Graveyard Shift: Colin Stetson

Experimental musician and film composer (including Hereditary and The Menu) Colin Stetson performs at The Historic Green-Wood Cemetary. Rain date on May 11.

About the Artist

Some things, they say, are meant to be, and certainly it sometimes looks that way for Colin Stetson, whose recorded output, not to mention studio and live collaborations – with, among others, Lou Reed, LCD Soundsystem, The National, Chemical Brothers, Bon Iver and Bill Laswell – has proven as prolific as it’s praiseworthy. There’s the story of how, though he began playing alto saxophone aged nine, his formal studies only started at 15, when he quickly learned the tricky art of circular breathing in a single afternoon. There’s another about how one day, before his lesson even began, he stunned Donald Sinta, his renowned University of Michigan professor, with a warm-up technique so mind-bending the teacher simply walked out, returning a week later, relieved, to declare, “See, I can do it too!” Then there’s the time he ended up working with Tom Waits. “I literally moved to San Francisco,” Stetson recalls, with no little amazement, “because I wanted to be closer to where he was in the hopes I might cross paths with him. A year and a half later, he called me out of the blue.”

Whatever the old adage, none of this is unearned. Since the early years of the 21st Century, Stetson has gained a well-deserved reputation as an exceptional musician, his devotion to his craft consummate, his commitment to innovation indisputable. Known for assertive, powerhouse performances on the saxophone – chiefly bass and alto, but also soprano, tenor and baritone – for many years he was a wrestler, a sport whose “insane physical extremes” he credits with his style, alongside, among other things, a love for acts like Pixies and Fugazi. He’s similarly at home, though, whatever the musical context, on clarinet, flute, French Horn and cornet. One might even say he operates in a field all his own.

This is something to which albums like New History Warfare Vols. 1-3 (2007, 2011, 2013) and 2017’s All This I Do for Glory powerfully attest, not to mention his striking – and diverse – contributions to film, TV and game scores. These include most recently 2018’s Hereditary and Red Dead Redemption 2, 2021’s Among The Stars, and 2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Menu, though his favourites, he confesses, are 2020’s Barkskins and 2021’s Mayday. “I actively shun notions of category and genre in my life and appetites, and most definitely in my own music,” Stetson says. “They’re definitionally contrary to creativity and freedom, and corral the listener and musician alike into a kind of predesignated automaticity I prefer to avoid.”

Stetson’s nature then, is definitely, defiantly single-minded, and his dogged focus is always evident in his work, his swooping, circling and soaring motifs displaying as much sensitivity as strength. Even the very body of his instrument – not to mention his own body – provides a source of vital sounds which defy the imagination, not least on All This I Do For Glory, Among The Stars and Mayday, where his saxophone is often mistaken for electronic instrumentation. Such steadfast resolve extends to his daily routines, too. “I generally listen to the same type of music in the mornings,” he reveals. “Historically that’s been Bach, mostly Glenn Gould, mostly the Goldberg Variations, mostly the 81’ recording. Saturdays tend to be for Irish or Scandinavian folk music, and on Sundays I listen to the Soul Stirrers SAR years recordings, or the Goodbye Babylon compilation of pre-war gospel music. I don’t know... I just like rituals.” 

Stetson’s singular approach, crucial on stage, was developed as he codified tailor-made rules over a decade of shows until, by 2007, when he first began recording seriously, he elected to adhere to them in the studio. “If performances were to be fully acoustic,” he explains, “in that no FX, loops or additional recordings would be used, then so too must the album be all of that. Just me and the instrument and the moment. An audience member at a live performance sees the performer, feels the sound physically, and has that whole spectacle informing their experience. I sought to capture the recording in such a way as to be able to recreate the stereo field, to make a kind of ‘surrealistic’ imagining of the space, not through effecting or adding unnatural or foreign elements, but simply by taking what was there in the space and time of that recording process and slightly reimagining where in space it sits.”

Oddly, Stetson didn’t always imagine he’d be a musician. Born in 1975, he grew up in Ann Arbor, where he began painting aged 2, a talent cultivated by his parents throughout his childhood. “Up until 15 or 16,” he admits, “I thought I’d pursue a career in the arts, in film, most likely, doing creature and practical effects in Hollywood on the sci-fi and fantasy films I loved. Music changed that trajectory, obviously.” This re-evaluation was also facilitated by his parents, who arranged music lessons when he was in his mid-teens. “My mother was determined to make sure my siblings and I were taking on any opportunity for study we could, and she and my father devoted all of their limited resources to us and our upbringing.” They certainly didn’t spend as much on records: Stetson grew up mainly with “lots of Hendrix, Beatles, Jethro Tull, and one Queen album, The Game. I was very much raised on classic rock in those early years.”

Nonetheless, he’s part of the first MTV generation, and his subsequent, ferocious devouring of pop videos – he admits the solo in Men At Work’s ‘Who Can It Be’ first inspired him to pick up a saxophone – led to a lifelong metal infatuation, itself a gateway to ever more innovative styles. “There was always Led Zeppelin and the ubiquitous Jimi Hendrix,” he continues, “and I got into Mr Bungle through that metal and rock association, which in turn got me listening to John Zorn, which then prompted me to explore players like Fred Frith, Bill Laswell, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and legends like Ornette, Roscoe Mitchell, Dewey Redman, and Albert Ayler. That was all by about 15. Saxophone was always the instrument I had a real affinity for. The shape, the sound, the physicality, the versatility and dynamic possibilities: all of it has kept me searching and learning and striving on it for decades.”

