Michigan-born, Montréal-based Colin Stetson is no ordinary saxophonist. Armed with an array of techniques that include circular breathing, multi-phonics, microtones, altissimo, percussive tricks such as valve-work and clicking keys, as well as growling, howling, droning and other vocalisations, he performs all of these without the aid of electronics, overdubs or loops, with just a few strategically placed mics including one around his throat. Not only is he one of the most original artists in the world today, but he’s also in many ways an athlete, with his style being incredibly physically demanding.
Although he’s been active since the early 2000s, collaborating during the decade with artists such as Transmission Trio, Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio, it wasn’t until 2011’s ‘New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges’ that he became more widely known outside of the world of experimental music and avant-jazz. Since then he’s released a string critically acclaimed records, including most recently ‘Never Were the Way She Was’ with violist Sarah Neufeld, ‘Sorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony’, and his latest solo album ‘All This I Do For Glory’ which was released at the end of April.
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Appearing as part of the Mary Anne Hobbs curated Dark Matter series of shows for the Manchester International Festival, Stetson performed at Gorilla in front of a sold out crowd with the BBC 6 Music presenter providing support from behind the decks. Accompanied on stage by three saxophones (an alto, a tenor and a rather large bass sax), he seemed unsure as to whether he’d played in Manchester before (according to Songkick this was in fact his first appearance in the city).
It was an intense and transcendental 70-minute performance from Stetson. Even after listening to his music for the past 6 years, reading about his incredibly physically demanding technique and watching videos of his live shows, nothing can quite prepare you for seeing him perform in the flesh. Using the circular breathing technique, which allows him to play continuously for anything between five and fifteen minutes, he only stopped for a very short breather at the end of each piece. After which he gave himself a quick wipe down with a towel, said a few words in to the mic and went straight into the next one.
With his eyes shut tightly, veins popping out of his neck, sweat gathering on his forehead, cheeks inflating and deflating, some of the noises he creates while playing the bass sax sound like he’s summoning the Wrath of Gods. At one point he likened the intense feeling he gets playing it to the moment of free fall before releasing a parachute. Throughout the evening he frequently gave the impression of someone who has a deep, spiritual connection to his instruments, the bass sax in particular, describing how it’s difficult to focus on anything else while in its presence.
Performing a mix of material from his latest release ‘All This I Do For Glory’, alongside a handful of newer pieces he’s been working from a yet untitled album, he begun his set with the recent single ‘Spindrift’. A beautifully blissful piece performed with an alto sax, it’s swirling, Philip Glass-like sound was very different from much of what followed. From the weighty ‘All This I Do For Glory’ with it’s ghostly vocalisations, to the percussion-heavy techno-like ‘Between Water and Wind’, to the 15-minute closer ‘Strike Your Forge and Grin’ (a newer piece preceded by Stetson stating: “this one will take me out of the game“), the entire room was left collectively astonished with many wondering out loud “what the hell have I just witnessed?” Simply put, Colin Stetson is a force of nature.