Your Cart UMS

The Space Where You Used To Be

This essay is written in conjunction with Colin Stetson’s performance of Sorrow. UMS Presents Colin Stetson: Sorrow – A Reimagining of Górecki’s Third Symphony Saturday, April 14th at Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. 

“The Space Where You Used To Be” is written by Doyle Armbrust. Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

I don’t want to write these words. Or, conversely, when I knew I’d be covering Colin Stetson this season, I was over the moon. Forgive the caveat, but as a music journalist, my mailbox is jammed with dozens of albums every week…but Colin’s records remain at or near the top of the pile, ever since I laid hands on a copy of his New History of Warfare, Vol. 1 (2008).

So I finally get the opportunity to cover an artist whose creativity cuts glass — that continues to startle and inspire me.

And then Stoneman Douglas sends us all reeling.

At this point in our country’s history, UMS could have thrown a dart at the calendar when considering a piece about the loss of children and it would have coincided with a mass shooting. That’s not what prompted this concert, or this re-imagining of Górecki’s iconic Third Symphony, but I’ll bet that I’m not the only one reckoning with this excruciating reality as we encounter this exquisite piece.

Why, in 1992, did the Nonesuch Records release of this symphony miraculously sell a million copies? Maybe because pain is the one existential element we are all assured of sharing in this lifetime. Maybe because one thing we can all agree upon is that there is no analogue for the loss of a child. Those that have experienced it cannot possibly translate its depth, and yet those that have not have no trouble empathizing with it. Górecki just found the vein, and he opened it up.

Columbine was the defining school tragedy of my childhood. Ever since then, the voices of the victim’s parents have always haunted me well beyond the moment the story escapes the news cycle. Though the brave speeches and interviews with surviving students at Stoneman Douglas offer a glimmer of hope that maybe this time it will be different, and that change is peeking out from its dark cell, it’s the parents — those most acutely left behind — that level me. Tributes and policy change are vital…but there remain those that will live out the rest of their years with a blank space that a child was meant to fill.

Movement 1: “Lento — Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile”


“To be honest, it seems to be getting harder. I keep looking for him. I reach out for him. I keep thinking he’s here and can’t understand why he’s not.”

— mother of six-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School victim


Even if your religious beliefs trend elsewhere, or not at all, there is something universal uncovered in the story of the mother, Mary, and her fated son, Jesus, which provides the launch point for Górecki’s lament. The moment of intimacy between them, as he staggers under the burden of his crucifix, is so movingly captured in Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, but here we enter more tenebrous emotional territory. Colin’s sooty reeds moan into view, ushering in low strings and woodwinds to this dirge. There is a solemnity evident here, and yet the steady progression of the assembling voices reveals that this is not the first time this song has been sung. The pain is singular — the tears unlike any that have ever flowed — but the tune is unfortunately a familiar one.

One detail of Colin’s records that draws me in is that his human-ness is left intact. His breath is a feature, rather than something to be deleted by an engineer, which brings the listener closer to live performance than albums typically allow. The vulnerability of this Third Symphony — what makes it so captivating — is honored by his ensemble’s interpretation, even enhanced with the dramatics of splashing cymbals and sublimated blast beats in the drums. Though illuminated through these interpretive filters, Górecki’s reverential economy of means is undisturbed. This writing, and this reinvention, move beyond the liturgical to something altogether more beautifully crude. More raw, and more riveting, and Colin’s coda is pure scorched earth.


Movement 2: “Lento e largo Tranquillissimo”


“I am broken as I write this trying to figure out how my family gets through this…hold your children tight.”

—father of 14-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas victim


The rising ‘E’ – ‘G-sharp’ descending to ‘F-sharp’…to my mind, this is the most memorable figure from Górecki’s Third, and perhaps the most heartbreaking. There is something so hopeful about an ascending major third, and something equally resigned about its settling back a step lower. Hope seems so dangerous in this realm, but also so necessary if we are to carry on. When they emerge, Colin’s sax and the synths embody an almost Angelo Badalamenti-esque aesthetic, magnifying the potency of this dire supplication to Mary. Rich vibrations in the guitar and strings provide the foil for the incremental rises and falls in the doleful vocal line before the music, and our thoughts return to the expectant ‘E’ – ‘G-sharp’ – ‘F-sharp,’ and with it, a propulsive beat from the percussion. Perhaps there is catharsis to be found amidst all this despair.

colin stetson


Movement 3: “Lento — Cantabile-semplice”


“One of the hardest things to accept, for me, is that this horrible way of feeling is the new normal.”

