Colin Stetson: Sorrow & Górecki

Eine kleine Nachtmusik it ain't. And yet, in 1992, lightning struck, tectonic plates shifted, and the third symphony of Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Górecki (1933–2010) became a bona-fide hit. Defying both skeptics and logic, a recording of this decidedly sepia-toned work, subtitled The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, by the London Sinfonietta conducted by American maestro David Zinman, and featuring soprano soloist Dawn Upshaw, eventually sold over a million copies, making it the largest-selling recording of modern classical music ever.

While shocked and gratified, classical-music fans everywhere were left scratching their heads. In a now infamous summation from his book The Symphony: A Listener's Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), David Steinberg cut to the heart of the matter: Are people "really listening to this symphony?" he asked. "How many CD buyers discover that fifty-four minutes of very slow music with a little singing in a language they don't understand is more than they want? Is it being played as background music to Chardonnay and brie?"

Despite these well-founded suspicions, the work has continued to be popular, and has been used in many film soundtracks, inevitably to suggest sadness or tragedy. It appeared in American director Terrence Malick's To the Wonder and Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, to name just two. Its influence has even trickled into rock, via bands Lamb and Faust, who incorporated samples of it in their music. Now Górecki's Symphony 3 has been "reimagined," as Sorrow, by one of the most inventive and unclassifiable multi-instrumentalists playing today: saxophonist Colin Stetson.

"I think I first heard it in '94, and it wasn't long, within two years or so, that I really had this concept that I wanted to present another arrangement of it—at least in terms of a performance," said the Michigan native when I reached him over a weekend in Vermont. "So I'd made plans with my sister back then, like '96–'97, to do that. Then, because of other gigs, life, whatever, it just kind of took a permanent back burner to everything else. But all the circumstances kind of came together perfectly in the past few years to kind of bring it up, to give me a window of time to deal with it, to give me the perfect ensembles to make it a reality."

A sideman in demand, Stetson tours with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, and has played on innumerable recordings by such artists as Tom Waits, The National, My Brightest Diamond, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and David Byrne. While he plays a number of instruments—including clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, and French horn—he is most famous for playing the rarely heard bass and contrabass saxophones. These are huge, heavy instruments—the contrabass stands more than 6' tall and weighs nearly 50 lbs. Stetson's three undefinable solo albums, New History Warfare Vols.1 through 3, on adventurous indie label Constellation Records, mix jazz, classical, and noise rock in wondrous, daunting ways.

The range of sounds and textures Stetson gets—from microtones and altissimo to down-and-out skronking—is unparalleled in the histories of the instruments he plays. For his Sorrow: A Reimagining of Górecki's 3rd Symphony, Stetson assembled a diverse group of 12 musicians that included Arcade Fire's violinist, Sarah Neufeld, and his sister Megan as vocalist. A smaller group had performed the first movement a couple of years ago, at the Ecstatic Music Festival, in New York City. After tweaking the arrangement and the ensemble, Stetson and his 12-piece group first performed Sorrow in its entirety last May, in Germany.

The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a minimalist work: a short conglomeration of minor-key laments based on melodic repetition in three movements, built around a trio of vignettes that focus on loss, particularly that of mothers losing sons. The first and longest movement, Lento–Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile, is based on the story of Mary and Jesus. The second movement, Lento e largo–Tranquillissimo, was inspired by a message scrawled on the wall of a Nazi prison in Zakopane by an 18-year-old female prisoner, who admonished her mother not to mourn her passing. The final movement, Lento–Cantabile Semplice, is based on a Silesian folk song in which Mary speaks to the dying Jesus.

A secular work that sounds religious and has much in common with the work of other so-called "holy minimalist" composers from Eastern Europe, such as the Estonian Arvo Pärt, Górecki's Symphony 3 is primarily scored for strings—16 first violins, 16 second violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, and 8 double basses—and solo voice. Bassoons, contrabassoons, and trombones appear only in the first movement, and then for only a few bars. Stetson's version is weightier and darker, with a portentousness the original lacks.

"The idea of bringing in a synth-heavy, guitar-heavy, and, of course, sax-, clarinet-, woodwind-heavy arrangement of this, is changing it considerably," Stetson admitted. "The big thing, by having a mezzo-soprano sing the lead instead of a soprano, the vocal lead is significantly different in color, timbre, and overall breadth. So that, I think, in itself warrants much more: the use of different instruments and a bottom-heavy, texturally interesting, and maybe more extreme arrangement.

"For me, as soon as I imagine one alteration—just like the example of the change of the vocal quality—then there's a domino effect. So for me, I'd always heard the initial entrance as being this low woodwind, this solo woodwind, this very intimate textural sound of the reeds, as being present there, and having the ensemble unfold from that, growing out of that texture rather than the bass section of an orchestra. So it's completely texturally and timbrally different in terms of that being the basis for the first movement. As soon as you make that change, then for me, I could kind of linearly think it through as far as what would happen and where I wanted everything to change, texturally.