Given this hunger, it’s unsurprising he won a scholarship to the University of Michigan School of Music, where he developed his idiosyncratic style, experimenting with multi/polyphonics, vocalisations, valve-work and his instrument’s percussive sounds. “I was playing a ton of free improv, always blown away by the sheer breadth of sonic possibilities, and so was quite ravenous for learning and absorbing the techniques,” he recalls. “I spent a fair amount of time the summer of my 19th year doing some musical deep dives on mescaline, and at that point started to refine my earliest solo sax concepts. A couple of those first patterns eventually made it onto New History Warfare Vol. 1.”

It was at university he began playing regularly with Transmission (later Transmission Trio) “searching, reaching, and exploring the instrument,” before heading to San Francisco after graduating and, six years later, Brooklyn. Contributions were made to other artists’ recordings, not least Tom Waits’ – “I learned from him the preciousness of the present moment and our initial, honest reactions,” Stetson states, “and that at its core what we are doing is storytelling” – and he made his own lowkey records too. It wasn’t, though, until 2007 that his breakthrough album, New History Warfare Vol. 1, was released, and this coincided with his drafting by Arcade Fire, with whom he’d play until 2010. He also moved to Montreal that year to join his future (but now ex-) wife, the band’s Sarah Neufeld, with whom he recorded 2015’s Never Were The Way She Was, and the following year released Sorrow, an extraordinary reimagining of Gorecki’s legendary Symphony of Sorrow later performed in the composer’s hometown of Katowice.

In-between he completed his New History Warfare trilogy, a virtuosic illustration of the “world-building”, as he calls it, that’s critical to much of his solo work. “I started writing a sort of corollary narrative in my head – I think it most resembles a graphic novel – so that the narrative and imagery, themes etc. inform the shape and structure of the individual songs, whole albums, and the larger trilogy arc. I connect all of that work – the solo records and some of my collaborations – in the context of a greater narrative and ethos. It’s not necessary that anyone know what these stories are, though. I think of it as something I do to help me create the clearest and most wholly realised world in the music.”

2017’s All This I Do for Glory consolidated his reputation, earning multiple nominations for critics’ Album of the Year lists, but if fans have had to wait for its promised sequel – though he confirms it’s on its way – that’s largely to do with the mass of scoring work he’s attracted over the last decade. “I love the puzzles involved in designing a score,” he says, “cracking certain codes for what each story needs and how best to bring it together in a way that’s novel, effective and exciting.” And all the time he’s continued to enlarge upon his enviable reputation for live performances that match his intense technical prowess with exhilarating and emotionally gripping songwriting skills. “I’ll always push myself physically in the making of this music,” he adds. “There’s something about the energetic state of being in the limits of our grasps, manoeuvring through extremities, that I find not only cathartic and hugely satisfying but which imbues the music with a quality that cannot be fully quantified.” 

Still, if his astounding physical engagement with his instruments has helped provoke headlines and draw audiences, Stetson remains dedicated first and foremost to his art. “I’ve always wanted to eschew the whole ‘geek show’ aspect of my performances,” he concludes, “and just play in total darkness. To be there, present with the music, with the audience. It’s still a kind of dream for me to not have the music be understood and experienced in any way through the lens of the physical feat of it, but just felt in that honest, visceral and immediate way.” He needn’t worry, though. Some things, after all, are meant to be, and anyone who’s heard Stetson’s music will verify that there’s no other way to experience it than honestly, viscerally and immediately. As distinguished broadcaster Mary Anne Hobbs once observed, “he’s an artist that can change the way you actually think about music.”

About The Green-Wood Cemetery:

Founded in 1838 as one of America’s first rural cemeteries, The Green-Wood Cemetery soon developed an international reputation for its magnificent beauty and became the fashionable place to be buried. By 1860, it was attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, a popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks. Green-Wood’s diverse set of public programs include arts and cultural events, walking and trolley tours, workforce development programs in masonry restoration, a new range of Social Studies-aligned school programs, environmental justice workshops, an artist residency and much more. For more information, visit www.green-wood.com.

Please read this important information:

  • Doors and check-in open at 7:00 PM.
  • Arrive at the Cemetery’s main entrance at 500 25th Street, right on the corner or 5th Avenue.
  • The performance site is in front of the Green-Wood Chapel, which is a short (less than 5 minutes) walk from the main entrance where you are checking in. Green-Wood staff will be present to guide you to the performance location.
  • There is no onsite parking for cars or bikes.
  • If planning to purchase alcoholic beverages, attendees must show proof of age with a valid ID.
  • The bar onsite will sell beer, wine, and water. Drinks can be purchased with either cash or credit card. No outside food or alcohol is permitted.
  • Attendees are encouraged to bring blankets and lawn chairs, as the viewing area for the performance is mixed materials (including asphalt and grass).
  • No seating will be provided by the venue, unless requested in advance for special needs.
  • This is a historic site, please do not sit or lean on any of the monuments or gravestones.
  • Follow all health and safety protocols as directed by staff. Masks must be worn in restrooms, and are strongly encouraged in all other locations.
  • Feeling Sick? Stay home if you are feeling sick or running a temperature. Please use good judgment if you have recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19. For more information about COVID-19, please check the CDC website.
  • Follow us on Instagram at @pioneerworks for additional information and updates.