In 2008, bass saxophonist Colin Stetson began an ambitious trilogy of impressionistic records with New History Warfare Vol. 1. That album cycle continued in 2011, with New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. It comes to a close with the recent release of the project’s final chapter, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light.
Since he began the New History project, Stetson has become an incredibly in-demand player, having recorded and toured with such indie-rock royalty as Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and Feist, among others. But his solo work is a vastly different beast from his output with those acts.
Using a variety of techniques, including circular breathing and a uniquely percussive attack, Stetson crafts sprawling, surreal soundscapes that are as emotionally moving as they are technically astounding. He records everything live, with no overdubs or electronic loops, using an army of strategically placed microphones — bell mics, room mics, a mic on his throat — to create richly textured sounds unlike anything that has come before them.
In advance of Stetson’s upcoming performance with Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld at the BCA Center in Burlington on Tuesday, May 7, Seven Days caught up with Stetson by phone from his new home “somewhere in the Green Mountains” of Vermont.
SEVEN DAYS: Without giving too much away, how does the trilogy resolve on To See More Light?
COLIN STETSON: In general, what’s happening with the third record is that the landscape has changed considerably. It’s like having gone through a harrowing mountain pass and finding yourself at a new vista. There is a breadth to it, a vastness that’s more charactered. Ultimately, to me, it’s a war epic. It’s the climax and resolution of the three records.
SD: The two previous records seemed to have an inward focus, where this one feels more expansive. Was that intentional?
CS: Yes and no. In character and theme, it’s moving into more universal themes. It’s less of an isolated experience, from a narrative point of view. It’s about death. Each record is about something specific but is also a study of balance between two things. So this one deals with death and love and the intrinsic relationship with one another, that they glean meaning from the presence of one another in our lives. But To See More Light is really talking about afterlife and the instinctual need we’ve always had of creating these dreams of afterlife because we can’t conceive of our eyes being shut.
SD: That’s hefty subject matter. What prompted your meditation on death and love?
CS: I’m getting older. And I definitely had a huge shift in who I am and how I relate to the world over the course of the past eight years, entering my thirties versus how I related in my twenties. And I imagine that’s true for most people. Who you are changes. Even the science of it—anatomically, we’re all completely recycled. Gone are the days of invincibility. And shepherded in are days of mortality. It becomes an ever-present idea that this is all very fleeting. If you think about that, then you think about the end.
SD: And whether there is an afterlife?
CS: Right. I wasn’t raised religiously. To someone like me who hears people talk about the certainty of their world being eternal … well, we don’t know for sure there is no afterlife. But we basically know that the aforscribed ideas of afterlife are probably not right, if there really is something like that. So thinking about your end as your end, and your life as the only thing you will ever do … then I think there is a lot to think about.
SD: My head hurts.
CS: [Laughs] For me it’s fascinating, and I think it’s something most people contemplate eventually. Or maybe they avoid. It can be painful and terrifying. But at the same time, that’s what all the Eastern contemplative practices have been about, reaching an understanding where you are relieved of the fear of death. Because how can you fear something that doesn’t exist? You won’t be aware of it.
SD: Turning away from the mortal coil — or maybe not — having seen you live, one of the things that’s fascinating is how much physical exertion is involved. How much of a toll does your playing style take? And are there things you need to do in order to stay in shape?
CS: A lot, way too much. It depends on the day. The longest I’ve ever given myself a break from this music is a week. But when I do that, it’s a process of reconstruction that needs to happen. Because it’s so painful and terrifying to pick up the instrument again. When you lose something, there is always a gut-wrenching fear of it being unattainable again. So I do it every day, and I’m adding more hours of playing every day. And I do exercises that are meditative and focused on breathing. I do yoga. And running is something; I’ve been finding as I get older that my body likes distance.
SD: You use a lot of different microphones in the studio. Mics on the horn, around the room, even one on your throat. What do all those different mics allow you to do?
CS: The mic-ing process isn’t creating anything new. It’s capturing. It’s a process that has developed as my ear has developed, and what I was physically doing with the instrument has developed. There are elements of multiplicity to the music, the harmonics and percussion elements, and the textures of those things. So the mics are a way of zeroing in on those things as individually as possible.
SD: Is that something you try to recreate live?
CS: Rather than trying to recreate the experience of it live, I try to do the opposite, or at least create a parallel. It’s setting up a new space, a three-dimensional, surrealistic expression of the original offering that is specific to the recording. The music is identical in substance and form. But the way that it is experienced is completely different. So I thought the process in which it is recorded should reflect that.
Colin Stetson plays the BCA Center in Burlington with Sarah Neufeld Tuesday, May 7, 8:30 p.m. $12. AA.
The original print version of this story was headlined See the Light: An interview with Colin Stetson