Colin Stetson: SORROW – A Reimagining of Górecki’s Third Symphony

Saxophonist Colin Stetson focuses on leading over playing here, assembles a group and building compositions with them to both honor a classic work and render it entirely new.
Colin Stetson
SORROW - A Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony
Kartel Music Group

Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, also known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, came at a time of transition for the composer. The Polish composer wrote the symphony in 1977 and had, to that point, been a part of the avant-garde movement in classical music. After his Third Symphony, though, he would turn to more tonal music. This piece, stuck in between those times, mines repetition in a fresh, experimental way, but it also feels sweeping and tuneful throughout. It’s a landmark recording, and one that became quite successful when a 1992 recording of the piece sold over a million copies.

So, to take on Górecki’s Third Symphony is no small task. If anyone is up for it, though, it’s Colin Stetson. The saxophonist is one of the most versatile and exciting musicians playing in experimental music today. Sorrow, his reimagining of Górecki’s symphony, finds Stetson shifting gears yet again. This isn’t the grinding edges, and tonal extremes of his New History Warfare trilogy. Nor is it the subtle textures and slow, quiet builds of his excellent collaborations with Sarah Neufeld, last year’s Never Were the Way She Was. In fact, this album is less about Stetson’s playing than it is about his composing. You’ll hear his signature saxophone, to be sure, but it’s the way he assembles a group and builds with them, sometimes improvises with them, to both honor a classic work and render it entirely new.

Stetson brought Neufeld back for this record, along with cellist Rebecca Foon (Saltland), to build a violin and cello section that draws a clear line back to Górecki’s music. This is key because other elements stretch out in fascinating tendrils into other genres and textures. The first movement, running 28-plus minutes, is a titanic opener. It slow stacks nascent layers of string and atmospherics, building a lush bed of sound that then gets both bolstered and disrupted by the rumble of Stetson’s playing. The sounds rise and peak on a bed of swirling electronics and distant crashes — a seemingly impenetrable wall of beautiful sound that threatens to overwhelm you — until it bottoms out, returning to the strings and giving space for the vocals (sung by Stetson’s sister Megan) to introduce a whole new layer of sad beauty to the movement. Megan Stetson’s voice leads the instrumentation back to another peak, this time clashing the layers together into complex burst of treated sounds that eventually settles into the movement’s ambient, drifting close.

Movement II runs ten minutes, but still packs the same set of surprising turns. Stetson’s saxophone is on display the most in the song’s opening, groaning beautifully under echoing piano and crystalline vocals. The movement dives wholeheartedly, at the outset, into Stetson’s fascination with electronic music. It sounds organic, but there’s enough atmosphere and skittering touches to move out of Górecki’s musical palate and into more ambient spaces. It’s the second half of the song, though, that is truly remarkable. The song steers back towards classical crescendo, but drummer Greg Fox brings a powerful, propulsive beat into the far background of the song, giving it a lively pulse and tilting the song on its axis in fascinating ways.

In Stetson’s version of the Third Symphony, this moment is the hinge, the middle turn in the center of an album that was, for Górecki a hinge in his career. The electronic influences yield on Movement III to crashing, unabashed black metal. Strings and synthesizers, along with guitar and Stetson’s saxophone bellow out low-end muscle as Stetson uses Górecki’s music to explore yet another set of textures. That the movement’s dark shadows clear out eventually, that it brightens on the return to woodwinds and strings, suggests a kind of resolution, a light feeling of having discovered something new over the course of these partly improvised movements. Sorrow marks an interesting new turn in Stetson’s work, one where it’s not his playing that is singular, but rather his musical vision overall. The album feels both traditional and playful, timeless and of the moment. It’s an album that you’ll get immersed in, one with surprises more subtle than some of Stetson’s other work, but not necessarily less rewarding.

RATING 7 / 10