Published Apr 30, 2013Today marks the day that Montreal-based saxophonist Colin Stetson releases the third, and obviously final, part in his New History Warfare trilogy. Titled To See More Light, the album features Justin Vernon, who Stetson has played with extensively as a touring member of Bon Iver. Despite Vernon's presence, however, To See More Light is mostly instrumental pieces with the exception of a couple of songs, which Stetson points out is for good reason.
"I don't tend to listen to words, I listen more to shape," Stetson tells Exclaim! in a recent interview. "When I listen to music that has vocals in it, which I do a lot, it takes me some time to consciously think about the meaning of the words. Even songs I listen to a lot and sing along to, more times than not I would sing the shape of the words and never really think about the actual meaning of them."
It's more challenging for an artist to communicate narrative concepts through instrumental music, without the aid of lyrics to spell things out, forcing Stetson to rely on tone and a few hints given in song titles.
"There is a very real and sometimes very specific narrative," he says, "but that narrative is subservient to the overall musical and thematic arc. As I'm writing the songs I'm thinking about things like 'What is this particular piece of music doing for the overall storyline or emotional arc of the record?' and ultimately that all helps me to instil intent into the music."
Stetson takes inspiration for this approach in part from the novels of Haruki Murakami.
"For me there's such a beauty his novels. He never explains anything to you; he just sets up a world where characters happen and story happens but he's not explaining to you where the talking sheep came from or what it means to you in the real world. That's not the point of the story," he says, laughing. "I've been trying to do something similar where it's getting away from concrete meaning and more into broader universal themes and once it's out there, it's out there, and people can take anything from it."
The concept of the new album deals with the relationship of death and love in our consciousness. As Stetson explains, "We all share these traits like the fear of death, the inability to conceive of our cessation and also the yearning for companionship, for someone to be as close as they possibly can in order for you to feel as though there is someone sharing that experience with you, to alleviate that tension."
Stetson plans to produce a graphic novel based on the New History Warfare trilogy but, due to having been on the road constantly over the past couple of years, he says it's been slow going on his end but he has spent time fleshing out the story.
"It's all been there the past few years but it's taken me through the third record to really see the ending and how everything ties together. I have no idea when it will be finished but I'm working on it!"
New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light is out now through Constellation. You can see all his upcoming North American dates here.
You can also read Exclaim!'s newly published Colin Stetson feature here.