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Boundary-pushing Colin Stetson makes solo debut in Victoria

Colin Stetson plays tonight at the Alix Goolden Performance Hall. EBRU YILDIZ


Where: Alix Goolden Performance Hall, 907 Pandora Ave.

When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: Sold out

Colin Stetson will play five concerts during the next seven days, followed by two months away from the road. That’s an ideal pace for the multi-instrumentalist and composer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who performs only several dozen solo shows each year.

“When I’m out there, I don’t like to go beyond eight shows in a tour, because it gets to the point where the pain balance starts to tip in a direction I don’t like,” Stetson, 47, said.

The boundary-pushing Stetson exhausts himself mentally and physically during each solo performance, which requires him to stay in peak physical shape, much like a marathon runner. “It’s the musculature of the mouth. I will get saw marks from my bottom teeth in my bottom lip, from doing shows every day. That starts to get painful and so do my hands, because of the repetitive motion.”

Stetson isn’t your average musician, and has developed a wholly unique way of playing.

Though he also plays clarinet and bass clarinet, the instrument he’s most associated with is what he calls “the supremely unergonomic” bass saxophone, which he manipulates in such a way, with circular breathing, repetitive reedwork, and rapid opening/closing of the the tone holes along the body of the instrument, that it becomes percussive.

Contact microphones are placed both on Stetson and the bulky instrument, which capture direct and indirect sound on stage. Though he’s technically a solo performer, Stetson produces a sound close to that of a quartet.

That effort comes at a cost, however. “It requires my hands to do a thing they were never really designed to, over and over and over again, so it wears on my tendons and forearms and wrists. A lot of stretching, baths, and saunas when I’m on the road help get rid of some of the inflammation.”

Stetson, who splits his time between Montreal and Vermont, is not overestimating the physical impact solo concerts have on his body. His live performances are sonic storms of a hypnotic, meditative nature — aggressive, in spots, but beautiful. He plays both conductor and soloist, with a penchant for improvisation. The end result is almost inexplicable and unique unto itself.

“Because the music breathes, the music is at my pace — whatever my pace is,” he said.

Stetson began experimenting with variations of the multiphonic technique (which produces several notes at once) while he was a student at the University of Michigan in the 1990s. He balanced solo performances and recordings with work as a member of Bon Iver and Arcade Fire in the years that followed, in addition to a fruitful collaboration with his then-wife, Comox Valley native (and Arcade Fire member) Sara Neufeld, which won the pair a Juno Award in 2016.

He list of on-stage and in-studio credits features work with Tom Waits, Feist, Lou Reed, David Gilmour, The Chemical Brothers, LCD Soundsystem, The National, Sinéad O’Connor and David Byrne, among others, which has provided Stetson with consistent work. He began branching out over a decade ago, and found steady work as a soundtrack composer. That now takes up the majority of his time.

Stetson has scored several high-profile projects, including the horror film Hereditary and video game Red Dead Redemption 2. He also wrote and performed the score to The Menu, one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2022.

“I’ve been able to do a lot of amazing projects,” he said. “I look back fondly on all of them and am really proud of the music on a bunch of different levels. But from 2015 through to now, I’ve been on a never-ending string of scoring projects. Only recently have I been able to carve myself out a nice window where I could devote myself to solo music.”

The window of opportunity includes Stetson’s first-ever solo show in Victoria, set for tonight at the Alix Goolden Performance Hall. It will feature visuals interfaced with his gear.

The concert, which is sold out, is one of only four Canadian performances on Stetson’s itinerary through July.

“I do a few short runs, two weeks or less, a year and then some one-offs and festivals. I started pulling back in 2015, and over the course of a few years got it to the place where I was much more comfortable from a life perspective. Now. it’s in a sweet spot. I go out when I want and how I want.”

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