—mother of 31-year-old Pulse nightclub victim


It was understandably assumed that Górecki’s Third Symphony was instigated by the horrors of the Second World War. According to the composer it wasn’t, but neither was this project born out of our too-frequent mass slayings of students. It just fits, because loss of this magnitude is a possibility, or current reality, for us all.

This third movement is in some ways the most transformed of the three, in Colin’s interpretation. The drums again shift forward in the orchestration, building to a frenetic intensity before the arrival of the revelatory key of A Major that concludes the piece. “And you, God’s little flowers / May you blossom all around / So that my son / May sleep happily,” implores the soprano. This is real life. This is a winsome spring morning seen trickling through the sieve of rapacious grief. It is beauty, attenuated, but beauty nonetheless. It is the best we can hope for.

This essay is written in conjunction with Colin Stetson’s performance of Sorrow. UMS Presents Colin Stetson: Sorrow – A Reimagining of Górecki’s Third Symphony Saturday, April 14th at Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. 

“The Space Where You Used To Be” is written by Doyle Armbrust. Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

Artist Interview: Colin Stetson

Photo: Colin Stetson, who performs in Ann Arbor on April 14, 2018. Photo by Scott Irvine.

In January 2014, saxophonist Colin Stetson performed in Ann Arbor as part of a special week of Renegade performances also featuring performances by the Kronos Quartet. We’re looking back on our chat with Colin to get ready for his return to UMS on April 14, 2018 in Colin Stetson: Sorrow: A Reimagining of Górecki’s Third Symphony.

UMS: Your performances are a part of a “renegade” theme in our season, through which we explore artists and composers who “break the rules” in their own time. How do you feel about the term “renegade”?

Colin Stetson: I don’t think I particularly feel much about it actually. I don’t think about myself or this music in those terms at all.

UMS: How do you think about it?

CS: Well, I think that that terminology kind of implies a certain comparison between inspiration and performative processes of your music to other people’s processes and to the greater whole of music making, and I really don’t function that way when I’m making this music.

If there is any amount of boundary pushing or ground breaking, it’s really more of personal journey and a personal set of goals that I kind of outline for myself. And I’m constantly looking for new ones, and then establishing the pursuit of said goals. So it’s much more of an intimate and insular process in my case.

UMS: Are there artists who take a similar approach from whom you take inspiration?

CS: There are artists really across the board from different genres and different eras that I take inspiration from but not necessarily in a process sort of way. I don’t really know that I’ve ever specifically inquired into someone else’s process and then been inspired by that, so much as I am inspired by the finished product, and what that does and their intention, the intention that’s successful, housed in the music that they created, and then transmitted to the listener. So that’s I think more so where I would consciously cite inspiration or influence.

UMS: You have roots in Ann Arbor. Is coming to Ann Arbor special for you?

CS: Of course. It’s where I grew up. So, all the places in Ann Arbor have a little more historical significance for me, in terms of what I’ve done in them. When we grew up, I was playing in the bars throughout campus all through my teens, and then an enormous amount when I was in college. All of those places have a greater lineage for story for me, some much more so than others.

UMS: Last time you performed in Ann Arbor, you played the Blind Pig, and this time you’ll be performing in more of a theater space. Does the venue change your approach to the performance?

CS: Very much so. One of the things that I’ve been really lucky with in my career is having this extremely disparate selection of venues that I play at. Throughout a tour I can be playing at jazz venues and little clubs, rock venues, some very large, and churches, proper theaters.

So there’s been an enormous amount of different venues, and they’re all very specific in how they accept sounds and how they reflect sound and how they treat an audience, how an audience feels in that space, whether they feel attentive and intimate or exposed, or whether it’s a loud space where there is much more extraneous noise.

A rock club doesn’t necessarily feel better or worse, but there are just differences. There I can rely more on the sheer mass of sound because that’s kind of the domain of the rock club, is moving a lot of air, moving a lot of sound, and filling up in that way. And in a theater, where the convention is more along the lines of sitting very quietly, shunning all extraneous noise, exposing all the minutia, I’m really able to exploit that.

UMS: Kronos Quartet is also a part of our renegade week of performances. Do you like that group’s work? What makes that work stand out?

CS: They were hugely formative for me and my friends when we were coming up. We met in the university, and we were training largely classically, and sometimes academia tends to compartmentalize to such a degree when it comes to genre and idiom, so you know, here is the improvising group, and here is the classical ensemble, and here is the jazz ensemble, and everything is really toeing the line.

