The first thing you notice when you watch Colin Stetson perform with a bass saxophone is the size of the thing. Unwieldy is not the word for it. Massive is closer, and it has a sound to match. But the sheer fact of its size cannot prepare you for that sound.
I first witnessed the spectacle in a performance Stetson recorded in 2011 for the French website La Blogotheque, which films musicians performing in intimate spaces. Here, Stetson is in his home, and the performance begins in earnest with a drone that produces such force, you imagine it must threaten the building’s structural integrity.
As the performance progresses, the camera begins to pay extra attention to Stetson’s face, which turns red and tense from the exertion required to operate his instrument. You wonder how he can breathe while playing uninterrupted, and how he can produce melodic and percussive notes at the same time. (The former is due to a technique called circular breathing, in which a musician breathes in through his nose while exhaling air stored in his cheeks, thus producing a continuous tone. The latter is achieved by forcefully clapping keys with his bottom hand against the instrument.) This is the first part of his virtuosity — the physical part.
There are two kinds of virtuosity. The first makes you marvel at technique — the labor the sound implies rather than the sound itself. This is sometimes found in metal bands like DragonForce, whose 2006 song “Through the Fire and Flames” features a pair of guitar melodies which have become the signature modern examples of instrumental athleticism. During the song’s introduction and instrumental passages, guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman produce flurries of notes with such speed that the space between them seems to evaporate. The song gained notoriety through the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, in which, even on a plastic guitar that featured five buttons in place of a fretboard, it proved nearly impossible to master.
This kind of virtuosity is a part of Stetson’s music, but it is mostly a visual phenomenon. You are not cued to it unless watching him perform from a close distance. The second kind is more important to Stetson’s work. It is about the sound the artist produces, and often results from an artistry that is impossible to replicate. It’s not that a given sequence of notes is necessarily difficult to play; it’s that the instrument sounds like an extension of the artist’s subconscious. You feel that the artist is giving something of himself to you, offering secrets in code. This is what you hear in the heaving moan of Stetson’s saxophone. There are echoes of the human voice in it, as well as those of much larger animals — an elephant comes to mind. But what it really sounds like is pain and anguish, any feeling that sinks into your stomach.
Stetson first drew notice from the kinds of people who read the credits on albums by trendy indie bands. (He has worked with Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, and Bon Iver, among others.) Certainly, those artists must have heard that sound and wanted it for themselves. Perhaps they realized they could not bottle it or use it as an accent; it would either be absent from the song or consume it. So they did the next best thing: They used Stetson’s versatility. While the bass saxophone is his best instrument, he can play many others, including a clarinet, cornet, flute, and accordion. But none of those records could contain his full sound; for that, he needs more space.
Stetson has made eleven albums as a featured artist, either with collaborators or by himself. On his most recent, All This I Do For Glory, he is alone and produces some of the most intense expressions of his virtuosity. The most notable, “In the Clinches”, is also the shortest. There is that groan again — violent, aggrieved — but the percussion is louder than usual. It exerts pressure on the melodies, and the melodies push back. Yet it is not the melody’s shape that matters, but the force of impact, the physical sensation of an instrument dueling with itself. It’s over in under three minutes, but its reverberations linger throughout the album.
Structure is important too. As on past albums, the sound is rooted in phrases that repeat and progress through minor variations. The songs move like spirals, circling a fixed point — usually a percussive beat. This new, increased emphasis on percussion was inspired by experimental electronic artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin, according to Stetson. Unlike those artists, Stetson prefers to keep a song close to its center. You will not hear him make an abrupt shift in the middle of a song. He is after a different kind of exploration. He wants to dig into a sound and see everything that’s inside of it. His music is a meditation, not a sampling.
In this way, his songs resemble ritual music, the kind that is used by cultures to remind themselves of their history, and how that history can connect to the present and future. It often involves frequent repetition to assert a lineage, to reassure listeners that their traditions will not be displaced. This is a steady labor, rather than a frenetic one, and it is suited to an instrument of the size and strength Stetson uses.
You can get a sense of this labor in the first music video Stetson released to promote All This I Do For Glory. The video depicts Stetson playing the song “Spindrift”, and, as in the La Blogotheque video, Stetson is alone, lost in his music. But this time, the focus is not on the magnitude of his exertion, but rather its frequency. The camera is placed inches from Stetson, and alternates between shots from the inside of his saxophone, close-ups of his fingers, and his torso swaying in time.
His eyes are closed throughout the performance, and his face reveals a focused serenity common in musical rituals. As the video fades out, so does the music, implying not an endpoint, but a continuation, a reckoning with something larger than himself. Something that rattles in the back of his mind, seeking release.