Thoughts on solo instrumentalists: Colin Stetson, Sarah Neufeld, Michael Hedges.

Sep 24, 2013 by

Thoughts on solo instrumentalists: Colin Stetson, Sarah Neufeld, Michael Hedges.

Being a solo instrumentalist has never been that cool.

I’m not talking about being a soloist, mind; being the guy or girl who gets to play the massive solo while the band supports you in the background – that’s cool.  Just look at Slash, or something. But standing there, on your own, playing your instrument: that’s not really cool.

Being cool involves not really caring, not putting much effort in, just sort-of doing things because you’re just expressing yourself, yeah?  Becoming an accomplished solo musician is the exact opposite: you have to care too much, focus on minutiae of technique, practise maybe a little too often, to the detriment of many other facets of your life.  Jazz players talk about ‘woodshedding’– going away from everyone  you know, locking yourself away with your instrument, and just playing. A solitary pursuit that, when you finally emerge from the woodshed, has made you a better player with a deeper understanding of the music you make.

Playing with the band is cool.  Sitting in the woodshed for eight hours a day, breaking down the mechanics of your instrument, redefining the parameters that constrain which sounds can emerge from it: no, that’s not cool.

Now, I’ve never been one for The Coolmainly because I don’t have it, I never have had it, and I never will.  When everyone at my school was listening to Nirvana, I was listening to Bert Jansch‘s version of Angie on my parents’ record player, and vowing that if I could ever play it, I would die happy. I’ve always had an enormous amount of respect for people who put that amount of effort into their music, not being content with just getting better at playing it, but expanding their musical vocabulary, and perhaps even changing the way the instrument can be played.

A couple of recent LP purchases have led me to think again the role of the solo instrumentalist; as someone who started his musical career by spending a long time trying to write and play solo acoustic guitar pieces, and who then moved into writing for the largest band I could put together, I’ve been thinking again about playing solo material, and wondering how that changes the relationship between the performer, the recording and the audience.

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As I say, so much of being a solo instrumentalist is innovative (or at least unusual) technique. Michael Hedges was a phenomenal acoustic guitarist.  When I thought I knew how to play the guitar, I was told about Michael Hedges and realised that I didn’t know anything.  He was someone who considered the mechanics of how sound is generated on the instrument, came up with additional and extended techniques and, crucially, incorporated these techniques into musical compositions in which they made sense; if you’re listening to the The Rootwitch above, then you’re essentially hearing the sound of some very precise drumming on a guitar, for example.

He wrote almost exclusively in altered tunings, though not in the way that a bored guitarist might change the tuning and play around until he/she found some chords that sounded pleasingly different: his tunings were an integral part of his compositional technique.  The Happy Couple, for example, makes use of klangfarbenmelodie (tone-colour-melody), a technique that privileges changes in a note’s timbre as much as its pitch. The piece use a tuning of (low to high) G B E F# A D which, on the middle two strings, places the same note only two frets apart, allowing the different timbres of the two strings to be juxtaposed with ease. The tuning allows a far-deeper-than-normal bass G (the low string being tuned down a major sixth), creating a greater contrast with the up-tuned B on the fifth string.  Finally, the tuning allows the melody to be re-stated at the end of the piece, using natural harmonics.  The tuning isn’t a happy accident: it’s an essential part of the music.

He developed the idea of string stopping, taken from classical guitar technique: cutting off a note by resting a right hand finger against it, which gives phenomenal control over melody and rhythm, and allows for variations in dynamics that aren’t really achievable by any other means.  He worked on the minutiae of how a note is created, working out whether a note should be started by being plucked with the nail or the flesh of the finger, or by a rapid percussive flick of a fingernail, or by tapping with either hand.  He developed percussive techniques using the body of the guitar, long before they were Newton Faulknered into the mainstream.  He was a brilliant musician, and he died tragically young in 1997.

