How Colin Stetson turned a bleak symphony into a black metal-inspired saxophone masterpiece

Even beyond the smash hit Bon Iver, Feist and Arcade Fire albums he’s lit up as indie’s go-to saxophone virtuoso, Colin Stetson has one of the most dizzying résumés in the business.

What with last year’s breathtaking collaboration with Sarah Neufeld, an astonishing library of avant-jazz solo storytelling, and his outrageous list of collaboration credits, news of the multi-reedist reimagining Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 came as surprising, sensible and compelling, all in one. It was high time for a catch up.

“You’re gonna have a very boring job,” is the first thing we hear as we walk in on his soundcheck at Leeds’ Howard Assembly Room. He’s talking to the lighting technician, telling him there can only be the slowest of transitions for his set, no flashing, and certainly nothing reactive to the music. It makes sense to me: Stetson’s solo works could easily be mistaken for electronic loops, as our brains tend to map new experiences to familiarity. But there is no looping, no overdubbing – just microphones capturing him. And the music is freer for it, rapidly mutating and defying anticipation at his whim. Anything external to the artist and his instrument is a distraction from the beauty of their subtle complexities, gaps that our senses are often too hasty to colour in.

It isn’t Stetson’s first time in Leeds, but he believes it’s his first solo show here. The Howard Assembly Room is a performance space inside Leeds Grand Theatre. The building dates back to the second half of the 19th century, though the venue served as a cinema, rehearsal room and storage space before being repurposed into a music hall once again just a few years ago. The gothic interior is clothed in modernity, a calming and welcoming break from the ornate crimson grandeur in the rest of the Grand Theatre. A very adult audience filters through, stewarded by the many door staff tasked with stopping anyone from inadvertently ending up backstage of the opera house proper. We take our seats in the stalls as people peer over the balcony to see the small stage, the alto saxophone, and the bass sax standing next to it, comically oversized in comparison. The lights are dim and unchanging.


“I heard SORROW for the first time as a freshman in university. It just seemed like a jewel”

The majority of music being performed is brand new, Stetson tells me before the show. “It’s just not recorded yet. Right now it’s looking like two records that are related to one another. I think it’s gonna be two, and a third one which is unrelated but I’m also working on. So yeah, there’s a lot of music to record and I don’t really know exactly what format all of it’s gonna take.” He’s working multiple albums ahead, performing as well as writing. These processes may well inform each other, especially considering that he has to be able to play each piece in one take.

He delivers four songs to the Leeds crowd, with nearly 15 minutes of continuous playing for each. The first is a steady, deliberate procession, announced with brass before the march of percussion, all coming from his bass sax. It’s after that when things become expansive. Stetson puts his body into his artistry, from brass embouchure, circular breathing and voicing techniques to throating vocals simultaneously and bearing the weight of the bass sax all the while. His music’s oft-lauded physicality can be overwhelming in close quarters. My body shuts down whilst my mind loses inhibitions, shifting from attentive entrancement to inertia, comfortable with being shepherded by the challenging and the unknown. He plays one number with the alto, climbing higher than I’d expect him to, almost as if it were in sheer relief of being unencumbered by the heavy bass.

Between songs, he takes the shortest of breaks. Stetson’s music takes a visible toll on him, though it seems to be down to the testing nature of his new pieces more than anything else. It’s no wonder that his finale is one of the most purposefully stunted and resultingly intense things I’ve heard from him. “They’re kind of character pieces,” Stetson says of the new material. “It’s like an offshoot from the storyline narrative of the [New History Warfare] trilogy. A parallel, a little bit of a myth [or] folktale from a story within that story. And this is almost like an origin-type story, but the two records are character studies about a man and a woman.”

While new solo works form on the horizon, his latest album SORROW arrives on Kartel Music Group on April 8. SORROW is his own vision of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 – the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’. It’s a deeply sombre and moving composition, which received a surge of interest outside of Poland some 24 years after its first recording due to a new recording from Elektra-Nonesuch in 1992. Stetson and the symphony go back two decades.

“I heard it for the first time around a year or two after the Nonesuch recording came out. I was a freshman in university and I’d just discovered it then. At that point you’re fresh outta high school, you’re finally at a conservatory, all you’re doing is music and music study and playing. You went from being in a place where just you and a couple [of] other people were the only serious students of music in your little pond to a place where that’s all that you are. It’s a very exciting time to be alive because you’re most certainly alive more than any other time in your life, even just physiologically. We were just consuming everything we could get our ears on and this is another one of those really exciting things we discovered. It just seemed like a jewel.

“If my memory serves, it was my best friend Stuart Bogie who brought it to our ears, our band. He had started a band called Transmission way back in the day in Evanston, Illinois, which continued on in college and I joined it. It was a quartet and we used to tour, driving late night from place to place in our van and we would all share show-and-tell times, putting on music for everybody that nobody’s heard, and that was one of those things that was shared.”

Since the Transmission days, Stetson has left the academic environment, played as a session musician for the likes of Tom Waits, performed with Arcade Fire among others, and completed a trilogy of his own albums. It’s a lot of time, both in years and experience, but Symphony No. 3 has lived with him throughout. “I maintain a relationship with most music that I listen to at some point and form strong bonds with,” he says. “There’s very little that I listen to once that I really don’t listen to at all anymore. I don’t have as voracious an appetite for the bebop jazz era as I did once, although I still do listen. But once I’ve been excited by something and steeped in it, I’m a re-listener. It’s on loop for a while before I will be able to turn it off and go to something else. I think it’s really until I feel as if I know it all the way through, I just have a mental image that’s so intact that I know I can carry it around with me.”