But what we were really interested in was just music that came very intuitively to us because we were listening to improvised music, because we were listening to soul and R&B, because we were listening to metal, the music that came out of us tended to be an amalgam of all of that, a much more organic mixture.

And here was a group, Kronos Quartet, who was doing just that. They were forging a path that was not pre-established or genre-specific, and doing it in such an incredible way, they’re such brilliant artists and technicians. It was a great example for young players, and continues to be, musically, for me and my friends now.

Interested in learning more? Check out our Colin Stetson listening guide “Wild Forces at Play.”

Wild Forces at Play

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:

Artist Interview: Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington


Photo: Kronos Quartet, with David Harrington on left. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

The Kronos Quartet performs two different programs in Ann Arbor on January 17-18 2014, as part of a special week of “renegade” performances also featuring saxophonist Colin Stetson.

We called up Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington to chat about his take on renegade music, how George Crumb’s epic Black Angels (which will be performed in Ann Arbor) inspired him to found the Quartet, and his take on artists who re-define instruments as Colin Stetson does.

UMS: Your performances in January are a part of a series of renegade performances this season, as part of which we’re presenting many different artists who break the rules in their own time. How do you feel about that term “renegade”?

David Harrington: Well I like it! Suits me just fine! I’ve always thought of the string quartet as offering composers, performers, and audiences a sonic glimpse into the inner world that we all participate in, and when someone does that, when they listen to their own voice, their inner voice, dramatic things happen because it’s not necessarily the voice that the society listens to and that conventional rules conform to. And so I think that the term renegade fits our music perfectly.

UMS: Is there anything about your history that strikes you as particularly “renegade”?

Since I was a little kid I felt that the art form as a whole needed a little kick in the butt. When I was growing up and I’d go to string quartet concerts—I always sat in the front row, by the way, it’s a great place to sit—

UMS: Why do you say that?

DH: Because you can see the action, you can hear the stringiness of the sound, you can see the rosin fly, and that tactility, that horse hair meets the string, the flesh meets the wood…I love that aspect of what we do. And when I go to a concert I like to be sure I can feel as much of that as possible.

But when I was growing up and going to string quartet concerts, I was always the youngest one at the show. Always. And usually concerts started with Haydn or Mozart and then usually there’d be an intermission and then Beethoven. That’s what the art form was to the general public at that point.

The Vietnam War was raging as well, and so how does one find a voice that feels real? And in August of 1973, on the radio one night, I heard Black Angels by George Crumb. And for a moment the world made sense. And I didn’t have really any choice but I had to start a group in order to play that piece.

UMS: We actually had the chance to speak with George Crumb about Black Angels and how that piece came together.

DH: Well, it was premiered at the University of Michigan.

UMS: Yes, it was! And he actually talked a bit about the way Kronos Quartet performs Black Angels, with theatricality.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like for the Stanley Quartet to get the manuscript of that piece. I wish I could have been in the room and seen their faces when they saw that.

UMS: Funnily enough, George also spoke a bit a bit how he was actually a conductor for this piece.

DH: Yes I know! He conducted the premiere.

UMS: How did you decide to approach it the way that you do?

Well first of all, I thought about the effect that the piece had on me personally. It changed my whole life. And so for me, every time we’ve ever played it I’ve been aware of its power. And I’ve hoped, all of us in Kronos have hoped to transmit that kind of visceral potentially life-altering experience.

We’ve probably played it close to 200 times, in all kinds of settings from concert halls, churches, basketball arenas, opera houses. It’s been in a lot of places.

And it took sixteen years for Kronos to record Black Angels. So we did not record it until 1989. And I’ll tell you the reason. I felt the group needed to learn more about the recording studio and how to make the sound kind of jump off the record or the CD right into the imagination of the listener.

But even more importantly, I knew that our performance of Black Angels had to be the first track on a recording. So there’s no way you could avoid it. I was hoping that listeners would basically have to confront that piece right from the very first note that they heard. It took 16 years for me to figure out what would be the second track on the album.

UMS: And how did the theatrical aspect of the live performance come to be?

When I was growing up in the early 70s, people like Pierre Boulez were saying that the string quartet was dead. Well in August of 1973 when I heard Black Angels, I knew that he was wrong. That one piece has so much power and so much presence and it requires something not only of the players, but the listeners.

Every performance that we do of Black Angels is slightly different. We’re constantly refining the way we perform the piece, and the very first time we played it is so different from the way that we do it now that you would not even recognize it. I mean, you would recognize the music of it, but you would not recognize the visual aspect of it.

