It’s been nearly 40 years since Roland Barthes first theorized what he called the “grain of the voice.” And whether or not you’re familiar with his famous essay, I think it’s fair to say that the idea, if not necessarily the vocabulary, has wormed its way well into the collective critical consciousness by this point. For Barthes, the “grain” was the “body in the voice as it sings.” Not, or not merely, timbre: the “grain” of a voice, if it has one, consists precisely in the irreducibility of its significance, its weight, to the conventions of technique, style, or genre. Simon Frith famously heard grain in Elvis. “In the end,” he wrote, “this is the only way to explain his appeal: not in terms of what he ‘stood for,’ socially or personally, but by reference to the grain of the voice.” For Frith, Elvis celebrated “more sensuously, more voluptuously than any other rock ‘n’ roll singer — the act of symbol creation itself.” Grain, in other words, is the difference between James Brown and his backing singers, between Frank Sinatra and the Boobster. The shame with Billie Holiday was that she ended up having too much of it. With Sigur Rós, we celebrate Jónsi’s delivery precisely because his voice has none. The brilliance of his voice, in other words, is precisely the fact that it manages to sound disembodied.
We’re pretty comfortable now with those sorts of claims, in thinking about voice in this register. But we’re a little less so when it comes to instrumental music. This was an option explicitly left open by Barthes. “I can hear with certainty,” he wrote, “the certainty of the body, of thrill — that the harpsichord playing of Wanda Landowska comes from her inner body and not from the petty digital scramble of so many harpsichordists (so much so that it is a different instrument).” Simon Reynolds is rare for having taken Barthes’ invitation in this respect seriously. In a piece for a special issue of Melody Maker on “Vocal Heroes” in 1992, he suggested that we could think of the difference between Eric Clapton’s and Neil Young’s guitar playing in precisely these terms. Young’s “racked, wrenching one-chord solo on ‘Southern Man,’” he argued, “communicates more grainy anguish than a century of Clapton’s addle-daddle nuances.” (Pow! Take that, Clapton.)
What I want to suggest here is that it’s helpful — even essential — to think of Colin Stetson’s remarkable output over the last few years along precisely these sorts of lines. And that, in this respect, Those Who Didn’t Run, the brief but excellent follow-up to the astonishing New History of Warfare Vol 2: Judges, is no exception.
Let me then begin by repeating the gesture of demystification that introduces every review of a Stetson record I’ve ever read. As usual, both of the extraordinary, powerful, and hypnotic tracks collected here were recorded on solo saxophone, in a single take (frequently the first) and with (virtually) no effects applied post-production: just a little bit of “gating.” How come it all sounds so gnarled and cracked then? So little like an ordinary ‘saxophone’? Multiphonics. Those looped figures that seem to continue for minutes on end? Circular breathing. All the percussive, clicking sounds? Stetson mics up his instrument, inside and out. All that breathy rasping? He’s mic’d his throat too. And those melodic wails and moans? Ditto.
If all this technical detail seems somehow besides the point, it’s not. Stetson’s music sounds so exceptionally raw and muscular because it actually is. It requires a tremendous amount of effort and strain to produce it: a taut but fragile embouchure, a heaving chest, fingers frantically swirling, a throat and larynx swelling, a thin piece of wood and a tube of brass pushed to breaking point. Both a body and an instrument on the line.
Thanks to Barthes, we have a word for all of this. What we hear on the two superb tracks of Those Who Didn’t Run, as on its predecessors, is the body in Stetson’s instrument. This, in other words, is grain: mic’d up and amplified.
So when Ed Comentale, in his eloquent blurb on New History of Warfare Vol 2 here on Tiny Mix Tapes, points to the “rhythmic clatter, dizzying arpeggios, hiss, crackle, moans, screams, and wails, all disconnected from their origins, as if the entire sonic world has been deterritorilized” (my italics), I can’t help but feel he’s missed the point somewhat. For me, in its celebration of liveness, body, and technique, Stetson’s work is concerned precisely with those origins. It involves not a disconnection from, but an exploration of the material potential in his instrument(s): an excursion to the outer limits of instrumentality, a commitment to resonance as the product of granular viscera: of throats and diaphragms and guts and lungs.