhead," a collection of seven improvisations, Zach Rowden prepares his double bass with a cowbell, binder clips and wooden dowels.
He places bubble wrap on the strings, or weaves it in-between. He bows and plucks; muted pitches hang briefly in aural space, next to harmonic-filled squeals and subterranean, bone-rattling groans.
The bass loses its identity, becoming instead an oversized, acoustic playground, a metal-and-wood sound-making device, resonant furniture.
Rowden, 23, belongs to a rich tradition of sound-based improvisation, one with strong ties to Connecticut: New Haven musician Joe Morris, who hosts the monthly Improvisations series at Hartford's Real Art Ways with Hartford trumpeter Stephen Haynes, is one of his teachers.
Rowden disguises the sound of his instrument — not to trick people, exactly, but to expand its language.
"I don't really care that I play the bass," Rowden says. "When you listen to ['Wellhead'], I don't even want you to think about the fact that it's a bass."
Rowden's also OK if you don't think of it as music.
"I don't really like being involved in music," Rowden says. "I don't really want to be a musician. Music always gets roped in with entertainment, and I'm not involved with entertainment at all. The music I play functions more as visual art or performance art. That's how I think about it and present it."
As a Shenandoah University (Virginia) undergrad, Rowden was drawn to music therapy. He sat in on a guitar class, where he and his fellow students sang "Down in the Valley" and "Kumbaya." Three days later, he was gone.
"I left that class and called my mother: 'I'm changing my major,'" Rowden says. "She said, 'Zachary, you've been there for three days.' I said, 'I've never been more sure of anything in my life.'"
Rowden switched to double bass performance, and it stuck. At the Hartt School, he studies with Bang on a Can founding member Robert Black, performing repertoire pieces that blend composed elements and performer choice.
"I'm getting my contemporary-music stuff at school and all my improvised-music stuff at Joe Morris' house," Rowden says. "I think of my master's degree as two masters: one in contemporary music and one in improvisation."
Each piece on "Wellhead" lasts between one and eight minutes. Short textural ideas — a suggestion of a rhythm, arpeggio or texture — arise and disappear just as quickly, announced with surges in volume; alternately, careful attention is needed just to hear what's going on. The syntax of each piece is conversational, like compact missives, communicated in abstract languages. There's no pulse, and pitched tones are scarce.
"I'm really interested in the gray area of anything: music functioning like art, art functioning like music," Rowden says. "The indescribable, outsider type of thing is always what I'm after."
Last year, Rowden and guitarist Chris Cretella, with whom he shares a background in free jazz and metal, released "Mutual Glancing," an album of duo improvisations.
"We basically got together and made some pasta and drank some coffee, set up some mics and recorded," Rowden says. "We didn't talk about anything. … To me, that's one of the more special recordings, because it was just me and him in his living room, hanging out."
When improvising with other musicians, Rowden says, the goal is to feel as though you're chasing each other around: "You're always on their heels. You're thinking so quickly that it doesn't feel like you're thinking."
One of the fallacies of improvised music, he adds, is thinking that there aren't any rules. "There are four decisions you can make: join people, expand what they're doing, juxtapose what they're doing, or be silent. Once you start thinking — interesting, do people like this? — you're losing the whole point."
Off-campus, Rowden performs in living rooms and basements. He recently toured with a friend's punk band. With three friends — Mike Kusek, Jason Principi and Mike Myrbeck — Rowden operates TombTone Records, an umbrella label for cassettes released under several curated micro-labels: Dead Tooth, Bruised Bone, Quivering Hand (Rowden's imprint) and so on. Connecticut acts Bilge Rat (Kusek's band), the Amphibious Man (Principi and Myrbeck), Reduction Plan and Quietly all have cassettes out on TombTone.
"We all have choices of what we put out, but we all put it out under this one name," Rowden says. "My goal is to have this cross-pollination of people who are into spooky punk music, electronic music, noise music, free improvisation, whatever. When you more people, everything starts to blend together. That's why I went on tour with a punk band: I'm reaching a completely different audience of avant-weirdos who come out to these shows."
At some of those gigs, Rowden gets asked if he studied classical music.
"I always tell people that I learned classical music thoroughly," Rowden says. "I can play the excerpts. I can play the concertos. But I took all of that technique and did what I wanted to with it, because that's what I think everyone should do. Classical music is vital and interpretation is a valid art form, but we have so many people who can play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. I sit there and think, 'God, what if you wrote your own music? You have so much technique. I wish I could play at that high a level.'"
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is a column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.