Image by Peter Gannushkin

Colin Stetson Makes You Forget Everything You Knew About the Saxophone

He's worked with a long list of acts including Bon Iver and Arcade Fire, and he's completely changing the form of modern sax playing.

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May 5 2017, 5:00pm

Image by Peter Gannushkin

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. Stetson developed the motif late in the night during the previous summer in the throes of a mescaline trip, when he'd gotten lost exploring the murkier functionalities of the saxophone—an exploration that eventually became the foundation of his solo career.

Seemingly startled by Stetson's discovery, Sinta abruptly cancelled their lesson, only to come back the next week proudly playing the same motif, as if to show Stetson, his student, what he'd learned from him. "That was the moment he validated this path for me," said Stetson, whose fourth solo album All This I Do For Glory saw release last month.

In the 20 years since, Stetson has developed an audacious new method for playing the saxophone, transforming it from an instrument that plays one part in song to an instrument that plays every part. When fans see him perform, they're left asking the same question Sinta had: How's he doing that? "It's flat out uncharted territory," said Stetson's first sax teacher Christopher Creviston, now a saxophone professor at Arizona State. "Every saxophone player is floored by it. There's a thing happening here that's undeniable."

"I was mesmerized by the music, as was everybody in the audience," said Constellation Records co-founder Ian Ilavsky of seeing Stetson perform for the first time. "The circular breathing and the physicality of it all blows people away. They don't realize that's even physically possible."

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Stetson's unconventional approach to the saxophone begins with the horn he's made the centerpiece of his solo career—the bass sax, a rarely used temperamental member of the saxophone family. A high school band typically doesn't feature one; a university's music department might have one stashed in a storage room. It stands just over four feet high and takes an incredible amount of air and lung capacity to play it. Your skull and teeth rattle when it's played at full volumes, and the long distances between keys adds strain on your hands as they stretch to reach them all.

"The hand spread on bass is almost twice what it is on [baritone saxophone]," said Stetson, who might be the first sax player of note defined by his use of the bass. "The difference is just enormous and it makes it so anything physically repetitive is difficult. Even playing scales was hard at first."

"Judges," in particular, is a 5-minute song with no breaks. In order to play that long without stopping for a breath, Stetson practices circular breathing, which involves taking in air through your nose at the same time you're blowing it into the horn. Sax players—and wind players in general—typically use circular breathing when they're playing a passage that's especially long, or when stopping for a breath would disrupt the expression of the music.

Kenny G famously set the world record for longest note ever played on a sax at 45 minutes
by circular breathing with a soprano saxophone, the smallest of the four primary saxes.
But Stetson funnels an astonishing amount of air through his body for minutes at a time to play his bass sax compositions without stopping to breathe, and he's doing quite a bit more than just holding one note. Given what he's doing on a bass, one might think Stetson could hold a note on a soprano for the rest of Kenny G's natural life if he wanted to.

The melody of "Judges" is just his voice—he's singing into the horn while he plays. He uses what he calls a "dog collar mic"—a contact mic strapped to his throat—to record the melody of "Judges," as well as to amplify it during performances in large venues. When he was first tinkering with the idea, Stetson used gaff tape to wrap and re-wrap a contact mic on his throat while he was on tour with Bon Iver. After watching Stetson rip gaff tape off his neck over and over again, Justin Vernon suggested using an iPod armband to strap it to his throat, and the modern iteration of Stetson's now-famous dog collar mic was born.

The percussive elements in "Judges" are the natural clinking of the bass sax's lumbering keys and the sound of the saxophone pads hitting the horn's open holes; the rest of what you hear on "Judges"—the multiple notes and the distortion—is created by Stetson's mastery of overtones and multiphonics. There's no easy way to explain these concepts, but they're an unintended acoustic quirk of the saxophone that advanced players can manipulate to add different textures, play super-high-pitched notes (the sax has a fixed register), or effectively play multiple pitches at the same time.

While some sax players have touched on these concepts in the past, Stetson practically lives in them, which makes a lot of his music on bass is virtually unrecognizable as a saxophone. Playing this way requires a level of skill and finesse that adds to the physical strain on his hands, mouth, and lungs that's already there because he's circular breathing and singing. A lot of sax players marvel just at the fact that he conceived such a punishing method for playing the saxophone. That he's actually able to pull it off—on a bass sax no less—is nothing short of heroic.

"Somebody came up to me at a show in Belgium last year and said, 'When we saw you last time, we thought you were going to die,'" Stetson recalled. "'This time it looked easy. I have to admit, I liked both times, but the dying one was exciting.'" It's gotten "easier," though, because he's pushed his body with the same level of purpose as a competitive athlete.
During his high school years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Stetson was a three-way starter on the football team and competed in multiple events on the track team; to wrestle in the 152 weight division, he'd lose 8 pounds of water weight before the weigh-in by running with multiple layers of clothes on.

