In Extremis: Colin Stetson’s interpretation of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 pushes it to the edge


Colin Stetson

Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 is nearly an hour-long dive into anguish.

But rather than sounding angry, aggressive, or atonal, the three movements that comprise Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” are stunningly beautiful.

Symphony No. 3 is filled with dolor, but the modal framework, simple harmonies, and gentile repetition give the music a familiar and comforting feeling despite being inspired by stories and songs of mothers and children being separated by war.

On the album Sorrow -- A Reimagining of Górecki's Third Symphony, Ann Arbor native Colin Stetson tweaks the mega-popular work in a way that stays true to the composition’s raw emotional state while also diving deeper into its deep well of gorgeous despair. (You can hear Stetson and 11 other musicians in the Sorrow band, including Ann Arbor’s Justin Walter (EVI, synths), Dan Bennett (sax), and Andrew Bishop (sax), perform the piece at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, April 14.)

In his reworking, Stetson replaces Górecki’s strings-dominate instrumentation with saxophones, guitars, synthesizers, and drums (as well as two violins and a cello). The Pioneer High School and U-M grad -- who now lives in Montreal and has worked with Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and more -- also boosts the dynamics of Symphony No. 3, such as taking some cues from the fiercely strummed guitars and dark atmosphere of black metal, as well as employing the mezzo-soprano voice of his sister, Megan Stetson, where Górecki’s score calls for a soprano.

Even with these textural and instrumentation choices, Stetson wanted to hew close to Górecki’s composition. But since Stetson's been thinking about interpreting Symphony No. 3 since the 1990s, has performed the work in festivals throughout the world since 2014, and recorded the album version in 2016, his reworking has subtly and organically morphed over time. But how?

“That’s a good question; it’s not something I thought about much,” Stetson says. “Getting to know it from the inside out, I suppose the shape of it has become even more pronounced and even exaggeratedly so because of my proximity to it. With every exposure, I start to see the way certain juxtapositions and certain arcs can be exploited even further. The whole idea of the arrangement in the beginning -- and this carries through to now -- was always about extremity. ”

Stetson takes a like-minded approach to reaching for the apogee in his solo recordings, such as his New History Warfare series, where he pushes himself to amazing physical feats on the giant bass saxophone by simultaneously playing multiphonic drones, melodies, and vocalizations from a contact mic attached to his throat. It sounds like effects are being used to create the richly textured music, but it’s all coming from Stetson, unadorned and in real time. 

There are no effects on his saxophones for Sorrow, either, but Stetson isn’t against using them.

“When I score films -- I just finished scoring my eighth film -- I use all sorts of effects and different processing when I’m doing those where I find it necessary to get a sound that I want,” he says. “I use effects in my [metal-dub] band Ex Eye, which features two members from Sorrow, Shahzad [Ismaily, synthesizers] and Greg [Fox, drums, who also plays in the black-metal band Liturgy].”

But with his solo music, Stetson eschews effects because it takes away from his ability to display the purity of his practice. 

“The idea behind the purity of not using effects and things in that context is just that the road toward getting to each new piece, each new technique, is a physical road, something that’s been tied to that relationship between me and the instrument,” Stetson says. “I wanted to keep that intact because I’ve enjoyed that relationship, I like the challenges therein. I like the satisfaction of setting a goal and attaining it in five years. I like being able to look at the span of time and look at the music and see progression there, not only in terms of what the music is able to say but also how it was I got to be even able to say it.”

That ability to focus on mastering a particular technique or skill-set comes, in part, from Stetson’s background as an athlete. 

“Soccer my whole life, football for high school, wrestling for about six years, I was a sprinter and a pole vaulter,” he says. “That was a pretty intrinsic part of my whole makeup. I think the part that helped me develop my coordination, strength, etc., definitely plays into how I’m able to play and how I approach the horn.”

Being able to master a physical act takes an equal commitment to mental strength, which Stetson sees as integral to his development as a musician.

“When one has a background in sport or [something] that is fundamentally physical, we tend to reduce it to the physical act,” Stetson says. “[But I] see the nuts and bolts of how the work ethic, how repetition -- not just repetition but very specific repetition of preferred outcomes -- is how you create a basis of skill and ability. In music, we acknowledge that practice makes perfect, that old saying, but I think that because music has the added element of being something that moves us in our emotions, we dislocate a certain aspect of the physicality of it, at least from the way we discuss it or maybe even thinking of where it emerges from. But for me, they’ve pretty much been intertwined.”

Now 43, Stetson mostly cruised through his 20s without focusing on exercise, but these days physical training is a crucial element of his musical life.

“The last 10 years I’ve been very disciplined,” he says, “not just in the work ethic behind the practicing of the instruments and composition and whatnot, but also bringing in yoga breathing exercising for lung expansion and strength, and yoga practice for flexibility and strength, and a lot of circuit training and weight training these days to keep everything where it’s at and to try and build strength and endurance. Especially with the bass sax, a lot of what I’ve been doing and trying to get at through the past 10 years with the solo music, is fundamentally very patient and long-form, and the only way to get at that is to really be able to sustain certain movements.”

While Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 isn’t as physically demanding as Stetson’s solo works, it is an example of patient and long-form exploration. And naturally, Stetson is always looking to push the piece to the outer edges of the melancholy emotions that Górecki’s music lays bare.

“Not to do anything that would fundamentally change the character of the piece or the inspiration behind it but, in my mind, to simply identify the existing brushstrokes and extend them in every direction,” Stetson says. “Making little tweaks to the arrangement with the different players to enhance and exaggerate that kind of extremity where I can find it. Making the stark even starker and making the truly, epically terrible moments that much more so.”

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

UMS presents Colin Stetson's "Sorrow -- A Reimagining of Górecki's Third Symphony" at 8 pm on Saturday, April 14, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty Rd., Ann Arbor. Visit for tickets and more information. Additionally, Stetson will be interviewed about his craft and process on Friday, April 13, at 5:30 pm in the Watkins Lecture Hall, SMTD Moore Building, 1100 Baits Dr., Ann Arbor. This is a free event.