Tuesday, March 29, 2011

COLIN STETSON: New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges I remember the exact words: My band teacher flipped out when I walked between him (standing in the hallway with his back to the wall) and another adult (standing with his back to the opposite wall). I walked between them (couldn't go around, couldn't go under) and didn't say anything. The absent exclamation of "Excuse me, a thousand pardons my dear chaps" drove him to bellow at my lapse in civility. I'll omit the tedious body and skip to the climax of his little harangue: "And you're no good at playing the saxophone, either."

I was never good at playing that thing, suffering derisive critiques from my classmates, blushing at the accidental squawks and squonks, and always sitting in Last Chair. (For those of you who've never had the experience, school bands place kids into savage hierarchies so everyone knows who is better than who. It makes music into a sport.) I remember another band teacher offering me this constructive criticism: "Well, you need to work on your posture and staying on the beat, and staying in tune, and your articulation, and your tone, and your vibrato and... basically everything." Message received. Enthusiasm gone. (Let's just put on fascist costumes and be a halftime show.)

I remember waiting for class to start, sitting in the hard plastic chair in the band room, blowing aimless air through the big brass body, not letting the reed vibrate, just listening to the gentle rushing. I remember clicking the keys and getting to know their individual sounds - this one a click, that one a thump - and noticing how the timbre of even this atonal air was changed by lifting my fingers and pressing them down again. And most of all, I remember wishing I could find my own voice, but instead forcing myself to stay inside the lines so no one would notice how awful I was.

When I graduated from high school, my saxophone collected dust in the closet of my childhood bedroom, which had become a graveyard for toys, books and other mementos from my unhappy schooldays. I went to college to earn a teaching degree, discovered electronic music and hip-hop and began obsessively making music from samples, eventually adding various silver and black boxes. (I've been told those machines make it possible for "non-musicians" to make music. But wouldn't the act of making music mean that they they are... never mind.)

I only started playing the saxophone again when I discovered Ornette Coleman. What inspired me wasn't just his music (brilliant, emotional and nourishing as it is). I was inspired by stories of jazz pundits and purists with batons up their butts calling Coleman a charlatan, smugly deriding his work as random and un-technical, even violently attacking him (Max Roach did this, seriously) because they thought he sucked. Ornettle Coleman said "There is no single right way to play jazz." If the way Ornette Coleman plays is wrong, then being right is for assholes.

I once had an argument with an insufferable college classmate (now employed, presumably, as a high school band teacher). I suggested that while there are certain skills that are useful in making music, we could also, alongside those, teach kids to find their own voice. There's no wrong way to play music, after all, and you can't objectively say that some music is superior to other music.

She retorted, dismissive, that there is a wrong way, and yes you can say that some music is objectively superior. I assume she meant the powdered-wig cannon - they don't teach ragas in high school (too brown) and they sure don't encourage funkiness (too black). Snapping, she announced that she knew all about this stuff and I didn't. "And we're done talking about it," she said.

I wasn't done talking about it, though, and I don't think I ever will be. Are you keeping alive an art form you love, music teacher? Or are you unable to distinguish between resuscitation and taxidermy?

A few weeks ago, a Canadian label called Constellation (you know them as a post-rock epicenter) put out this album by saxophonist Colin Stetson. It's the middle part of a trilogy tethered around a compelling narrative that Mr. Stetson hopes to adapt as an accompanying graphic novel. Most of the album's compositions are pieces for unaccompanyed saxophone - alto, tenor and bass.

You can find a lot of information online about the process used to make this record (first takes, a thousand microphones) but the maestro himself said in a recent interview that he "would like for people to appreciate the album musically whether they knew how it was made or not." It's pretty cool that he thought to put a contact mic on his throat, but what really matters is how thrilling this music is. It is knock-me-out powerful.

We've heard unaccompanied winds players before. Anthony Braxton's revered For Alto is the example most often cited, but Jimmy Giuffre, Albert Mangelsdorff and Lester Bowie have all done it. And it wasn't always pretty music. They played their instruments the wrong way. (Check out Roscoe Mitchell's Sound to hear an embryonic Art Ensemble of Chicago - Bowie included - doing things with instruments that get band stuidents sent out in the hall.) Colin Stetson's musical Aufhebung builds on that tradition (can you imagine a beautiful world somewhere where Anthony Braxton's music is considered traditional?) and carves a daring new trail. Often, the booming bellow of a bass saxophone is all the bulldozer he needs.

Colin Stetson is finding beauty in the sounds that I tried to suppress during my ill-fated formal training on an instrument. The tapping of keys – clicks and thumps – that fascinated me are employed brilliantly here. This is music I could never have dreamed of making, but I wish I could have.

Though there are respites, much of this music is sonically destructive. I love this, in no small part because I am at a point in my life when destruction is beginning to take on positive connotations. The collapsing of structures and of meaning is a caving-in but also an opening-up. I am beginning to see stable philosophies as spiritual death, and the only escape from them, as far as I can see, is a kind of intellectual kenosis. It’s lonely out on that cracking limb, like playing the saxophone all by yourself, but this desolation is every bit as provisional as the monuments crumbled behind us. I can hear that in this music. (There are shades of Albert Ayler's music, turning abrasive sax sounds into spiritual catharsis.)

During "Judges" Stetson's voice writhes through his horn crushed by the tapping of keys and the reedy cycle of notes around it, and what I hear is anguish. Anguish is not incompatible with hope, though. They're kissing cousins and any good gospel singer knows that. Stetson says that particular piece "specifically speaks to the themes of this record — those being isolation and the pendulum swing between fear and transcendence" and that "all of the music in this series is my attempt at creating a personal gospel canon, not out of dogma, but rather from the human experience alone."

This makes perfect sense to me, but in case it wasn't clear enough, Stetson brings Shara Worden aboard for an honest-to-G-d gospel song ("I Just Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes") that you might have heard before. It's perfect here. People forget how terrifying gospel music is and should be. It's about anguish and death and mystery. Comfortable people can't have gospel music, (though they can keep what passes for it in their glitzed-up mega churches) and every now and then we need to snatch it back and let it howl.

People on the internet want to call this one of the best albums of the year but that's pointless, not because it's only March, but because this music is too adventurous, nourishing and powerful to be dropped into someone's dumb contest. It's not a sport. Just let this be amazing. Let it mean something to you. That something might be different for you and for me and for Colin Stetson, but there is no single right way to respond to this.

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