And the other thing I should say about the recording is that in the recording studio you are able to have a lot of control. We followed the timings that George Crumb wrote in the score as perfectly as we possibly could and what we noticed is that Black Angels is actually a short piece. It’s very compact. It’s also not a loud piece. It has loud moments but in general it’s a very reflective piece, with these outbursts. It just so happens that it starts with an outburst.

And so that recording influenced what we wanted to do in public performance. So we didn’t set out to create a theater piece. The piece itself is theater and we just tried to make the music come alive in the best way that we could.

UMS: Colin Stetson is performing along with you as part of a week of renegade performances at UMS. Do you know his work? What do you think of his work? What makes his work stand out for you if it does?

Well, first of all, I do know Colin Stetson’s work. I’m a huge fan. It’s not often that you encounter someone who has basically redefined an instrument. And those are the people that I like to work with. And whether it’s Astor Piazzola, or it’s Tanya Tagak, the great Inuit throat singer, or Wu Man, the great Chinese pipa virtuoso, these are people who have redefined their instrument or their approach to music. I believe that Colin Stetson belongs in the same sentence. When we were on tour in New York City, I went to hear him live, and it was an amazing experience.

Curious to know more? Read our interview with George Crumb, composer of Black Angels, or explore our listening guide to Colin Stetson.

Renegade Artists in 2013-2014

Photo: From “And then, one thousand years of peace” by Ballet Preljocaj. Photo by JC Carbonne.

Artists engage daily in a creative enterprise full of risk-taking, experimentation, and boundary pushing. Renegade is about artists who, in their own time and context, draw outside the lines, changing our expectations.

Complicite & Setagaya Public Theater: Shun-kin – September 18-21
With director Simon McBurney, you can expect the full box of theatrical tools — text, music, imagery, and action — put in service to big ideas that create surprise, confusion, and disruption. The result is anything but an expected night in the theater. These are experiences which last a lifetime. (Michael Kondziolka, UMS Director of Programming) Learn more

Ballet Preljocaj – November 1-2
Dance-theater (tanztheater), a 20th-century invention primarily attributed to the German expressionists, pushed audiences’ expectations about what a dance would look like, intentionally distancing itself from the traditions of classical ballet. Its aspiration: that, through dance, all artistic media would be united and achieve an all-embracing, radical change in humankind. Angelin Preljocaj’s work lives within and expands this experimental lineage. (Michael Kondziolka, UMS Director of Programming) Learn more

Steve Lehman Octet – November 9
Composer and saxophonist Steve Lehman is trailblazing new computer-driven models for improvisation, resulting in striking new harmonies. With his Octet, Lehman has achieved the first fully realized exploration of spectral armony in the history of recorded jazz. (Mark Jacobson, UMS Senior Programming Manager) Learn more

Colin Stetson – January 15-16
Colin Stetson, who performs unbroken 10-minute-plus compositions for unaccompanied bass and alto saxophones via a combination of circular breathing, overtones, and amplified vocalizations, expands the boundaries of what was previously thought possible for solo performance. (Mark Jacobson, UMS Senior Programming Manager) Learn more

Kronos Quartet – January 17-18
For nearly 40 years, the Kronos Quartet has pursued a singular artistic vision, combining a spirit of fearless exploration with a commitment to continually re-imagine the string quartet experience. They started out as classical chamber music’s original renegades and continue that cause to this very day. Two different programs explore their take on 40 years of renegade music-making, anchored by the piece where it all began — George Crumb’s Black Angels, a highly unorthodox, Vietnam War-inspired work featuring bowed water glasses, spoken word passages, and electronic effects. (Michael Kondziolka, UMS Director of Programming) Learn more

Kremerata Baltica and Shostakovich – February 6
With Kremerata Baltica and Gidon Kremer
It is hard for any of us to imagine what it means to be denounced publicly by the highest officials of one’s own government — especially during a time when everyone pretty much understood that this kind of admonishment could lead to a life of hard labor or worse. Dmitri Shostakovich not only carried on, but continued to create a body of art that pushed right back, albeit in coded and subversive ways. As a composer, he worked within an expected tradition; as a human, he raged against all manner of censorship and injustice. Shostakovich’s Anti-formalist Gallery was a dangerously satirical cantata never intended to be published or performed, as it would have imperiled his safety. During the composer’s lifetime, the work was performed only for family and close friends; it did not receive its first public performance until January 1989, 14 years after his death. (Michael Kondziolka, UMS Director of Programming) Learn more

Who are your favorite “renegade” artists or performers? Which performances from this list are you excited to see?