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In many ways, Colin Stetson has a lot in common with Michael Hedges: Colin Stetson is a phenomenal saxophonist who has, in my eyes at least, redeemed a group of instruments for which I was basically ready for a 50 year ban. Like Michael Hedges, there’s an obsession (a word that’s overused when talking about any artist, but I really do think it applies here) with the minutiae of technique: in interviews, he talks about having worked on his circular breathing techniques for the last 23 years.  Like Michael Hedges, there’s the use of a primarily melodic instrument to create percussive effects, the slamming-closed saxophone pads being used to make electronic-sounding rhythms. Like Michael Hedges, there’s a focus on technically-demanding, instrumental music.

While Michaels’ recordings are basically untreated, though, Colin’s make substantial use of interesting recording techniques: contact mics on the body of the bloody huge bass saxophone amplify the clicks and thumps of the pads, a throat mic picks up his vocalisations (singing while playing), some parts are overdriven in the recording to sound even more aggressive…you get the idea.  But, and this is the thing, there are no loops or overdubs.   Nowadays, with the advent of cheap recording and looping technology, a whole world of solo musicianship has opened up for an enormous number of people (as the literally thousands of solo Pachelbel’s Canon on YouTube will bear witness); while Queen had to remind their listeners that ‘nobody played synth!‘ when the newly-invented technology was suddenly everywhere, Colin Stetson has to remind us that, implausible as it seems, the unlikely array of sounds emerging from his instrument is the product of one person, recorded live.  Michael Hedges records, then, are studio documents of a performance; Colin Stetsons are, at least partly, created in the studio.

With what sounds like incredible humility, Colin describes his music as being ‘based in traditional American song’, which is a little like Aphex Twin saying his roots are in the blues: it may be true, but it doesn’t really describe what’s happening in the music.  In his hands, the bass saxophone is a thunderous, blown-out machine of destruction, its range extending from the low end of a bass guitar all the way to high-end roars via overblown harmonics.  Personally, it’s these displays of the saxophone’s sonic abilities that interest me: the Kenny G School Of Soulful Sax just makes me want leap in front of a train. Perhaps the fact that there’s such a colossal gulf between Colin’s playing and nearly everyone else makes what his albums all the more extraordinary.

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Sarah Neufeld’s debut album is, by contrast, a relatively straightforward affair: her violin technique is unimpeachable, but there’s no percussive instrument whacking, no playing the strings with a portable fan, no playing two instruments at the same time.  Instead, we have a record that takes an approach somewhere between the other two: where Michael Hedges’ records aim for sonic neutrality in the studio, allowing the composition and playing itself to be the centre of attention, Hero Brother is recorded in the wild, in a variety of spaces that Sarah and producer Nils Frahm found acoustically interesting.  The result is an album in which the room tone is an intrinsic part of the music, and even adds to the perception of a live recording.

Musically, the record covers a wide range of tones, and it’s testament to her compositional skill that she doesn’t need to showcase techniques. Of course, an album of largely-unaccompanied violin pieces will cover a range of techniques to maintain the listener’s attention- string-crossing arpeggios, open string drones, pairing high-pitched harmonics with lower strings to emphasise the instruments range, all of these and more are present; nevertheless, compared to Colin or Michael’s records, Hero Brother is straightforward.  What it does is undeniably and subtly to evoke a sense of place and mood in a way that is less present in the others.

The modern listener is sophisticated; or, rather, takes for granted the phenomenal technological innovations that have been introduced to the world of recorded music.  It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of recording the different required instruments at different times was a ludicrous dream; it’s now the standard way of making an album.  This technology meant, of course, that parts could be played over and over again until they were satisfactory, without every player having to get it right simultaneously; since then the recording industry has developed ever more precise tools to tune, time and polish a performance until it’s deemed perfect.  In such times, it’s incredibly refreshing to find such records like these: where the performance of one person, playing an instrument in a room, can hold the attention of a listener accustomed to the complex productions, bells, whistles and relentless polish of the music industry.

But are they cool? Well, Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol III has been nominated for Canada’s Polaris music prize (a seemingly-much-cooler version of the Mercury Music Awards), but it could just be the token jazz/outside record that we’re used to seeing at the Mercury.  Ach.  They’re pretty damned cool as far as I’m concerned.  I’m probably the wrong person to ask, though.

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