by Martin Longley –
Moers regular Colin Stetson returns this year with his most thorough exploration so far, as an Artist-in-residence for the duration of the festival. The master reedsman will be performing each day, with different settings that range from his customary solo state, right up to a twelve-piece ensemble reading of Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3. In-between, there’s Stetson’s duo partnership with fellow Arcade Fire player Sarah Neufeld and an improvising trio with John Zorn regular Trevor Dunn and Liturgy linchpin Greg Fox.
Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld at moers festival 2014 | by Elisa & Patrick Essex
Occasionally, Stetson can be found at home in Montreal, so I called him up to give him a grilling about this intense immersion in his work. Earlier in his career, the saxophonist could almost have been described as a session player at the weirdo end of the scale, carefully selecting, or being invited by, a cluster of innovative artists. Not really as a core band member, but always chosen to be the right player at the right time. Stetson’s credits include work with Tom Waits, Anthony Braxton, Feist, Laurie Anderson, LCD Soundsystem, David Byrne and TV On The Radio. Recently, Stetson has been vowing to make more time for his own music. „I was doing a lot of touring with Arcade Fire, and right after that with Bon Iver,“ he explains. „So there wasn’t a whole lot of time left for performing with more improvised and jazz-based groups. I’ve been starting to do that again over the last couple of years.“
Last year, Stetson wasn’t able to tour with Arcade Fire due to an extensive solo date sheet, in the wake of To See More Light, Volume 3 of his New History Warfare solo series on Constellation Records. He usually has to work at least a year in advance, assembling an itinerary, although he’s able to slip in a few rogue gigs closer to the time, when invited at shorter notice. „I always end up being busier than I thought I was going to be,“ says Stetson, not really complaining. „Most of the time, when I get back, it’s time to get out of performance mode, just practice, and write new music.“ In recent months he’s been working on several film soundtrack projects.
„I was 20, 21, when I started doing solo concerts.“
The bulk of Stetson’s gigging activities revolve around his solo performance, a virtuosic display that frequently possesses the characteristics of a full ensemble spread. He devotes himself to creating extended pieces that revolve around drones, spirals, circular breathing and vocalising into his instrument. Stetson’s bass saxophone is his most immediately impressive weapon, this weighty monster hoisted with the aid of a torso harness. He can alternate with an alto, either for purely artistic reasons, but with the bonus of giving his lungs a rest. I ask him how he first became interested in extended structures: „I can trace it back to my late teenage years. I began to explore the nuances, the real minutiae, all of the unconventional sound production that was going on all the time. I was 20, 21, when I started doing solo concerts, but at that point the writing, most of the time, was still very skeletal. I would write these moments that were more like loading points, where I would end up after an improvisation. Eventually, all those skeletal things became much more codified and through composed.“
Stetson doesn’t just play his horn, he inhabits its very structure, creating gargantuan soundscapes that don’t usually pause during their development. With vocal sounds that either sing or groan like a didgeridu, his emissions almost tread beyond the confines of the saxophonic existence. His methods involve a highly strenuous engagement with his instrument. Stetson can be comfortably (or perhaps uncomfortably) placed within the jazz zone, but his rise has involved just as much of an engagement with the alternative rock scene. He style might recall Evan Parker’s never-ending circular-breathing ripples, or reflect the approaches of Steve Lacy or Lol Coxhill, but Stetson’s palette is more linear and incremental, loading up riffing repeats and swathes of atmospheric texture, his vocabulary more brutal and minimalist, with fewer events on its slowly evolving horizons. „The music is at the mercy of your own physicality,“ he continues. „So different things will happen, depending on how you feel.“ Even though Stetson appreciates the work of Evan Parker, he wasn’t really as immersed as folks might expect. „I actively pursue new techniques and new sounds, but there’s always something that you did not see coming, either as a result of those other efforts, or as a completely random event. Some of those things come and go very quickly, and others become ‚tent-poles‘ for compositions.“
The 1987 Low Life collaboration between Bill Laswell and Peter Brötzmann made a deep Impression.
Stetson started on alto at the age of ten, then expanded into the full family of tenor, baritone and soprano at high school. He flirted with the bass horn briefly at college, but didn’t have chance to fully get to grips until he bought one in 2005. „The lower end has always been something that I’ve had an affinity for, something that I’ve gravitated towards. As long as I can remember, I’ve looked at pictures of them [bass saxophones], and listened to recordings.“ The 1987 Low Life collaboration between Bill Laswell and Peter Brötzmann made a deep impression, with the latter concentrating exclusively on his bass saxophone.
