Breakdown: The Thriving & Roaring Sound of Colin Stetson Breakdown: The Thriving & Roaring Sound of Colin Stetson Breakdown: The Thriving & Roaring Sound of Colin Stetson Breakdown: The Thriving & Roaring Sound of Colin Stetson Breakdown: The Thriving & Roaring Sound of Colin Stetson

Breakdown: The Thriving & Roaring Sound of Colin Stetson

Thu Jul 5th

In this new breakdown-series we analyse and extract the groundbreaking work of pioneers in their line of musical duty. In this article, we explore Colin Stetson’s unconventional approach to the bass sax to describe his unique sound, which includes everlasting drones, circular breathing, and manipulating his instrument's acoustic tones. 

After delivering two breathtaking performances on the opening nights of Le Guess Who? 2012, Colin Stetson will be heading back to Utrecht this year. Stetson, also known for his collaborations with a.o. Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, is an emotionally gripping and groundbreaking sax player from Ann Arbor, Michigan, stretching the boundaries of what many people think is possible with his instrument.

Throughout the years, Stetson developed an unconventional and highly innovative style of playing the bass sax. In a recent article about his approach of the instrument, Noisey describes one of the first moments when his genius became apparent:

"Colin Stetson was warming up for a lesson at the University of Michigan when his saxophone professor Donald Sinta burst into the room with a wild-eyed look on his face. 'How are you doing that?' He was playing a repetitive, droning three-note motif, using multiponics to play multiple notes at once while adding distorting textures with overtones […] — an exploration that eventually became the foundation of his solo career."

To create this roaring sound, Colin Stetson uses a variety of techniques on the rare bass sax as well as the alto sax. First of all: the everlasting drone. For this musical component, Stetson uses a technique called 'circular breathing'. This involves taking in air through the nose while simultaneously blowing it into the sax, by which Stetson generates an infinite flow of air and sound.

The percussive elements of his music - which could easily be mistaken for the accompany of an actual drummer - consist of the squeaking keys and clacking valves of the horn; sounds that many performers would rather obscure than highlight. Stetson takes quite a different approach though. By mounting microphones on the back of his instrument, Stetson actually emphasizes the unexplored percussive side of the saxophone and enhances the abilities of his instrument, creating repetitive rhythms and a whole new musical element to discover.

"The sounds wrested from his instrument, how it's pieced together, and the fact that he's doing all of it in a single take ... honestly, it's hard to talk about Stetson's playing without overselling or grabbing for superlatives. So be it." - Popmatters

While doing this, Stetson still manages to find enough energy to add different textures to his playing by distorting the sound of his instrument, manipulating 'unintended' acoustic tones and singing through the reed; pushing his instrument as well his own body to the max. For his singing, Stetson also uses a contact mic on his throat to capture and highlight the vocal lines in his music, again adding a layer on top of his extensive sound.

By carrying out this unconventional method of playing, Colin Stetson turns himself and his instrument into a one-man army to challenge the definition and usage of the saxophone, as well as the physical boundaries of his own body. The result is a highly distinctive and expressive sound which yielded Colin Stetson a loyal following and extraordinary musical collaborations around the world.

"The grueling physicality of the act matches the tenacity and drive of the compositional voice. When hyperreal music can easily be made with digital tools, Stetson’s way is perversely arduous and thrillingly inefficient." - SPIN

Colin Stetson will perform at Le Guess Who? 2018 together with a.o. Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sons of Kemet XL, Kadri Gopalnath, STUFF., Nicole Mitchell, Greg Fox, Quadrinity, The Comet is Coming, Hailu Mergia and many more.

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