"The first version of this symphony, the actual intended version of this symphony, relies almost entirely on the strings of an orchestra. And so you had this very homogenous string sound, which is beautiful, and becomes this unified front—and once you change that and you start to have very, very different instruments in regards to tone and timbre, then this thing can have many, many faces, and those faces can all start to interact—and throughout that first movement, especially, I found it really exciting to play with that. All of those voices are, if not vying for dominance, then at least, within each of their arcs, within their repeated lines . . . it's almost like waves. And rather than a wave of uniformity, a sea of [just] water, now you've got this thing made of many different things."

The most audible difference between Stetson's reimagining and Górecki's original conception is the addition of drums, played by Greg Fox, the drummer of Liturgy, an American black-metal band. Black metal—a raw, lo-fi style of metal music that originated mostly in Norway and Sweden—relies on distorted guitars, howling vocals, and superfast drumming. Black-metal performers often paint their faces in black-and-white corpse makeup, and the music and its practitioners have a dark history of suicides, homicides, and arson attacks on Christian churches. Wait—a black-metal drummer in a classical symphony?

"All of the changes I made to this, I really didn't change notation," Stetson told me. "And I really changed very little in terms of arrangement. I really was trying to examine the piece, get down to the bedrock emotionality of any given moment or movement, and then to . . . I put it this way once, and it still seems like the correct way to say it, examining the brushstrokes that were already there and trying to extend out further in those directions.

"With regard to the drums, in the first movement, the instrumentation is a round. It gets harmonically more complex, melodically more complex. As more voices enter, it really is this saturated, beautiful space, and I imagined just furthering that in terms of texture, timbre, and intensity. And the drums in particular: blast beats—as they are utilized in black metal, and in particular Greg Fox and the way he utilized them—just seemed the perfect extension of all of what was already there.

"Someone asked me about the black-metal drums recently: How do you make the jump? But for me, there's no jump. Much of black metal came from being influenced by 20th-century classical musics, and so that's already present in that music. Bringing it full circle into this doesn't seem like that much of a leap to me."

Stetson's past recordings have all been of audiophile quality, and Sorrow is no exception. Other than a few passes on sax that Stetson added to the second and third movements, and a few more violin passes for Neufeld that he added to "get more of a section identity," the record was all recorded live in the studio, without overdubs. Throughout the entire course of Sorrow, Megan Stetson was able to record her vocal parts with virtually no editing.

"The process was really interesting, and it took a little bit of thought. We were initially going to do it up in a studio in Montreal, and I was little bit worried about having such a large group, and also such a large group full of disparately volumed instruments . . . because of bleed. With everything I do, I try to get a clean, simultaneous recording. In all my solo things, I like to get isolation of different sounds and feeds, but I don't want to have to resort to overdubbing to get a clean performances. So I wanted to do it all live with the group, but we had to get a space that could provide that.

"Electric bassist Shahzad Ismaily, who is on the recording [and is a member of Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog], had just opened up a space in Brooklyn, in Prospect Heights, called Figure 8 Studios. It's a somewhat narrow building, but they have two floors that are entirely finished, and the kicker was, they were just putting in their entirely wired video system. They also have a great headphone system. So we had 12 people populating two different floors. So we had near complete isolation. There's just a little bit of bleed from string to string, or from sax to sax, on a couple things, but we were all able to be present sonically and visually. I was able to conduct the group from where I was sitting by myself."

Rearranging, reimagining, and/or getting additive with an established symphony—particularly one that is that rarest of birds in classical music, a popular hit—is a pretty ballsy proposition. Where does Stetson find his moxie?

"Honestly—and this is gonna betray some basic ignorances on my part—but in the '90s, especially, and actually until quite recently, I was unaware of the extent of that particular recording's success. I mean, I know that the piece was very well known, but I just didn't pay attention enough to the public success of that to have had that inform my decisions or anything. At the time that I started getting to work on this, if I had been thinking about it the whole time as 'This is the most famous classical piece in the 20th century,' would that have changed my . . . ? I don't know. For me, I really just don't . . . honestly, I don't see this version as being accessible in the same way as the first was. The first is the piece. That is the arrangement of this piece, that's as he intended it to be.

"I think that this one—my version—is going to be definitely more of an acquired taste. In that, I think that everything that I do kind of is. I deal with some basic extremes in sonic structures and sonic spaces, and I imagine that it's not going to that ubiquitous, that there would be that many people who would want to follow along with my particular vision on this. But that's never been my intention or desire, to kind of try and do this for any sort of mass appeal.

"I know this will be a terrible sound bite, but [the original version] is not a challenging piece of music. It is sonorous, it is beautiful, it is tragic, it is all these things. It is so poignant and perfect—[it] perfectly straddles that rare emotion that is kind of like the uplift of ultimate sadness. That freeing place when you can really touch the most terrible. It is all those things, but it is not a challenge to listen to, so that's what makes it remarkable. It is very, very difficult to do any one of those things that I just rattled off, let alone all of them at the same time and have it be something that is entirely accessible. That is a feat."

torturegarden's picture

I absolutely love this record and have been following Colin Stetson's music for several years. I've probably played this at least 50 time since I bought the vinyl when it came out. Record of the year for me so far.