Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld: Never Were the Way She Was

With all of the recording's sounds generated by violinist Sarah Neufeld and saxophonist Colin Stetson, Never Were the Way She Was proves that a battalion of forces isn't necessary for compelling music to be created. Of course, working in such manner isn't anything new to the highly regarded Constellation artists as the individual albums each released before this collaboration—her Hero Brother and his New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light—typically feature the playing of the solo artist only. Kindred spirits and real-life partners, Neufeld and Stetson expand on the album's core sound by adding voice to violin in her case and by playing tenor and bass saxophones and contrabass clarinet in his.

Many of Stetson's signatures are present: his robust attack, a circular breathing technique that enables patterns to continue without interruption, and a propensity for vocalizing through his instrument, a move that bolsters the music's raw and earthy character. Neufeld similarly offsets the refinement of her own playing with a rustic edge. Adding to the music's visceral impact is the fact that all eight pieces were performed live sans overdubs and loops, and enhancing its appeal is a concise, forty-three-minute running time that feels just right—neither too little nor too much.

While the music hardly suggests that the two are aping Philip Glass, parallels between his music and theirs emerge occasionally. Both Neufeld's see-sawing ostinatos and Stetson's patterns in “The Sun Roars Into View” call Glass to mind, especially when the subtle ascents and descents are delivered with a pulsation that intensifies their hypnotic effect. That being said, the duo distance their music from his and accentuate its natural character by working her wordless vocalizing and his guttural roar into the performance. Elsewhere, a trace of Glass surfaces in the lilting string figure that lends “Won't Be a Thing to Become” a mournful edge and calls to mind the violin passages of Einstein On the Beach. Stetson's rapid ostinato patterns coursing through “In the Vespers,” on the other hand, hint at a more general classical minimalism influence rather than one tied to a single composer.

The duo smartly mix things up by offsetting propulsive settings with comparatively contemplative pieces, among them the stately dirge “And Still They Move” and the plaintive title setting. One of the album's more haunting settings is “With the Dark Hug of Time,” where Stetson undergirds intense violin flourishes with a sound that's so animalistic it's like the wail of a dying elephant. A narrative of sorts is present, one involving “the life of a girl who ages slow as mountains,” but no familiarity with the narrative is necessary for the listener to engage with the performances: the music offers more than enough by way of stimulation, as exemplified by a rhythmic thrust that turns “The Rest of Us” into some primal acoustic version of house music. The fundamental contrasts between the acoustic instruments proves ear-catching, and the way the musicians' blend their lines in real-time makes listening to the album a constant pleasure.

June 2015