Colin All Arms: An Interview with Colin Stetson

Colin Stetson
New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light

Call it uneasy listening.

Colin Stetson has not made the listening experience of his music easy for his audiences. But what Stetson has accomplished is bringing his brand of jazz to a wider mass that may have overlooked the genre, perhaps dismissing it as marginal music. Though he is quick to point out that his music is not exclusively jazz, his work is infused with the wisdom of the jazz greats that came before him: free jazz pioneers like Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, and Evan Parker seem to be points of reference. Yet the gripping tonalities in his music, while never even grazing the outer perimeters of pop music still share the immediacy of pop.

Stetson’s newest material, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, the third installment in a series mining the themes of war, is a musically dangerous exploration into sonic textures that reach far beyond jazz, pulling from a netherworld of troubled slumber and waking dreams. Stetson’s most significant trait in style is his circular breathing patterns in which the screams of his saxophones effusively spiral upward into the open atmosphere of sound. Numbers like the bone-chilling “Brute” and “Hunted” carry a force behind them so violent, they almost feel like physical assaults.

Stetson’s cerebral approach to the proceedings is not without emotion. While much of his work feels like a head-scratching exercise in jazz mathematics, his music is imbued with a sense of loss and resignation. Often in his music, the acts of both thinking and feeling cancel one another out; thus listeners are left in an undisclosed space of sound where context and ideas are often reconceptualized again and again with every wail, screech and bellow of the sax. Whether you understand his music or not, Stetson’s work is undeniably powerful — a walled-in chamber of voluptuous white noise in which the artist holds the addressees of his wayward signals captive.

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To See More Light is the last part in your New History Warfare trilogy; the thematic arc is essentially completed. Obviously, not everyone would be familiar with the two preceding works in the trilogy. So how do you think the material on To See More Light stands alone if people are either unaware or simply choose to ignore the dystopian/war narrative of the pieces?

Although this is a trilogy, and there is a greater narrative and musical arc from Vol.1-Vol.3, it is made up of three distinct records, each with its own arc, it’s own story and character, and each of those three are in turn made up of individual pieces, which are themselves characters, scenes, and events, and although I wrote them all with this interconnected relationship in mind, they’re ultimately all still individual pieces of the greater whole. So, to make a long answer short, I think it stands up quite well on its own!

Your style of playing follows a more contrapuntal approach; it’s a lot closer to, say, Evan Parker than Coltrane. Can you talk a little about your style, the circular breathing in your playing that has come to signify much of your work? How did you develop this way of playing the saxophone?

The answer to that is just entirely too long for me to even conceive of, as it really has been something that’s slowly developed over the course of 20 years. But I’d say one important moment was when I was 15. My teacher at the time (Chris Creviston) taught me how to circular breathe, doing so because he said that it was a useful tool in the interpretation of classical string music (which played a part in the classical saxophone repertoire) as it freed us up from the constraints of having to breathe when they did not. He’d just learned how to himself, and thought that it’d be easier for me to pick it up quickly, young as I was. And he was right! Took up the better part of an afternoon and I’ve been doing it ever since.

When you think of jazz being written, produced, and performed in this digital age, what are your ideas of where jazz is headed? Many argue that an album of jazz should be listened to from start to finish, reinforcing the idea of the album format. The album format, however, is being slowly eradicated by the MP3. Jazz has a history of being written in suites, a whole set recorded as a cohesive album of music. What are you ideas and opinions of how the digital age of music is changing jazz?

I honestly don’t think about my music as being essentially “jazz,” but I think your point there actually pertains to much more than that one genre, as the album format has been important throughout much of modern music. that being said, although I definitely agree that things are changing with the age of the MP3, I’m not worried about an all out death of the traditional album, if for no other reasons than the feedback that I get from listeners about my music (which almost always involves the nature of each record as a whole), and the recent rise in LP sales (the only format that’s seen increase in sales rather than decrease). I’m sure that less people are consuming these things in their entirety, but there’s always a push back and there are always people who keep a thing alive and help it grow.

With your music, you crossed over and found audiences that might not normally listen to the kind of music you play and are influenced by. Is that a testament to your own abilities to traverse genre lines or do you think it is simply the result of a culture shift in music today?

I’d start by saying that I’ve never approached my music with the intention to traverse genre lines. It’s simply not how I think about things. Not to be overly simplistic, but on a basic level, I write music for solo saxophone. All of it comes from and is entirely dependent on the saxophone, but I don’t consider this music to be jazz, essentially. I don’t listen to jazz music exclusively, far from it, and so I see my music as coming from a place that reflects my experience, and although that certainly includes jazz, it includes much more as well.

Can you give a little history on the saxophone you play? It’s a century old, I believe. Are there any interesting stories you know about its history?

It’s an old Conn Bass saxophone, one of the first ones they built in the early 1900’s. As for stories, I don’t know any from before it was mine, but since then it’s been around the world (5 continents so far) has touched the sand of the Sahara and has played for over a million people. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been able to add all of this to its history, and hope I get to bring it much, much more.