The unlikely duo of saxophonist Colin Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld creates a series of classically minimalist dronescapes that toe the line between the accessible and the avant garde. It’s a daring collection with often surprising results.
A relatively new instrument in the classical idiom, there are few works designated specifically for the saxophone. Instead, it is often confined to jazz and pop, rarely making any sort of orchestral appearance. But because of its comparative newness, the tonal possibilities for the saxophone within a classical context have yet to be fully exhausted, let alone explored. While there are a handful of classical staples for the saxophone (Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia, Frank Martin’s Ballade, et. al.), the instrument remains largely confined to popular music.
By the 1960s, the instrument was being explored in new and exciting ways by jazz avant gardists John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Peter Brotzmann, among a host of others. Adopting these players’ decidedly “out” approach, contemporary classical composers working within the minimalist movement began incorporating the instrument into their compositions. With its broad range of tonalities and textures, the saxophone offered an ideal aural palette for those looking to push the boundaries of classical music in the 20th century.
Of these, the most prominent is perhaps Terry Riley, whose minimalist compositions were heavily informed by jazz. “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band”, from his landmark 1969 release A Rainbow In Curved Air, features Riley on soprano saxophone employing a circular, looped melodic figure accompanied by electric organ. This basic compositional structure, that of circular phrases and a tonal building and taking away, informs much of saxophonist Colin Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld’s (Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre) first collaborative recording, Never Were the Way She Was.
Opening track “The Sun Roars into View” possesses a lyrical circularity reminiscent of the minimalist explorations of both Riley and Phillip Glass. The former’s “A Rainbow In Curved Air” in particular seems to be a touchstone, with Stetson’s saxophone used in place of a synthesizer. His impeccable control of the instrument allows him to seamlessly intertwine the more strident elements of the horn often heard in the avant garde with that of a warmer, more classically informed tone.
“In the Vespers” explores similar territory, Neufeld employing a highly syncopated, harmonized line within which Stetson wends, synth-like, with a percolating line that manages to be as percussive as it is melodic. Growing in intensity as Neufeld continues unabated, the song explodes at the halfway point as both break off into a frenetic counterpoint. From this, Stetson creates a series of almost-overtones that continue the circular, pulsating figure from before. Having dropped out, Neufeld returns with a series of gorgeous legato lines that stand in stark contrast to Stetson’s tempered freneticism. It’s a wild mix of tonalities in a relatively short span that serves to highlight the best elements of the pairing.
“With the Dark Hug of Time” finds Stetson utilizing a low drone on the bass saxophone that, at its lowest point, vibrates almost uncontrollably. With Neufeld creating a series of swirling overtones, an unsettling vibe replete with menacing, ponderously elephantine pounding, is established. In this they both begin to explore the uglier elements of their respective instruments with a thrilling grace and control. Stetson in particular wrestles a host of otherworldly sounds from his instrument with a subtlety and mastery of control that would put most avant garde saxophonists, those who rely more on shrieks and squeals than tonal control, to shame. Utilizing a circular breathing technique, Stetson is able to craft an inorganic sounding drone that lasts minutes, simmering away unceasingly, perpetuating the sense of dread.
While the music on Never Were the Way She Was is certainly challenging to varying degrees, it never strays far enough to become inaccessible. Such is the appeal of Stetson’s take on the avant garde. Furthering the surprisingly mainstream success of his previous albums, Stetson here manages to temper some of his more strident tonalities with Neufeld’s more traditionally structured compositional approach.
“Won’t Be a Thing to Become”, despite its unwieldy title, is the most traditional-sounding piece here. Both Neufeld and Stetson explore a circular melodic figure beneath soaring, wordless vocals. It’s exhilarating in its ethereal nature and a lovely reprieve from the more discordant dronescapes that permeate much of the rest of the album. Furthermore, it may very well mark the first time in recorded history a violin and bass saxophone perform a melodic, counterpoint duet of sorts (any examples to the contrary are to be warmly welcomed).
Given her primary involvement in Arcade Fire, Neufeld’s approach to her instrument carries with it an appropriately anthemic quality redolent of that band’s biggest moments. This tactic serves as a perfect foil to Stetson’s atypical approach to his instrument. Together, Stetson and Neufeld create something on Never Were the Way She Was that offers a mass appeal and level of accessibility often lacking these types of more exploratory, avant garde pairings. “The Rest of Us”, a highly percussive track heavily reliant on Stetson’s rhythmic pounding of the keys, could easily serve as the instrumental backing to an unreleased Arcade Fire track.
Throughout, it’s the sheer scope of Stetson’s sonic palette that is the real marvel. Where Neufeld relies on a number of oft-utilized stylistic techniques, Stetson approaches the saxophone in a manner wholly his own. On the title track, he creates a series of sustained bass drones that underscore Neufeld’s more melodic, almost melodramatic approach to the violin.
Alone, they conceptually stand in stark contrast to one another. Yet when paired, Stetson and Neufeld manage to create something truly exceptional. Never Were the Way She Was finds these two highly skilled artists operating at the top of their respective games and is a welcome addition to the experimental minimalist end of the contemporary classical landscape.