Stetson devoured the classical sax repertoire when he started taking lessons at 15, and he arrived at the University of Michigan with a full scholarship as a classical sax player in the studio of legendary classical saxophonist Sinta. He was both the best and worst student a teacher could have, with an unmatched work ethic, focus, and ambition accompanied by a stubborn attitude that challenged every aspect of what he was being taught—especially in jazz. He was once dressed down by an instructor in front of the whole band for purposefully and repeatedly playing the "wrong" note over a chord, just to see for himself if it was "wrong." When he was tasked with developing and memorizing a library of "licks" over chord progressions that are recurrent in jazz—as common a method for learning jazz as there is— he declined.

"I rebelled against that with a fucking fervor," Stetson said. "It wasn't because I didn't like working. I practiced, but there was something about the work he wanted me to do that I rebelled against at every turn."

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Today, Stetson, 42, maintains the muscular frame of an undersized hockey player through running, skiing, circuit training, and yoga. He starts his mornings with meditation and extensive breathing exercises, to help "move his guts out of the way" of his lungs when he plays. "It's the way I interact with my world," he said. "I've always been really physical. My relationship with the instrument has always been really physical. When I stopped playing sports, I didn't stop being physical. I didn't become this entirely cerebral being."

Playing some of his songs is so physically strenuous that it takes him years to develop before he's able to perform them. If he takes a break from playing for more than a few days, he loses the capacity and coordination to perform certain songs. He says maintaining lung capacity isn't the biggest challenge; it's keeping his fingers in sync. He often uses uncomfortable alternate fingerings that aren't part of the sax's natural design, and bouncing across the instrument's wide terrain causes his fingers lock up and his forearms to swell with pain. "Before playing a show I'll have to play it and then do massive tendon stretches so it doesn't seize up when I'm on stage," Stetson said. "It just does a particular thing with a rapid movement—a repetitive stress thing on a bass saxophone that hurts."

"He's taking a lot of things that have been done a little, but nobody has ever done it as extreme as he is," Creviston said. "What he's doing is definitely an offshoot that has already started to produce some copycats. I've actually had students transcribe 'Judges.'"

If there's a downside to this method, it's that it sometimes overshadows his expressive and accessible music, which has connected with the type of mainstream audiences most solo instrumentalists can only dream of reaching, much less gaining a following with. Buoyed by his work with a long list of "indie rock" acts such as Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, and Bon Iver, Stetson's second album New History Warfare, Vol. 2 became an unexpected indie hit in 2011. "His albums appeal to listeners who aren't obsessed with a particular genre, who have wide ears and say 'Well, this is a completely unique thing that I want to have in my collection,'" said Ilavsky, whose label has put out multiple Stetson records. "He makes music that can be very interesting and satisfying to all sorts of listeners."

Accordingly, Stetson consumes practically every type of music; when asked what's currently in his heavy rotation, he lists five avant metal albums, and during the six years he spent in San Francisco after college, Stetson would accept practically any gig with any band, so he grew accustomed to playing into different styles and genres. To make his music, Stetson filters his eclectic and diverse taste in through the coarse textures of his one-man-band bass sax methodology to produce music that's familiar to listeners because of the popular music it's informed by. "Those Who Didn't Run" could easily blend in on a Radiohead album; "Brute" is a metal song; "This Bed of Shattered Bone," a wrenching, bittersweet ballad, belongs on Tom Waits' The Black Rider.

Regardless, his work has gotten more complex over the years: Never Were the Way She Was, a 2015 collaboration with his wife, Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld, was a symphonic work that creates lush and emotive soundscapes. Last year's Sorrow, his "reimagining" of Gorecki's 3rd symphony, was a daring and ambitious debut as a band leader, and he's doing more and more work as a film composer.

Stetson's music has liberated the saxophone from jazz altogether because his musical "diet" included transcribing Jimi Hendrix solos, Metallica riffs, and electronic music alongside "tons and tons" of jazz riffs. "You're never going to get your horn to sound just like the [Metallica] guitar when it does that sound, but when you try to do it you end up making the saxophone sound in a way that it didn't sound before, at least with yourself," Stetson said. "Electronic music is the same thing. When you start to try to emulate electronic music, then you become something different. Now, I play like this."

Which is to say, not like any saxophone player in the history of the horn, and especially not like a jazz musician. There's a rich irony that a classical sax enthusiast made the saxophone cool again by metaphorically yanking the horn away from the jazz kids; he's reinvented an acoustic instrument previously doomed to perpetually repeat its jazz past, and in the process carved a unique space for himself in the commercial music landscape that only he occupies.
All This I Do For Glory, is another dramatic step forward in both his capacity to play and his maturation as a composer and a narrator, and with his profile as a film scorer rising as well, Stetson may have another musical reinvention or two left in him.

"I remember having students come back the next day [after seeing Stetson play] just completely inspired," Stetson's old teacher Chris Creviston said. "Their ambition rejuvenated. Classical flute players going to see it and having their standards changed because they realize this guy by himself with a saxophone is holding the attention of this entire club full of kids for 40 minutes. That's insane—one guy with a bass saxophone."

Jeff Andrews is a writer in Brooklyn. He can circular breathe on a tenor saxophone for 45 seconds. Follow him on Twitter.