Track 2: Colin Stetson, “Hunted”

I saw saxophonist Colin Stetson perform in Chicago in 2014. The performance was extraordinarily physical—as one would expect from a performer who specifically writes in the liner notes of his records: “All songs written, performed and recorded live without overdubs or loops by Colin Stetson” (Stetson 2013). Stetson seems to claim that through the mediation of the recording we are experiencing his real musicking body, and that the recording is simply a vessel that conveys the body to the listeners. Indeed, after about 45 minutes of playing nearly continuously at the Chicago concert, Stetson apologized for the brevity of his set, explaining that his songs take a lot out of him. He played a final song, thanked the crowd, and departed the stage (Stetson 2014).

In some regards, Stetson’s use of breath is consistent with the Guarneri Quartet. Like the Guarneri, Stetson’s breathing is indexical of the musical sound he produces—especially considering that breath is an essential precursor to the production of sound on the saxophone. The distinction I am making here is not that a saxophonist like Stetson must breath while string quartet players like the Guarneri musicians need not do so; nor is it the case that one’s breathing is necessarily more tied to the musicality of the performance than the other. However, as a saxophonist Stetson must contend with the fact that breathing must be an element of his instrumental technique, as the air he exhales is vibrated in the saxophone to produce sound. I contend that one of the more remarkable elements of Stetson’s musical performance is that he has taken the acoustic and physiological necessity of breath and transformed it also into an element of his complex musical polyphony.

Stetson’s performances—including one I witnessed (Stetson 2014) and others that can be viewed online (for example, see “Colin Stetson Eaux Claires Festival, 7-18-2015” and “Colin Stetson – High Above a Grey Green Sea (Live in Boston)”)—employ practically his whole body. He slams the keys of his instrument to create a percussive sound. He alters his air stream (what he calls ‘voicing’) in order to produce multiphonics in the saxophone’s upper (altissimo) register. He sings countermelodies to the instrumental parts. And he assembles these across a continuous (and often lengthy) performance by employing circular breathing.[ix] These techniques, especially in combination, are physically taxing, no less so when one considers that one of Stetson’s primary instruments is the very large 20-pound bass saxophone. At the same time, Stetson is quite savvy with his use of amplification and recording technologies. The massive cavity of the bass saxophone is well suited to resonate the slapping of keys, but it doesn’t project far enough to be heard acoustically in concert or with a normal microphone. Consequently, Stetson uses contact microphones attached to the back of his instrument to capture the sound of the keys. Similarly, his singing would not project enough over the other elements of his playing, so he wears a microphone on a collar. In at least one photo I have seen (Singh 2011), Stetson has yet another microphone positioned near his mouth while playing (which is in addition to the expected microphone in front of the saxophone bell) in order to capture the sound of his breathing. (For an example of Stetson’s performance techniques, see “Colin Stetson Breaks Down ‘Judges’”.)

In short, Stetson’s recorded performances, while “live” in the sense of having been played continuously (“without overdubs or loops” [Stetson 2013]), are substantially a product of Stetson’s microphone techniques. I use the phrase ‘microphone technique’ here specifically to refer to the ways in which musicians have adapted their singing and playing styles to the possibilities of the microphone—the most famous of which is perhaps the ‘crooning’ vocal style that developed in the late 1920s in response to the advent of the microphone and electric recording.[x] In Stetson’s case, the microphone is a key collaborator in his musical process: it allows him to create a polyphonic music that would not be possible (because several elements would not be audible) without the ability to capture these many layers through close miking.[xi]

Furthermore, Stetson is highly conscious of the role of breath as a part of his musical performances. In an NPR interview he remarked, “Everything I do is intended to be music. The breathing is all part of that” (“Colin Stetson: Horn of Plenty”). He also elaborated on his circular breathing technique:

“I learned when I was about 15. My teacher at the time, he taught it to me as a means to perform string pieces. So string players don’t have to breath. When we would play them, our phrasing would always be interrupted by our breath. So he taught me this…Your brain just figures out how to do it and your body follows along”. (ibid.)

