Colin Stetson is one among a number of contemporary experimental musicians who have carved out careers as composers for film and television. In 2022 alone the artist released soundtracks for two films and a docuseries about NASA. It seems only natural that that style of composition would inflect other parts of his practice, transforming the imagery and narrative that undergird it.
The two compositions on Stetson’s latest album length release Chimaera I do indeed represent a departure of sorts from the style of performance for which he became known in the early 2010s. Gone is the more percussive and melodic orientation of earlier albums such as All this I do for Glory and his well-known experimentations with voice on his breakthrough release New History of Warfare Vol. 2: Judges.
Instead Chimaera features two extended drone pieces that see him experimenting more intently with duration. Although the sounds he coaxes from his saxophone are still as wild and unpredictable as ever, they are couched here in a different sense of mystery, unclear where his playing might end and electronic synthesis begin.
The album’s references—a chimaera describes the wildly imaginative creatures of fiction and myth, and the two pieces refer to the brothers Cerebrus and Orthrus respectively, the multi-headed hounds of Greek mythology, both of whom were slain by Heracles as part of his labors— beg the ancient, the primordial, and the otherworldly. The layers of history, myth, and geology these mythological hounds index is mirrored in Stetson’s playing.
Layers of droning saxophone, breath, and noise phase and morph across each other, building up immense, engulfing soundscapes. These are occasionally interrupted by percussive clanks, creaks, and scrapes as well as the pushing through of the various timbral qualities of Stetson’s playing. The first track, “Orthrus,” attains a more palpable sense of depth: Its moaning drones and bleating horns convey a sense of foreboding as well as conflict that dies out halfway through the piece, only for the drones and bass to reassert themselves in the second half, going to an even deeper, danker place. The second composition, “Cerebrus,” is steadier and quieter. Here Stetson explores more whispers and winds, engaging with sound and material more mournfully than turbulently. At several moments on “Cerebrus” the horn dramatically pierces the monumentality of the unrelenting drones to achieve brief moments of aching beauty.
Drone music is about excess, endurance, and a general testing of the physiological limits of performance and listening, drives and experiences which have undergirded much of Stetson’s practice. Experimental music is, after all, and to be obnoxiously reductive, experimental. Its practitioners move away from sounds and towards others, constructing bodies of work that are often only coherent after the fact. If there is one through-line to Stetson’s work, apart from his choice of instrument, it is the desire to push the body and mind to the limits of their physical and spiritual capabilities. The duration of drone does that. Both in terms of the breath required, but also in terms of the type of aural attention it asks for (perhaps a modality less challenged in his earlier work than on this album), making Chimaera I a seemingly natural evolution for Stetson’s sound. (Jennifer Smart)