Do you know the big saxophone man Colin Stetson? He’s a composer and wind-instrument pro whose collaboration resume is stacked to the rafters with indie rock VIPs. Just a few: TV On The Radio, Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Bon Iver, Godspeed You Black Emperor, David Byrne, Feist, Tom Waits, LCD Soundsystem, Sinead O’Connor. Maybe he’s the only bass saxophone player in North America or maybe he’s just super good at it. Maybe both. Either way, his solo work is not to be missed.
A bass saxophone is bigger and lower in tone than a baritone sax, which is more commonly heard in popular jazz and other genres. It’s about the size of a stuffed giraffe you’d win at a carnival, or, more helpfully, around four or five feet tall and weighing up to fifty pounds. When Adolphe Sax presented his patented new invention (the saxophone) in 1846, the imposing, stuffed-giraffe-like bass iteration was the one they saw.
Tangent: please enjoy this paragraph from Sax’s bio on the website of his hometown Dinant, Belgium.
“His childhood was tragic. Hardly able to stand, Antoine-Joseph fell from a height of three floors, seriously bumping his head against a stone: he was believed dead. At the age of three, he swallowed a bowl of vitriolized water, and then a pin. Later, he was seriously burned in a gunpowder explosion; he fell onto a cast iron frying pan and burned himself on one side. Three times he escaped poisoning and asphyxiation in his bedroom, where varnished items were lying about during the night. Another time, he was hit on the head by a cobblestone; he fell into a river and was saved by the skin of his teeth.”
Crazy. Maybe he invented the sax as a weapon of self-defense?
Anyway, Stetson utilizes circular breathing, a wind instrument technique I 0% understand but assume works like this. The result is a sort of hectic ambience, the technique enabling Stetson to keep notes going unnaturally long. But it’s more than just breathing or the lowness of the notes that makes his music stand out.
Many of his recordings utilize unique mic placement to create multiple, distinct instruments all out of one performance. For instance: one standard mic on his sax, one on the other side of the room, which capture two completely different qualities of sound out of the single performance. He’s also big on boosting the sound of his fingers clicking the keys on the sax, adding a pitter patter rhythm which goes well with the elongated whole notes that make up most of his melodies.
The whole thing has a respiratory vibe, but closer to asthma than pranayam. This is creepy, unsettling music, apocalypse stuff (it’s clear why Godspeed was into him). The music is also super pretty and auteurish, it sounds like nothing else. It’s minimalistic and wicked ambitious. It’s cerebral but unsubtle. And yet, there’s no secret in the music, there’s nothing behind the curtain, it’s just the big saxophone man doing his thing. Watch:
I’ve been thinking about it recently and I realized that all of these Music To Sweep Tos are good for sitting behind a computer because that’s what I do. (“Sweep” is actually short for Minesweeper). I’m going to open it up a little bit in the coming weeks, but I had to get Stetson in here today because that’s what I’m feeling right now.
So I hope you enjoy his work and if you do, please check out the rest of his music. The songs on today’s playlist are a good intro (“Judges” is kind of his “Careless Whisper”), but there’s so much more where that came from.
Now you know the big saxophone man Colin Stetson. Congrats!