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Saxophonist Colin Stetson gives Gorecki’s Symphony a black metal makeover

By Alison Hird

American saxophone player and composer Colin Stetson occupies a unique place on the modern music scene. His mastery of circular breathing and voicing while playing sax has led to collaborations with the likes of Tom Waits, Feist, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver… as well as an important solo career. For his latest album, Sorrow, he "reimagines" Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No.3, bringing metal overtones that add to the soul-searching piece’s poignancy.

“I haven’t really taken to playing anyone else’s music, especially not recording anyone else’s music,” says Stetson. “But there are moments where something strikes you as being evident and I kind of saw this path to an arrangement of this piece.”

That was back in 1994. Like the other million or so music-lovers Stetson had discovered Gorecki’s Symphony No.3, when it was released by Nonesuch records as The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs in 1992.

"So it’s really been growing in my head for almost 20 years," he adds.

Sorrow uses Gorecki’s score. "It’s a performance of the symphony," he explains, “not some kind of complete reshuffling or scrambling of the piece of music”.

But he’s made radical changes to the instrumentation, going heavy on woodwinds, synthesizers and electric guitars. “So the arrangement, all the sound sources are drastically different.”

Stetson plays a variety of different saxophones on the album, and has drawn on the talents of violinist and Arcade Fire member Sarah Neufeld and cellist Rebecca Foon (both key figures on the Canadian indie scene).

"But the most obvious differences are the introduction of drums,” he says, and that’s in large part thanks to Greg Fox, drummer with black metal legends Liturgy.

Greg employs “a lot of technique common in the black metal genre so he brings that flair,” explains Stetson.

The 12-piece ensemble's version of the third symphony is therefore "quite extreme in its use of elements that are more akin to metal genre, there’s some very high volume passages”.

Low volume ones too, particularly in the third movement. And yet high emotion throughout, held by soprano Megan Stetson, Colin Stetson's sister. As in the original, she sings the three Polish texts.

The most well-known is in the second movement, taken directly from lines a young girl wrote on the wall of her Gestapo cell in 1944 in tribute to her mother.

Stetson says he was struck by Gorecki’s own reflexion on those words as an act of selflessness in the midst of so much personal suffering.

"I feel like in all of us, that’s the distillation of perfect empathy," he says, "this idea that we’ll get out of ourself and in that moment of absolute suffering, the suffering of others will trump our own."

While he’ll never experience anything similar Stetson feels "we can learn from that, and how to try and embrace that empathy for others in our day to day".

Sorrow is on general release on 8 April.

Stetson and the band are touring with Sorrow and will perform in Gorecki’s home town in December. Follow him on Facebook.

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