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January 2, 2014

Wild Forces at Play

By Stephanie Douglass

Photo: Colin Stetson, who performs in Ann Arbor on April, 18, 2018. Photo by Scott Irvine.

It begins with a deep breath, followed by resonant palpitations underlying the emergence of whistles, screeches, honks, and warbles that are progressively arranged and hoisted into a creature of dazzling, dizzying complexity. At each moment in this evolution of sound—highlighted by its spiraling melody and blistering ostinati—collapse feels imminent, and chaos, inevitable.

This specimen, “And It Thought to Escape,” exemplifies the unpredictable long-form sonic structures created by the saxophonist Colin Stetson. “And It Thought to Escape” clocks in at over eight minutes, and yet this song seems to fly by, as do others by Stetson, whose gradual and fitful development of melody is surprising and mesmerizing.

“And It Thought to Escape”

A sweat-flecked, lung-wringing feat

Avant-garde, jazz, and indie music scenes are frothing over with innovative and talented musicians whose songs explore dissonance, repetition, and non-traditional forms, especially through the use of digital effects and loops. What distinguishes Stetson from the masses is his virtuoso technique on saxophone—including alto, tenor, baritone, and the formidable bass—clarinet, and French horn.

He’s a master of circular breathing—the method of using stored air in the cheeks to continue playing while inhaling through the nose, in order to produce a seamless sound—which allows him to perform and record his long solos live and in a single take, without overdubbing or loops. Stetson has honed his circular breathing for twenty years; he learned it at age fifteen, from a music instructor who told Stetson that the technique would help him interpret classical string music without having to pause and take breaths.

While the method is somewhat tricky to learn, its use isn’t rare among wind instrumentalists. Stetson’s use of circular breathing is remarkable, though, given the extreme intensity and duration of his songs, such as the leviathan “To See More Light,” a fifteen minute song from his latest solo album, New History Warfare, Volume 3: To See More Light. The song opens with disconnected blares of the saxophone and passes through tonal states of frenzy, delirium, and grim weariness, before arriving at a warm and vaulted unity.

There’s a raw physicality to Stetson’s music. It howls. It heaves and churns. Watch Stetson perform live and a song becomes more than a song but a sweat-flecked, lung-wringing feat of musicianship requiring tremendous stamina. In many songs we hear his breathing: it’s a faint breeze in “To See More Light,” and a steady gust filling the interstices between lightning-fast synth-sounding trills in “Nobu Take” on New History Warfare, Volume 1. “This all originates in breath. It’s all tied to breath, it’s all tied to my body,” said Stetson about his music in a 2011 interview with Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC talk program Q. Stetson discussed his reason for avoiding digital gadgetry, explaining that his music, from the moment of its composition, is inexplicably bound with the physical process of its creation. “The parameters that I had set up for myself, initially, [were] just that everything that could be captured in the moment, physically, by me with the instrument, was fair game, but no additions, no effects, no electronics or anything like that.”

“Nobu Take”

From digital to otherworldly

It’s clear that Stetson’s parameters have been more liberating than limiting. He has undertaken a serious exploration into the sonic-making capabilities of the saxophone. Not only is he adept at creating densely layered music, but he does so with a variety of sounds, rhythms, and textures not commonly found in solo saxophone music. The music is deeply human, but its sound can range from digital to otherworldly. In “Tiger Tiger Crane” on New History of Warfare, Volume 1, Stetson uses the saxophone keys to tap out a ghostly hip-hop rhythm. There are trenchant, wordless vocals that frequently surface out of fuzz and static on the albums New History Warfare, Volume 2: Judges and To See More Light.

While recording the songs for Judges, Stetson used up to twenty-four microphones—in the studio and attached to his sax and himself, including a dog-collar microphone over his vocal chords—in order to capture the full spectrum of sounds he was producing. The song “Judges” is an excellent example of Stetson’s polyphonic abilities: he lays down an irresistible rhythm and bass line and then adds a lacerating wail as fierce as rock music’s most scorched-earth vocals. In the first video below, Stetson performs  “Awake on Foreign Shores” and “Judges.” In the second video, he dissects the different sounds that comprise “Judges.”

On “A Takeaway Show”

Colin Stetson breaks down “Judges”

Stetson is an Ann Arbor native who studied at the University of Michigan. Older jazz lovers might remember him as a member of the popular avant-garde jazz-funk group Transmission, which performed around Ann Arbor and Detroit during the latter half of the ‘90s. Younger music fans are sure to recognize the groups and artists he’s performed, recorded, or toured with, including the Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, TV on the Radio, Tom Waits, David Byrne, The National, Laurie Anderson, Antibalas, Lou Reed, among many others. All music enthusiasts are sure to find something to enjoy in his solo work, which he began focusing on in 2003 while living in New York City.

In 2008, Stetson released his debut solo album, New History Warfare, Volume 1, followed by 2011’s Judges and 2013’s To See More Light. Each album in this conceptual trilogy is unique; when considered as a whole, they reveal an emotional, physical, and mental deepening of Stetson’s craft. Each album balances long, epic songs with short pieces that span just a minute or two in length and which serve as heightened meditations on a discrete phrase or rhythm. There is some over-dubbing of guest vocals: Laurie Anderson supplies ominous spoken word pieces to Judges, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon lends his distinctive, soaring voice to songs on To See More Light, including “Who The Waves Are Roaring For.”

“Who The Waves Are Roaring For”

I’ve resisted labeling Stetson’s music as one genre or the other, because it’s something that Stetson refuses to do. And for good reason: his musical aesthetic, while at one time rooted in free jazz, is so healthy and permeable that it has allowed many different styles and genres to enrich it, without being stunted or saturated by one in particular. There’s jazz, pop, hip-hop, metal, post-rock, drone, minimalism, folk, electronic, and more. Whether your record collection contains Evan Parker or Sonic Youth, it’s easy to find something to enjoy in Stetson’s impressive and groundbreaking body of solo saxophone works. To return to Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with Stetson, Ghomeshi at one point asked Stetson to comment on the fact that his music doesn’t resemble most saxophone music, that Stetson was “creating music that isn’t even identifiable as sax.”

“It will be identifiable as sax,” Stetson responded. “Everything that I use is stuff that has really been utilized for decades in the free jazz and free improvisation traditions. I’m just re-contextualizing. I’m telling my own story with it.”

In Studio Q:


Stephanie Douglass is a freelance writer and editorial assistant for the Ann Arbor Observer. She also engineers the radio talk show Living Writers on 88.3 WCBN–FM Ann Arbor and rehabilitates wild songbirds at the Bird Center of Washtenaw County.