Henryk Mikołaj Górecki had this to say, regarding his Third Symphony: “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music […] somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.” Recorded in memoriam of the millions of dead in the Holocaust, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was one of the most successful and accomplished pieces of modern classical music. It’s a household name wherever modern classical music is heard and it exemplifies the discrete, compact and cutting power that the modern/minimalist style can have. It is a piece laden with emotion, with the full power of classical composition and the palettes it uses to color the world in dark, sharp and moving colors.
Colin Stetson, a jazz musician known for his work with indie groups Bon Iver and Arcade Fire but also with his own, wildly successful iterations on saxophone (including one of our favorite albums of 2015 in his chilling collaboration with violinist Sarah Neufeld), admits to feeling that power early on in his career. Finally, after years of flirting with the idea, the musical mastermind has set down to record his own interpretation and has now released it. It’s called Sorrow and it will absolutely break you. Maintaining the basic structure of the piece, in three movements, Stetson’s interpretation relies on his expert knowledge of eclectic instrumentation. It is filled to the brim with reeds, clarinets, saxophones, all accompanied not only by expert strings but by a powerful vocalist, one Megan Stetson, Colin’s sister. He throws in two guitars, synth, and versatile, thundering drums/percussion from none other than Greg Fox (Liturgy). Stetson is in it himself, of course, along with two other wind players, but unlike his solo material, his playing is more buried and more atmospheric, which makes it all the more effective as you become lost in everything else going on and then hear traces of Stetson’s own trademark walls of sound.
But these “safe” instruments for Stetson only serve as a point of departure, a powerful stepping stone from which he can launch himself into places that one wouldn’t usually picture him. Many of these places are influenced by metal, specifically black metal. The inkling of these influences begins to dawn on the listener fourteen minutes in. After an emotionally taxing opening, which contains all the elements of the future movements, as Górecki intended, Megan’s voice makes its first appearance. Backing her is a sonorous and deep guitar, its tone faintly hinting at intro guitars for projects like Ulver or Agalloch. The second name is perhaps most fitting here; fans of the band will instantly recognize the role this ominous guitar plays in setting the stage for later fury and darkness. Three minutes later, breaking under Megan’s crescendo, the black metal influences intensify. None other than blast-beats can be heard operating under the leitmotif, performed by chaotic strings that clash, waves breaking on the cliffs of the steady, furious drum parts below them.
If you had been told that this section came from the latest Ulver record, many of you wouldn’t have been surprised. Nor is this a one time fluke: the third movement, the closing, taxing, final return to the themes of this masterpiece, opens with tremolo picked guitars, thunderous cymbals and epic vocals. This passage further elucidates the sense of weight, of being crushed in an abrasive manner which will be familiar to many metal listeners. The motivations are the same; this music is not meant to make you happy, secure or self confident. It’s meant to draw a stark landscape, one in which you are but a minuscule part, a speck under the pouring torrent of sadness and death. It is telling that the blast-beats return on what is the last crescendo before the outro; a final word, a final taste of despair and abrasiveness before the story ends. Perhaps this brings us back to the subject matter of the symphony, signifying the immutable helplessness of anyone in the face of events like the Holocaust or even their memory. All that’s left are hunched shoulders, a grimace and a fierce dedication to march on in the face of the inevitable.
These black metal elements aren’t gimmicks; they’re not here so that Stetson could point at his own work and bask in his eclecticism. They’re here because the goal of Sorrow is to envelop you, drag you down below into its depths and coat you in the black, rich, and venomous coat of loss and longing. When Stetson, as an expert musician, surveys his box of tools, he simply finds black metal to be one of those most suited to this task. Other tools, like electronics derived directly from contemporary pop music, are as readily available. Whatever fits the job. Whatever transforms this work of already astonishing art into something new, something that pulses with the light that thrums in Stetson’s head as he listened to this incredible symphony for the first time. Thus, Sorrow is not for jazz listeners, classical music listeners, pop listeners or metal listeners. It’s for people who go to music for an emotional cornucopia, a field laden with expressions, gestures and harsh understandings. Sorrow is an immaculate example of what happens when genres are used properly, when their technical delineations bow in the face of the music and the power which it contains, unleashes and restrains.