Colin Stetson’s High Art

Photo Corey Pool

Photo by Corey Pool

We’re in this subterranean black box at the MAC, sitting on our coats in front of a stage that’s elevated just above ground level.

The ancient, monstrous bass saxophone sits obediently on its perch, beside its dwarfed alto counterpart. Light streams down on the stage as if from a skylight in an old Roman church. This is a venue for high art, a descriptor those familiar with Colin Stetson’s solo work will find all too fitting.

As Stetson humbly walks on in a simple white t-shirt, the stage is now set. After all, his body is as much the instrument as his horns are.

He’s all wired up, from his throat to the thickly bound cords hanging off his sax, snaking into their inputs. As he begins with his alto, it becomes clear how fitting this underground stage in Montreal’s contemporary art museum really is. The sound is immaculate; every subtlety and climax consumes the space. The room falls silent as he fights through each movement. For a moment I fear he’ll rip apart the little instrument pouring forth his music.

His leads quiver like a string section; the clicks of the sax keys punctuate his heavy inhaling. His circular breaths form an unbroken drone punctuated by sharp inhales through his nose.

Above it all his throat singing bursts forth like some beast emerging amid the cacophony. He’s a charging rhino in the extended version of “Judges,” a great ship rocking against tall waves for “In Love and in Justice.”

We’re tricked into hearing a story he’s told many times before, what Stetson calls the saddest thing he’s ever heard—the 52 Hertz Whale. It sings in a frequency that no other whale can hear, forever lonely but still crying out. It’s this tragic sentiment that inspired one of Stetson’s new pieces, “High Above a Grey Green Sea.”

But it’s “To See More Light,” the title track off of the forthcoming final installment of Stetson’s New History Warfare trilogy, that steals the show—encapsulating all the power of this virtuoso’s style. The trilogy has seen Stetson push his playing further than perhaps even he thought possible, and the cult following has been growing. For someone who’s day job is playing with the likes of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver—and even the great Tom Waits—the love he’s received for his passion project must come at some surprise. After all, it’s like nothing we’ve ever heard before.

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.