Saxophonist Colin Stetson tackles Henryk Górecki


  • Courtesy of Billions
  • Colin Stetson

Though he's collaborated with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, reedist Colin Stetson is best known for his remarkable solo work. He's developed a mind-warping practice in which he deploys extended techniques used most often in free improvisation—circular breathing, extreme tonguing effects, et cetera—to create a kind of richly atmospheric art-pop using only his breath and a horn (most often a tenor or bass saxophone, but only one at a time). By positioning an army of microphones on and around his instrument (as well as one on his neck to pick up the humming sounds he makes in his throat), tapping the horn's various pads and keys, and using circular breathing, he's able to create beats and simultaneous lines. Even if the results weren't so impressive musically, it'd make for a good circus act.

Earlier this year Stetson released a new recording that put that approach on the back burner. He wrote new arrangements for the popular Symphony No. 3 by Polish composer Henryk Górecki, one of those rare modern-classical works that's crossed over to a mainstream audience—it achieved that distinction after Nonesuch Records released a version of the 1977 piece by the London Sinfonietta with soprano Dawn Upshaw in 1992. Stetson's version takes liberties, but at its heart the music on Sorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony (52HZ) is a sincere homage. He plays alto, tenor, and bass saxophones, contrabass clarinet, and lyricon, but he's just one part of a dense ensemble—many members of which will be joining him Wednesday evening, when he brings this project to SPACE in Evanston. The lineup includes fellow reedists Matt Bauder and Dan Bennett, string players Sarah Neufeld, Amanda Lo, and Rebecca Foon, guitarists Ryan Ferreira, Toby Summerfield, and Shahzad Ismaily, keyboardist and electronic valve instrumentalist Justin Walter, soprano Megan Stetson, and drummer Greg Fox.

Stetson is frequently still the star of the show, though, and he displays his prodigious circular breathing in the opening minutes of the work's first section, "Lento: Sostenuto Tranquilo ma Cantabile," which is today's 12 O'Clock Track. As his dark, growling bass sax tones billow like black smoke, you can hear him gulping down air through his nose. As the piece unfolds, somber lines layered in sections of reeds and strings grow in density and volume. Stetson's sister Megan joins in to sing the lament, while rapidly plucked electric guitars add a postrock vibe that's somewhere between Sigur Ros and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Fox adds surging cymbal swells. The music is much louder than a conventional reading of the symphony, but its essence is unmistakable.
Today's playlist:

Chick Corea, The Song of Singing (Blue Note)
Séverine Ballon, Solitude (Aeon)
Kris Allen, Beloved (Truth Revolution)
Lesley Flanigan, Glacier (Physical Editions)
Richard Youngs, Amplifying Host (Jagjaguwar)

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