A remarkable new interpretation of Henryk Górecki’s classic Sorrow has had both classical enthusiasts and contemporary fans turning their heads. In an interview for Culture.pl, Colin Stetson explains his thinking and feelings about the Polish composer’s influence on him, and why his album adds metal and drone elements to one of his favourite compositions.
‘I didn't change the music in Górecki's piece,’ says Colin Stetson, who just released a record with his new reimagining of one of the best-known pieces by the Polish composer. ‘The thing that I always found very impressive and timeless about it, is that regardless of what you know about this piece, you still understand that this music is about loss and suffering.’
Colin Stetson is an iconic multi-instrumentalist who plays mostly saxophone and clarinet. At the beginning of 2016, he recorded the album Sorrow, a reinterpretation of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s 3rd Symphony. using three types of saxophone, a bass clarinet and a synthesizer.
Stetson is well-known for his solo works (such as the New History Warfare trilogy, which has been presented on stages worldwide, including Polish festivals) as well as his collaborations with a long list of outstanding artists including Lou Reed, Anthony Braxton, Mats Gustafsson, Tom Waits and Arcade Fire.
Filip Lech: Sorrow tells a story of loss and mourning, and I think at various stages of life, one can understand it differently. How has your perception of the piece changed throughout the years?
Colin Stetson: I was around 19 at the time ,when I first heard the piece, and I think that my reaction then was strictly visceral. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn't read the translation, nor know the composer’s intentions.
Thing is, it doesn’t matter how much you know about the composition, you can tell easily that it’s about loss and sorrow. Everything embraced in the language of music is just lush and gorgeous. It seems timeless to me. Górecki knew how to tame the music, sort it into some kind of a mathematical truth, perfectly put together in a way that unlocks the key to an textural sort of feeling.
I’m getting older, I change. Over the years, my relationships with people, thoughts of losing someone, were becoming more and more digestable. As a teenager, I wasn't able to think about such matters. But later on, suddenly I had those experiences in my life and I think I almost graduated to another level of understanding with the piece. But at the same time, I'm no longer who I was when I first heard it, so in essence when you graduate to this level of understanding, you seem to get the different tones in it.
FL: Could you tell us something about the creative process while composing Sorrow? Is it your personal vision or did the musicians you worked with have a large impact on the final effect?
CS: I always need to hear my ideas out in real time and space, it quite often changes our perception. I had it mostly arranged in my head but I decided to bring together some great musicians whom I knew would enrich the sound of my project. If you carefully pick the right people, they can generate a certain energy and they mutualise, just you know, phenomenally.
My approach to Symphony No. 3 was to broaden in a way how I imagined certain sounds and parts which were absent in the original, which for myself, were some sort of an extension of the emotional core of that piece.
FL: How long did you work on the record?
CS: I thought about it for many years but when I actually sat down and started working on it, it was just a matter of months. It was about a week of rehearsing, developing and then performing a piece. Then the recording.
FL: Did you change anything in Górecki’s music?
CS: I didn't change the music. I’ve changed instrumentation, I’ve changed some things drastically in arrangement, dynamics, some timing, some space issues. I encroached on some phrases, from time to time I'd find some detail that I wanted to tweak. So there are certain things that are unique and move around. But I didn't ever change music, I didn't add anything.
FL: You've changed the instrumentation but you left the vocal part untouched. Why? Didn't you feel like changing anything in it?
CS: Like, transposing the vocals to a different instrument?
FL: Or a different kind of voice?
CS: No, the voice was the part that I knew from the very beginning won't change. I feel like my sister's manner of singing is more classical than Dan Upshaw's on the album from the 1990's. There's something incredibly powerful about how the mezzo voice tones in with textures created by our instruments.
FL: On the album, you play the alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet and a Lyricon. What about the concerts?
CS: For the performances, I play mostly contrabass clarinet and bass saxophone, a little bit of alto sax as well.
FL: What about the Lyricon? It's quite an intriguing instrument. There's one musician in Poland that uses the Lyricon, his name is Michał Urbaniak. He’s a great artist, you can even hear him on a Miles Davis album (Tutu, 1986).
CS: It's only on a mix, a little bit for a couple of flourish areas that are not necessary or rather they were overdubbed in one spot. I don't use a Lyricon at concerts, because I can't play multiple instruments at the same time…
I was always into analogue synthesizers, especially the wind ones. Everyone who is at least slightly interested in the subject, knows about digital midi wind-synthesizers. As soon as I heard about the Lyricon, that it existed, I looked for one and bought it. Luckily it was still functioning. Nobody makes them anymore. Many are broken, others have been modified or updated, but it's a very interesting instrument. It's a fully analogue synthesizer with I think two-dozen oscillators, highly-complex machinery that’s almost electroacoustic. Strange thing that it’s used by very few people.
FL Are you interested in rewriting or reimagining any other classical pieces?
CS: I don't think so. I mean, everything is possible, but I didn't do this for the idea of reconstructing an orchestral work. It was really just about the Sorrow symphony.
FL: Are you interested in contemporary classical music? I mean, new composed, academic music?
CS: Yeah, of course. I'm surely not near the knowledge I would like to have, but I'm a consumer of all the music I can get my hands on.
FL: I sometimes attend philharmonic and contemporary music festivals, and there was one thing that came to my mind while listening to your music. It’s based on drones, the lowest sounds you can squeeze out of an instrument. Why do contemporary composers avoid these low registers?
CS: I have no idea! If I were that kind of composer right now, I'd just be writing for bass ensemble. I love the way it feels, the experience. There’s something incredible in creating harmonies based on the lowest sounds, its about these wavelengths. I guess a lot of people are avoiding it because they find it muddy and boggy, which is what I like about them. They bring me almost a physical pleasure. So maybe it’s less of an academic or intellectual approach and more physical, intuitive. I feel similar about very high pitch sounds..
FL: Many people associate Sorrow with metal. What’s your story with this genre?
CS: I’ve been into metal since I was a kid, standard stuff when I was growing up: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath, later on bands like Meshugah. Meshugah is still one of my favorite band, one of the strongest players down there. But when I first time heard Liturgy a few years ago, that really opened my eyes to black metal, because I haven’t really been paying too much attention to black metal in recent years. Greg Fox is my favorite drummer so I invited him to play on the album. I love Wolves in the Throne Room, I think that they've created some beautiful music.
FL: What are your inspirations? What is most important when you start working on a new album?
CS: First of all, I think about the core of my new music. What do I want to fill the listener with? What kind of sensations do I want to provide, evoke? Which component should be the most important for them? Composing music is a very physical act to me, it’s work with an instrument. Years of practice helped me master my skills, so I can bequeath more sounds to the public.
Interview by Filip Lech, edited by AZ. Interview conducted in November 2016 before the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, where Colin Stetson presented Sorrow along with his band (an impressive array of cellos, guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, tenor and baritone saxophones, violin, percussion, and vocals). The concert took place thanks to the support and patronage of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music project. A repeat performance also took place in Katowice (at Katowice Miasto Ogrodów) on 18th December.