Twenty years is a long time to foster a desire. With the idea of the symphony existing so vividly in his mind, what does it mean for him to have the compulsion to recreate it? “That’s a good question. I don’t know particularly why this piece, why I needed to,” he says. He’d shared the idea for SORROW with his sister, vocal soloist Megan Stetson, since the ’90s.

“It might be as simple as back in the ’90s I had had such strong feelings about it that it was a plan that I was making to reinterpret it and to perform it with a group of my own. That was something that always got pushed into the background, just because of logistics and life. I wasn’t in a position in my mid-20s to really lead this kind of operation, and I’m glad that I didn’t try to do it back then ’cause it wouldn’t have gotten done as well.

Photography by: Danny Payne

SORROW is a massive sound and the performance of it is very heavy, very emotional”

Stetson’s vision of Symphony No. 3 is additive. “It’s always been a bit of me wanting to overlay, to inject my sonic palette and colour world into the notation of this piece,” he reflects. “So using a lot of reeds, lots of clarinet, saxophone sounds, still having cello and violin so that there’s that string section sound there. It’s not a complete and utter departure. But then for a lot of the inner voices, using synths and electric guitars to bring it more into the world of black metal and electronica, a bit of pop world as well.” Stetson himself plays alto, tenor and bass saxophones, the contrabass clarinet and the lyricon on SORROW. Last year was spent assembling his own dream team.

“I needed two guitarists, and Ryan Ferreira and Grey McMurray are the two folks that I would go to immediately for this particular kind of thing. Sarah [Neufeld] and I are married, we do most things together musically if it calls for our instruments. One of our best friends, Rebecca Foon, [is] someone who we’ve known for ages. Both the saxophone players are dudes that I’ve been tight with, playing and in friendship, since we were 15. Justin Walter who plays synth on the record is from my hometown, we’ve known each other since college. Shahzad Ismaily and I have been performing and recording together for at least 15 years. Who am I forgetting? Greg [Fox] obviously – the last ingredient was the drums, and that’s pretty much what wrapped it all up for me. That proved to me that I was ready to do it, because meeting Greg and seeing what he’s capable of, how he plays and his sensibilities, it was perfect for the whole project. Not just playing, but actually making an impact on it.”

The more Stetson talks, the more it seems that reimagining Symphony No. 3 holds a generational significance as much as a personal one for him. Perhaps that’s because a whole generation of musicians who’ve previously collaborated together now all appear on this record. One example is Greg Fox, an unexpected pillar of the Górecki monument, who has also played in the Howard Assembly Room before, with Stetson collaborator Ben Frost. As part of avant-math outfit Zs, Fox has played with SORROW cellist Gyða Valtýsdóttir, who has in turn performed with Shahzad Ismaily, whose Figure 8 Studios housed the album’s recording. “It’s all like-minded friends, collaborators. When I brought it up to them, saying, ‘Hey, I need you for this project,’ I think every one of them said, ‘That’s one of my favourite pieces, I love it!’ We were all united in this understanding of the music already.”

With Stetson citing black metal as an influence on SORROW, how much can new instrumentation change the genre of a piece? “Well, apparently drastically!” Stetson replies. “I am still curious as to how people are going to react with this version. I assumed that people who are used to this sonic landscape that I’m dealing with – you know, heavy synth, a lot more low-end, distortion, everything that comes with the sax playing that I do, on top of distorted tremolo guitar via the black metal styles – I assume that a lot of people that are used to those worlds already will have no problem with this. [They] will be beckoned into it quite seamlessly, because it’s nothing but beautiful, it’s just a gorgeous piece. Do I think that a lot of the strict classical consumers will have an easy way in? I’m not sure, but I’ve already found many who have, so I know that it’s possible.

“It used to be much more evident, or I think much more of a truth, that genre was everything to people’s musical consumption. ‘I listen to country music.’ ‘I am into classic rock.’ ‘I like electronic music.’ Nowadays there’s much less of that. The whole identity being wrapped up into a small subset of a music genre is much less prevalent today than it was before, and what people have been exposed to has influenced their tastes in such a way as to broaden them. I’m hoping that the sound world and the genre implications are really irrelevant, that they’re second to the musical content and to the overall theme and feeling of the piece.”

Although Stetson’s appearance in Leeds is for a solo show, there are gigs planned for the SORROW ensemble too. “It’s the whole thing,” he says, explaining that we can expect the record presented with greater intensity and vivacity. “It’s really the whole group. It’s a massive sound and the performance of it is very heavy, very emotional. My sister is a pretty impressive individual on a stage. Her magnetism with regards to how much she gets into character – she’s an actress with regards to the emotional content of a singing role. I think people will go away with something [that] they didn’t have before.”

After a decade spent on the road, Stetson is also keen to realise more of his long-held recording ambitions. “It’s something about ageing for me. Gradually in my mid and late 30s I started to realise, having spent the past decade pretty much just on the road, that my output is something I’ve started to get more and more focused on. Making sure that all of the things that I talked about and dreamed about and wanted, collaborations and others, that I actually bring those to fruition. That I’m good on my word and make things happen. A number of coincidental circumstances put [SORROW] right up in front of my face – the window of time hit the bullseye and then I ran with it. There’s a myriad of other things that I’m working on now that will get their day.”



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