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Five Star Review

| Thursday, September 4, 2014

5 star teaserMary McGraw | The Observer
Each week I’ll be granting a five star review to an underrated or overlooked piece of art, music, film or anything else you can imagine. Normally, I’ll be consulting Notre Dame students with different artistic perspectives and preferences, but I’m kicking off the column with the story of how I found my favorite overlooked album.

When I first heard Colin Stetson’s masterpiece, “New History of Warfare Vol. 2: Judges,” I was diving into the realm of digital music synthesizers, trying to find unique new sounds. I’d been composing music on the computer for seven years and had garnered a huge appreciation for experimental electronic music. The intro to “New History,” “Awake on Foreign Shores,” boasted an incredibly powerful droning bass that creaked and crackled as it swelled, sounding equal parts dying lion and foghorn. The next track, “Judges,” featured clattering flat percussion that pattered and rolled, a female vocal that seemed to seep out of some ghostly wall, and a cascade of colored saxophone falling in the center of the track. The incredible richness of each distinctive instrument left my eyes wide and my mouth hanging open. Hunger to imitate seized me. I set off to find Stetson’s secret. One Google search later, I found it.

A single saxophone. A single take.

Each song on “New History” is a single recording of Stetson playing an original composition on the bass saxophone. Due to years of training and experience, Stetson is able to alternate between high and low notes so quickly as to create an illusion of simultaneous performance of a lead and a bass part. Furthermore, he’s learned to vocalize a separate melody through special articulation techniques. With these two skills combined, Stetson is able to play three different elements of a song at once.

When recording “New History,” Stetson placed more than 20 microphones in and around his saxophone in order to capture breathing sounds, key clicking noises and ambient textures. To my uninformed ear, Stetson’s vocalization, key fingerings and actual articulated notes sounded like vocal, percussion and instrumental parts respectively. By capturing otherwise ignored or buried aspects of a single saxophone performance, Stetson was able to craft an orchestra of details.

“New History” is a remarkable record because it places the listener inside the vessel for artistic expression. Stetson’s gasping breaths on “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” and the on-off key clicks on “Clothed in the Skin of the Dead” embody the physical struggle in performing Stetson’s complex compositions. And then there’s the recording from microphones placed inside of the instrument and in the corners of the studio, illuminating unusual sounds and angles specific to certain locations in the sound field. By mixing together this unique set of elements, “New History” provides aural windows into the unheard chambers of the saxophone and the subtle recesses of the studio.

Through intricate knowledge and mastery of one specific instrument, Stetson created an incredibly unique and personal piece of art. Since experiencing “New History,” my compositions (both musical and literary) have become far more focused, paring down subject matter to probe deeper into subtle textures of language and melody. I used to dabble constantly, reveling in the excitement of a new project only to leave it for another, but Stetson’s work has been a constant inspiration, pushing me to search for true accomplishment in mastery and commitment. I’ve also been greatly influenced by the intriguing insight “New History” provides into the unexplored areas of an instrument’s sound and the nuances of its construction. Stetson’s work has inspired me to look into seemingly insignificant details in music and literature, and I’ve already been able to enhance my analytic essays and musical sketches by zeroing in on them. With intense focus on one instrument and the comprehensive exploration of all of its aspects, Stetson created a musical masterpiece. In a scattered world of limitless options and crammed schedules, “New History” makes a case for paring down our vision so we can truly understand and take advantage of each opportunity that we encounter.

Five shamrocks.


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