Colin Stetson: NUMUS 2017-18 Season Opener

Colin Stetson: NUMUS 2017-18 Season Opener

Between performances in Oslo and Amsterdam, saxophone titan Colin Stetson will bring his current solo saxophone show to Waterloo at the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall on September 23rd, 2017. Described as “astoundingly versatile” and “a towering musical force”, this is definitely a performer in NUMUS’ 2017-18 lineup that you don’t want to miss.

My first exposure to Stetson’s unique sound came through a somewhat atypical channel – I was shown his iconic video from Q, where he performs “Judges” from his album cycle New History Warfare, in a music history class featuring highly influential music from after 1975. This brief clip had a profound impact on how I thought of saxophone as a composer and listener, as well as on the number of tracks and amount of repeat listens Stetson started getting in my iTunes library.

To saxophonists and most musicians in the know, Stetson appears almost super-human as he circular-breathes on his saxophone. Circular breathing is a technique where a musician will keep sound going continuously on their (wind) instrument by taking extra air into their cheeks, and then breathing in through their nose while pushing the air from their cheeks through the instrument. This is what allows Stetson to play full pieces on his saxophone without appearing to breathe at all in the usual way.

Not to mention that in many of his pieces, he’s also vocalizing while doing it. And it’s harder on the larger bass saxophone.

I find that part of watching his performance is not only his dynamic onstage presence, but also his incredible endurance and circular breathing – they both add to the intensity already created by the sounds and structure of his compositions. In addition, many of the sounds he creates may seem quite unfamiliar to those who are more used to classical or jazz saxophone playing, but I assure you, they are all created by Stetson himself, though some are amplified via microphone. A companion video for the Q clip explains how he creates and captures some of the sounds you hear.

The September 23rd concert will largely feature work from Stetson’s new album, All This I Do For Glory, his first solo album since To See More Light in 2013. Listening to the tracks on Bandcamp, it sounds as though there could be at least two other people playing with him, or at least overdubs – but no, as stated in the album description, “all songs [were] recorded live with no overdubs or loops.” It becomes almost a game to try to figure out how he manages to create all of these layers of sound at the same time without much more than his saxophone and some microphones. Or, for those who prefer to just sit back and enjoy the music, it is a well-put-together album showcasing some satisfying, neat sounds and high-quality, almost super-human saxophone playing.

Perhaps what I find most fascinating about Stetson’s style of playing is his incorporation of voice. From the visceral cries in “Judges” to the haunting, more melodic lines in “Like Wolves on the Fold”, there’s something about the combination of voice and saxophone in his work that keeps me coming back as a listener.


Waterloo local Maria Kouznetsova is an award-winning poet, pianist, composer, and improvisor, as well as a graduate of the Composition-Improvisation program at Wilfrid Laurier University. When she isn’t musicking, she can also be found writing the occasional blog post.