„One of the things I learned very quickly was that when you play the other four saxophones, they’re all very close to one another. You assume that it’s not going to be any more of a leap than with the others, because harmonically, pitch-wise, it’s the same distance between alto and tenor, but the tubing and tone-holes, to get in pitch that low, it takes a much bigger bore, and longer tubing, meaning that you have to have much bigger tone-holes and more space between all of the keys. My instrument is a very early 20th Century Conn model. They were not building with ergonomics in mind, so it’s an absolute beast. Right out of the gates, it didn’t respond like anything I’d known before. I didn’t see that as a good thing, right away. I was pretty terrified by it, I thought of all sorts of gloomy, doomy shit, but after a month of really dedicating every day to it, it started to come around. You can hear it starting to happen on Volume 1, but the leap between Volumes 2 and 3 is pretty enormous, because I’m starting to have much greater control.“
„The microphones, live, come as a reaction to that hierarchy of Sound.“
As an example, Stetson recalls how, originally, the five minutes of his „Judges“ piece was quite a trial to play, but a few years down the line, and it can now last for up to twenty minutes, live onstage, if so desired. Despite what the listener might imagine, Stetson doesn’t use any effects pedals, but he does point, or attach, microphones on different parts of his horn, and has contact microphones stuck to his neck. „The microphones, live, come as a reaction to that hierarchy of sound. As soon as you start pointing the spotlight on one part of the instrument, you really have to do the same for a few other parts, if you want to get an even distribution of all the sounds that I’m using to make the piece happen. That’s absolutely affected my approach.“ This whole area became much more of an issue when Stetson graduated to playing larger rock-style venues.
For his solo Moers set, Stetson is aiming to play a collection of all-new pieces.
Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s album Never Were The Way She Was is released on 28th April, again on the Constellation label. The Canadian violinist has played with Stetson in Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, as well as making occasional guest appearances with each other as a duo during the last few years, one of which was at the Moers Festival itself. Both players, in their different ways, are exploring repeating figures, Neufeld prancing lightly, with a folksily rough grain, Stetson operating at least two pulses, governing the low and medium ranges. It’s the closest he’s come so far to the systems throbbing of Steve Reich. The pair’s multiple facets make them sound more like an ensemble than a mere twosome. „It was an experiment between me and Sarah,“ says Stetson. „Bringing in our own specific ways of playing solo, and combining our initial solo intentions, and the parameters which we work with by ourselves. We keep that all intact. It’s been really remarkable, what’s happened with that.“
„It’s the most exhausting performance I’ve ever done.“
The improvising threesome of Stetson, Fox and Dunn continues in approximately the same territory as Oso Blanco, the saxophonist’s group with trumpeter Nate Wooley, violinist C. Spencer Yeh and drummer Ryan Sawyer. This new trio have been nowhere near as active as Oso Blanco, and will quite possibly represent an entirely different improvisational zone. Stetson tells me that he thinks of an evening of improvisation as a snapshot that can only be taken right at that particular moment, and under those special circumstances. This trio will play the only fully improvised set of the four Moers appearances, although even here, certain guidelines have been agreed in advance. „The parameters are very tight,“ Stetson elaborates. „The idea isn’t just that anything goes. The way I’ve been liking to work, in improvisational settings, is to have a very particular motive, and a set of musical parameters. For this particular group, I wanted to focus on density and volume. It’s more of a metal approach! The idea was minimalism, but not in quiet, silence, but in movement and information. It’s very different to most things that I’ve done before, and it’s also the most exhausting performance I’ve ever done.“
The largest-scale performance at the festival will involve a twelve-piece ensemble playing Górecki’s Third Symphony, according to the original 1976 notation, but also in a manner which will only be familiar to listeners who happened to attend the work’s first airing at the Ecstatic Music festival in NYC. Even then, they only tackled its first movement. This time, they will be building up through the entire symphony. Stetson has recruited mostly New York musicians, but there are also players from Montreal, Reykjavik, Detroit, Seattle and San Francisco. Some of the most familiar names include reedsman Matt Bauder and guitarist Ryan Ferreira. „These are people that I’ve been close with, over the years. I’ve loved this piece of music for decades, and for about 15 years, my sister Megan and I (she’s an operatic mezzo soprano) have been talking about doing a performance with a different approach, although we’ll be playing the score. We’re not improvising based on the themes, or anything like that. The group is highly unorthodox, for the arrangement. It’s not a chamber orchestra. It involves saxophones, electric guitars, synthesisers, several string players, drums, and of course, the vocals.“
„It works by fusing minimalism, Black Metal and classical Music.“
Stetson isn’t aiming for a conductor’s overall vision, colouring the character of the composition. He’s more interested in a collective voicing, with the individuals as one, yet without any compromises, without subsuming any of their unique personalities, whether sonic or actual. „The piece of music is gorgeous, and it really makes so much of bringing the sounds of the orchestra into one, one sound from the many. Our approach is more like many sounds from the one group, from all the individual players. The first movement is very homogeneous in the original orchestration, its strings all very thickly, densely arranged, but instead of double basses, violas and cellos, we have contrabass clarinet, synths and electric guitars. We start to have a broader timbre palette, so all these different things start to come out. It definitely has a different feel, because we’re dealing with drums, much higher volume bass instruments, and an overall amplified approach. It works by fusing minimalism, Black Metal and classical music, that’s where this is coming from! It’s an incredible group of musicians, all of whom have very unique approaches to their instruments, and to music. That’s where it gets interesting, to me, because of utilising twelve people with very distinct personalities, and you want these all to shine through in the music.“