UMS: The Space Where You Used to Be – Colin Stetson / by Doyle Armbrust

I don’t want to write these words. Or, conversely, when I knew I’d be covering Colin Stetson this season, I was over the moon. Forgive the caveat, but as a music journalist, my mailbox is jammed with dozens of albums every week…but Colin’s records remain at or near the top of the pile, ever since I laid hands on a copy of his New History of Warfare, Vol. 1 (2008).

So I finally get the opportunity to cover an artist whose creativity cuts glass — that continues to startle and inspire me.

And then Stoneman Douglas sends us all reeling.

At this point in our country’s history, UMS could have thrown a dart at the calendar when considering a piece about the loss of children and it would have coincided with a mass shooting. That’s not what prompted this concert, or this re-imagining of Górecki’s iconic Third Symphony, but I’ll bet that I’m not the only one reckoning with this excruciating reality as we encounter this exquisite piece.

Why, in 1992, did the Nonesuch Records release of this symphony miraculously sell a million copies? Maybe because pain is the one existential element we are all assured of sharing in this lifetime. Maybe because one thing we can all agree upon is that there is no analogue for the loss of a child. Those that have experienced it cannot possibly translate its depth, and yet those that have not have no trouble empathizing with it. Górecki just found the vein, and he opened it up.

Columbine was the defining school tragedy of my childhood. Ever since then, the voices of the victim’s parents have always haunted me well beyond the moment the story escapes the news cycle. Though the brave speeches and interviews with surviving students at Stoneman Douglas offer a glimmer of hope that maybe this time it will be different, and that change is peeking out from its dark cell, it’s the parents — those most acutely left behind — that level me. Tributes and policy change are vital…but there remain those that will live out the rest of their years with a blank space that a child was meant to fill.

Movement 1: “Lento — Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile”

“To be honest, it seems to be getting harder. I keep looking for him. I reach out for him. I keep thinking he’s here and can’t understand why he’s not.”

—mother of six-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School victim

Even if your religious beliefs trend elsewhere, or not at all, there is something universal uncovered in the story of the mother, Mary, and her fated son, Jesus, which provides the launch point for Górecki’s lament. The moment of intimacy between them, as he staggers under the burden of his crucifix, is so movingly captured in Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, but here we enter more tenebrous emotional territory. Colin’s sooty reeds moan into view, ushering in low strings and woodwinds to this dirge. There is a solemnity evident here, and yet the steady progression of the assembling voices reveals that this is not the first time this song has been sung. The pain is singular — the tears unlike any that have ever flowed — but the tune is unfortunately a familiar one.

One detail of Colin’s records that draws me in is that his human-ness is left intact. His breath is a feature, rather than something to be deleted by an engineer, which brings the listener closer to live performance than albums typically allow. The vulnerability of this Third Symphony — what makes it so captivating — is honored by his ensemble’s interpretation, even enhanced with the dramatics of splashing cymbals and sublimated blast beats in the drums. Though illuminated through these interpretive filters, Górecki’s reverential economy of means is undisturbed. This writing, and this reinvention, move beyond the liturgical to something altogether more beautifully crude. More raw, and more riveting, and Colin’s coda is pure scorched earth.

Movement 2: “Lento e largo — Tranquillissimo” for Gérard Lemaître

“I am broken as I write this trying to figure out how my family gets through this… hold your children tight.”
—father of 14-year-old Marjory (Stoneman Douglas victim)

The rising ‘E’ – ‘G-sharp’ descending to ‘F-sharp’…to my mind, this is the most memorable figure from Górecki’s Third, and perhaps the most heartbreaking. There is something so hopeful about an ascending major third, and something equally resigned about its settling back a step lower. Hope seems so dangerous in this realm, but also so necessary if we are to carry on. When they emerge, Colin’s sax and the synths embody an almost Angelo Badalamenti-esque aesthetic, magnifying the potency of this dire supplication to Mary. Rich vibrations in the guitar and strings provide the foil for the incremental rises and falls in the doleful vocal line before the music, and our thoughts return to the expectant ‘E’ – ‘G-sharp’ – ‘F-sharp,’ and with it, a propulsive beat from the percussion. Perhaps there is catharsis to be found amidst all this despair.

Movement 3: “Lento — Cantabile-semplice”

“One of the hardest things to accept, for me, is that this horrible way of feeling is the new normal.”
—mother of 31-year-old Pulse nightclub victim

It was understandably assumed that Górecki’s Third Symphony was instigated by the horrors of the Second World War. According to the composer it wasn’t, but neither was this project born out of our too-frequent mass slayings of students. It just fits, because loss of this magnitude is a possibility, or current reality, for us all.

This third movement is in some ways the most transformed of the three, in Colin’s interpretation. The drums again shift forward in the orchestration, building to a frenetic intensity before the arrival of the revelatory key of A Major that concludes the piece. “And you, God’s little flowers / May you blossom all around / So that my son / May sleep happily,” implores the soprano. This is real life. This is a winsome spring morning seen trickling through the sieve of rapacious grief. It is beauty, attenuated, but beauty nonetheless. It is the best we can hope for.