Colin Stetson Reimagined a 1976 Polish Symphony as an Electronic Black Metal Opus with Saxophones

Arcade Fire and Bon Iver’s go-to sax machine recreates Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony for a new generation.

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Apr 18 2016, 2:09pm


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When Henryk Górecki composed his Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, he was fascinated by the depths of human emotion. Consisting of three movements scored mainly for solo soprano and strings, and libretti that repurpose folk texts concerning Polish religious culture and historical events, it’s a post-modern, minimalist document of heart wrenching expressionism that calls for just under an hour of slow, mournful reflection. Critics have since labelled the work “holy minimalism.”

Written at the end of 1976 and premiered the following April, the impact of Górecki’s symphony then was extremely local. In 1992, however, New York City-based Elektra imprint Nonesuch released a recent recording of the symphony and catapulted the Polish composer and the 26-year-old work into the popular, consumer realm, even topping classical charts in Britain and the United States. Two years later, sometimes Arcade Fire member and Montreal-based saxophonist Colin Stetson was touring with Transmission (later Transmission Trio) when bandmate Stuart Bogie played that recording in the van. Speaking over the phone from Vermont where he’s currently recording a film score for a Danish documentary production about survivors of the Syrian war, Stetson says he regards the experience as a “transformational” one. “It was one of those things that just immediately grabbed me and everyone else that had heard it,” Stetson says. And fifty-nine years after it was originally premiered, Stetson’s interpretation of Górecki’s work can be heard in full for his new release, Sorrow.

When Stetson announced the project earlier this year, it caught more than a few off guard. Fans of his solo work are used to his preference for abstract, surreal narratives, and not unlike Górecki’s most popular work, each critically praised instalment of his New History Warfare trilogy explores folk materials related to faith and war. Stetson’s music is deeply meditative and entrenched in the world of minimalism, too. But because of his maximalist approach to his instruments (his use of voicing, circular breathing, and contact mics is well documented), Stetson’s sound is uniquely elaborate and distorted, busied with textures and timbres that lumber, scream, and swirl in many directions, often at once; Górecki’s Third Symphony is more homogenous stuff. What’s more, the announcement also promised listeners a take drawing heavily from the worlds of black metal and early electronic music, on top of his unique saxophone vocabulary. True to those realms, Stetson’s version of the symphony swaps out the dominant strings of Górecki’s work for drums, electric guitars, synths, and reeds, locating the project more firmly in his own wheelhouse.

A long time coming, Stetson says he originally conceived the concept for the project in the mid-’90s.“I remember I had been putting on a few stage shows here and there in San Francisco at the time doing larger scale things, and one of the ideas that I had at that time was to bring that piece of music into a completely different arrangement structure,” Stetson explains. “My sister [Megan Stetson] was living there at the time as well, and she’s a mezzo-soprano so she had planned to do the lead, and I was kind of establishing a roster for people that would take part in it.” That particular iteration of the project never got off the ground, but when Ecstatic Music Festival invited Stetson to perform at an event in 2014, Stetson enlisted his sister and a group of collaborators including Liturgy’s Greg Fox, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, and Arcade Fire/Bell Orchestre bandmate and Never Were the Way She Was collaborator Sarah Neufeld on violin, and the ensemble performed the symphony’s first movement at the Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan. Following that performance, Stetson spent last year assembling a similar 12-piece ensemble, to recorded the complete symphony live between different video-rigged rooms at Ismaily’s Figure 8 Recording studios in Brooklyn.


Photo by Tom Beedham

The source DNA of Stetson’s live performances is all there to find in Sorrow, but from the moment the album starts off, it’s clear that Stetson’s symphony is a vastly different beast. The arrangements utilize the clunking, heavy-breathing focal points of a contrabass clarinet, rigged up with his signature contact microphones instead of the original’s drifting strings. Some strings do anchor the work to its orchestral origins, but then tremolo guitars and ride cymbals engulf the soundscape as the ensemble builds up to Megan Stetson’s first verses. “On the way in especially, I really wanted that introduction, the growth out of the nothing that happens in the first movement, I wanted there to be elements of familiarity and so having the presence of orchestral strings was still very important,” Stetson says. Despite the sonic disparity between the two pieces, Stetson insists he’s remained faithful to the source’s notation; with Sorrow he mostly just made adjustments to Górecki’s arrangements to satisfy the dynamic requirements of the new instrumentation.