Stetson positions his breathing as simultaneously a means to an end and an aesthetic sonic element, even though these two views did not develop simultaneously. In learning to circular breath, Stetson describes the challenge as primarily conceptual, and the body as subservient to the mind. However, once the technique is adequately developed, then Stetson has greater freedom to use it as an expressive device, to make breath a part of his sonic palette while still using it to create extended continuous musical performances. The result is a seemingly paradoxical mix of humanness and superhumanness, a paradox that has long been a part of discourses of virtuosity (for example, see Deaville 2014; Kramer 2012). In Stetson’s case, the sound of breath points to the physicality of the performance and the rigor with which Stetson has trained his musical body, while the unending performances seem to defy what is physically possible.

Figure 2

Stetson’s breathing techniques are evident throughout his recorded corpus, although here I will only analyze the track “Hunted” from his 2013 album New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light. In “Hunted” Stetson constructs a work that proceeds in alternating phrases of four long beats. Over a constant low ostinato, Stetson sings a descending melodic line, picked up by his throat microphone and paralleled in the multi phonic counterpoint of the saxophone. In a consequent phrase, Stetson maintains the ostinato while loudly inhaling four times through his nose. The inhales are not quite evenly spaced to align with the beats; there are three substantial inhales and one final quick one before the antecedent phrase enters again (see: Figure 2). This pattern of antecedent and consequent phrases repeats throughout the song, and importantly, Stetson’s breathing remains nearly identical in rhythm and timbre throughout. In the song’s middle portion, the overall dynamic level decreases, allowing Stetson to double the length of the antecedent phrases. Nonetheless, in the consequent phrases—which are the same length as the opening–Stetson’s breathing pattern is identical, containing three long nasal breaths and one short one. Colin Stetson, “Hunted,” opening. The upper part is sung in a “pure” tone, while the lower one is heavily distorted, making the pitches unclear (and hence the “x” note heads). The starred note heads indicate where Stetson inhales audibly through his nose, including approximate lengths of the breaths (three long and one short), and they are represented on a separate staff to emphasize their role in the song’s polyphony.>

A hybrid of Stetson’s musicking body and his studio technique, in “Hunted” we see how crucial the recording medium is for Stetson, even though he does not overdub or cut together different takes. Because he uses several microphones focused on different parts of his musical body and instrument, he is able to process different components of his counterpoint distinctly from each other. For example, the reverb on “Hunted” indicates that Stetson’s singing is quite distant because it is drenched in reverb and yet perceptually seems energetic and ‘loud’. This indicates to the listener that Stetson’s singing does not occupy the same physical space as his saxophone which sounds dryer, and is therefore heard as closer to the listener.[xii] His description of his recording practices in the liner notes seems designed to dispel listeners’ potential anxieties at the authenticity of his performance. He seems to anticipate that his recorded performances are likely to be heard and interpreted within a mediatized listening culture (Auslander 2008) and that listeners will therefore have a skepticism, born of the ubiquity of recording technology, about his real physical ability to produce the music on the recording. However, this dichotomy is not a real one—or, to be more precise, it is not the case that we must see Stetson’s performance as either a singular musicking body or technologically enabled. Stetson uses recording technologies to further extend his already extended bodily techniques as a means of building an intimacy with listeners who are able to experience his bodily counterpoint from a simultaneously close and distant perspective.

Compared with David Soyer and the Guarneri Quartet, Stetson’s breathing is striking and extreme, although less so than one might initially expect. These are all musicians for whom breathing relates intimately to their musical performance. In both cases, breath is a way of articulating phrase structures with the music, although for Soyer, breath is not present on the recording as a deliberate sonic and musical element. Soyer’s breathing was likely the by-product of his musical performance in the studio (and, as we saw above, also the result of the quartet and recordists trying to strike a balance between achieving perfection and preserving the “take-oneness” of the recording). In contrast, Stetson seems to want to transcend the necessity of breathing that has traditionally been a limitation for players of his instrument. As with Soyer, Stetson’s audible breathing serves to mark the extraordinary physicality of his musicking; but unlike Soyer, Stetson consciously controls, places, and dynamically balances his breathing in order to enhance the contrapuntal features of his music.