As a classical saxophonist, I often find it hard to see where my instrument and style of playing fit in with the current state of modern music. Despite having met and befriended many incredible and successful classical saxophonists, it seems like our place in the musical world is one we need to create ourselves. Compared to other instruments, the saxophone is a relatively young instrument that grew up in a time when it seemed like instrumentation for the modern orchestra had already been established.
However, despite these aversities, saxophonist Colin Stetson continues to blaze new paths for not only saxophonists, but for musicians in general, and his reimagining of Gorecki’s Third Symphony is a landmark in modern music.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Stetson eventually went on to study at the University with famed saxophone pedagoge Donald Sinta.
“I started playing in the Creative Arts Orchestra when I was in high school, and continued on in college,” Stetson said in an interview with The Daily, “but it was the summer after freshman year where I started to get a little more experimental with my practicing.”
His first few years at the University proved to be a time of growth for Stetson, as he not only worked on his technical proficiency on the instrument with Sinta, but also explored other techniques for playing.
“I had a good work ethic when I was young,” Stetson explained, “building up my chops, you know, enough to get me into the program with Sinta, but my first year there … it was madness. I came in and was immediately put into one of the more advanced saxophone quartets and ensembles, and I felt a lot of pressure on me to perform. I was spending 10 to 12 hours a day in the music school, many of those were spent with my instrument, drilling and discovering new potential and sonic avenues for the instrument.”
As he progressed through his undergraduate degree here, Stetson started to gain a reputation for himself, and began to venture into ensembles and areas outside of SMTD. This is where some of his experimentation with the instrument came into play, especially in the usage of extended techniques, like voicing (the technique of altering the throat to change pitch and timbre) and circular breathing.
One of the things Stetson is most widely known for is his frequent usage of the bass saxophone, one of the less common and largest members of the saxophone family.
“I’ve always had a real affinity for the lower instruments of the saxophone family. In terms of it being more of a vehicle for the more abstract … it’s just a bigger, more resonant tube, so there are a lot of possibilities. I come from a background of pretty intense sport, so playing the big ones always seemed really appealing to me.”
However, one of the most incredible things about his playing is just how technically proficient Stetson is at this incredibly difficult instrument. Even with this apparent mastery, Stetson still feels like he has work to do.
“When I first got it, I worked on it everyday to get it to function in the way my other instruments do, and to this day, it’s still a process,” he said.
After his time at the University, Stetson moved out to San Francisco to explore the music scene and further his creative potential and compositional approach.
“I put on some solo concerts which were largely improvised but had a structure. They contained fragments of pieces that I had been writing for years. It wasn’t until my early 30s when I was sitting down and recording my first record where I had to sit down and really solidify all of this,” he said.
Sorrow – A Reimagining of Górecki’s Third Symphony could quite possibly be one of Stetson’s most emotional works to date. Based off of the ever popular Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Górecki, this project is one that Stetson sat with for a long period of time.
“Since I first heard it in the ’90s, it became one of those pieces in a handful of essential listening records,” Stetson explained, “I know it has had an impact on a great many people, but for me, being able to witness this minimalism and be incredibly patient and focused — it’s emotionally poignant, yet simple and accessible.”
Despite being originally written for orchestra with no saxophone involved, Stetson had a different idea during his original arrangement process.
“Sorrow is something I’ve been conceptually kicking around since I was fresh out of college. So when it finally came to start doing the work to arrange it, aesthetically, most of that work had been kind of done,” Stetson said. “I just needed to make sure it would work, instrumentally, the way I wanted. I really wanted to change up the conventional string orchestra, and add a saxophone choir at the core of it, and also traditional jazz and rock instruments.”
Stetson’s performance this Saturday at the Michigan Theater is, without a doubt, going to be emotional. Every member of the orchestra is insanely talented, and, combined with Stetson’s fresh arrangements and skill, there’s no doubt audiences will feel the sentiments of Sorrow.