“Mostly it was a change in instrumentation and arrangement, but as soon as you start to change the sound sources you start to change the hierarchies of melodies and harmonies and then a bit of a domino effect kind of happens where certain things need to be altered to accommodate the new sounds, the new feeling, the new scope,” Stetson explains. That domino effect is also responsible for his sister’s involvement in the project. “The way that [Górecki] wrote [Symphony No. 3] for soprano, a majority of the piece sits right in the bottom of a soprano’s range. For my purposes, with this instrumentation, it works much better to have a voice which has a greater breadth of tone down in that register [like Megan] and it sits much better with the new hierarchy of sounds that you get once you start adding things like electric guitars and synthesizers on the bottom.” Taking what he describes as an “additive” approach, in a similar spirit, Stetson says he also stretched and condensed some sections—like the outro of the first and second movements—to suit the work’s expressionism. It’s in these moments that Stetson’s solo-esque saxophone textures really get to shine. “There’s moments where I actually kind of injected a personal presence in there, a bit of I guess a Where’s Waldo? moment.”


Photo by Julia Drummond

Given Stetson’s unwavering devotion to the source material and his determination to make Sorrow a work that is so undeniably his own, it’s worth considering how he relates to its Roman Catholicism. “I don’t,” he says. “I have no religion. Wasn’t raised with any, and I’m not a believer in any of that as an adult.” Stetson injects his version of the symphony with his own bag of signifiers, the general influence of black metal perhaps the most pronounced. From a pedestrian standpoint, injecting black metal into a symphony with strong roots in Catholicism could conjure up some complicated baggage related to the early Norwegian scene’s association with church burnings in the early ’90s. When asked about the connection, Stetson dismisses the suggestion (“purists would say that Liturgy is not black metal and most American black metal isn’t actual black metal”) and insists he accessed the genre more simply for its compatibility with the source material.“Black metal’s roots—a lot of metal’s roots—have to do with mid-century classical music, and so the stretch to incorporate black metal into a late-’70s melodic minimalist symphony didn’t really seem like a stretch at all to me, it just seemed like they went quite hand in hand.”

As much as Górecki’s Third Symphony pays sorrowful tribute to specific (religious) culture, the composer was hesitant to explain the symphony as an evocation of spiritual commentary on socio-political events—instead describing it as an artwork about the ties between mother and child. Although the symphony visits these events, at the center of the symphony’s emotional outpour, he chose to emphasize the unwavering persistence of humanity. Bracketed by movements with libretti built on texts depicting scenes of mothers who have lost their children in war, the second movement’s libretto is a message 18-year-old Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna wrote to her mother while imprisoned in a Gestapo cell during WWII. Inspired by the child’s selflessness, he placed it at the centre of his symphony aware she would meet her end during her incarceration, she doesn’t express distress over her fate, only concern for her mother—“O Mamo nie placz nie,” she wrote, “Oh, Mamma do not cry.”


Photo by Tom Beedham

“My attraction to this [symphony] has always been that, the second movement being that kind of a testament to our perfect empathy and selflessness, you know?” Stetson says. “In the midst of personal suffering there’s one voice that is offering a prayer to another.” Stetson says that’s a theme that’s been the focus of his attention all throughout his career. “The thing that I’ve always been attracted to in musics of other people and trying to embrace or try to dig deeper into with my own music is those essential and fleeting and rare human emotions—those things that are kind of the confluence of... ‘joy and sadness’ is not the right thing, but almost like the uplift, like the freeing uplift that happens in our ultimate suffering—those things that are so integral to our basic human stories throughout the eras.”

As a project, Sorrow is about engaging these works and breathing life back into them in new contexts. Through this, it’s possible to find truths and moments that are universal and unifying—and, with Sorrow, a window into the righteous emotional and intentional motivations of one of contemporary music’s brightest minds. “The religion of it to me is the veneer. It’s the mask. If you crack the surface, you go to the fundamental things that have informed the religion, and these things are basic parts of the human condition. And that’s really what I’m after.”

Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.