Review: Colin Stetson at Café Oto

Colin Stetson at Café Oto
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2013. All Rights Reserved

Colin Stetson
(Café Oto, 27 October 2013; night one of a two night residency; drawing and review by Geoff Winston)

Colin Stetson’s prodigious talents are much in demand. The Montreal-based, American saxophone maverick has toured and recorded with Bon Iver and Montreal’s Arcade Fire, and Tom Waits enlisted his expertise on the albums, ‘Alice’ and ‘Blood Money’.

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Opening his powerful solo set at Café Oto on alto sax, Stetson cast a dense, floating net of booming resonances, rebounding rhythms and gritty distortions to subvert, invert and expand the possibilities offered by bass and alto instruments. He relayed pulses, percussive key clicks and a disarmingly wistful lyricism to lay out the the groundwork for waves of deep vibrations and serial rhythms that he would coax from his vintage, industrial scale bass sax – itself, a marvel of rough-hewn precision engineering – with a multi-layered live technique that has evolved from the physical and conceptual challenges that he continually sets himself.

He is so adept at merging all the sonic strands that it seems like the natural way to play, yet there is no denying that his live technique is astounding.

At first it seems that there must be interventions of processed sound and looped repetitions, but gradually it dawns that there’s nothing of the sort in Stetson’s armoury. All the layers and overlays, techno trance undertones and remote vocalisations are conjured on the spot, with the addition of contact mikes applied in a collar to his throat and to the saxophones’ bodies, combined with his mastery of multiphonics and unconventional breathing techniques. No buttons, pedals or other gizmos (see Comments below).

Stetson has explained in an interview with Consequence of Sound that he is constantly working out ways to facilitate the multi-tasking his compositions demand; using “… manipulations of the tongue and inside of the throat and mouth … [developing] those muscles and seek[ing] out new techniques… ” till he arrives at a ‘Eureka!’ moment when “it just works!”

There are similarities with Oren Marshall’s approach to the tuba, an excitement in the distortions practiced by Hendrix and a determination to bring them into the brass repertoire. Equally, Stetson’s atmospheric explorations brought to mind Yazuaki Shimizu’s quivering saxophone interpretations of Bach cello suites, recorded in a stone quarry and underground, in a mine.

There’s a recognition of sadness and near-isolation in his themes, and in a literal sense, too. One piece he introduced, from the final volume of his ‘New History Warfare‘ trilogy, is based on the whale whose call was out by a few herz, so his song was never answered by others. “Isn’t that the saddest story?”

His final number was for Lou Reed. “This day is a sad day,” he said. He’d lost a friend and a musical collaborator, and in the studied pace of his musical elegy he summoned up the essence of the hypnotic aspect of Reed’s songs – glimmering with the pulse and heartbeats of ‘White Light, White Heat’ and ‘Waitin’ for My Man’.

A mesmerising performance. And an impressively innovative promotion by Cafe Oto, too (see our background piece about how this gig came into being from May).

The first set, by Ex-Easter Island Head, featured an engaging and ambitious composition from this young trio combining percussion, electronics and guitar-based sound in a manner that owed respectful debts to Steve Reich, Kraftwerk and in their finale, the power chords of the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley‘. 

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3 replies »

  1. His music is amazing, as is his playing, but I'm not sure it was quite as wholly self-generated as you suggest.

    At the Monday gig he had 3 pedals on the floor, so some effects were presumably in play, although he didn't seem to change them during his set. I also assume his sound technician was bringing different channels into play as required ie disabling the throat mic when he spoke between songs – at one point he spoke unexpectedly and it sounded like gargling, so maybe that explains the pedals – also enabling the percussive key effects when required and so on.

    So perhaps not quite as 'simple' as it seemed, but awe-inspiring none the less.

  2. Thanks for your input – interesting.

    I did a quick visual trawl from my seat, and confess that I didn’t notice any pedals. I was unable to see the floor from where I was – so relied on seeing any actions that would suggest the activation of effects. Certainly there were no apparent gestures to activate any equipment other than the saxophones. If pedals were there, then they were probably static contributors to the sound quality, in my view – part of the original set-up, the mechanics of which will be for the experts!

    Going from various articles and interviews that I researched (as, initially, I was not highly familiar with Stetsons’s music or ways of working), there was a suggestion that pretty well all of what he does live is unaided and relies upon a stable, unimpeded system that is set up from the start of a performance – contact mikes to amplify key clicks and throat-vocals – hence his rigorous fitness/yoga/meditation régime to get him through the recording of the recent double (vinyl) album and the physical challenges he sets himself to achieve extraordinary layered sound.

    But I’m happy to learn more, as will other readers – so if there are any genuine insights or further information that can be contributed to this article to build up the picture (as Comments), bring them on!

  3. Anonymous, thanks again for your Comment.

    We have looked in to this further and have checked back to source, and to the best of our knowledge “the 'pedals' would have been DI boxes for contact mics on the saxes and throat – there should have been four in use according to the input list/tech spec”, which, I think, answers the questions raised.

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