Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister



Jun 09, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

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The stars ultimately aligned in the assembly of contemporary classical music composer Nico Muhly with friends Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, and the multidimensional James McAlister for their collaborative project with a far reaching theme. With the cosmos as their muse, the unexpected quartet joined forces to design Planetarium, a concept album years in the making. That concept actually dawned as a performance piece that Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned Muhly to create. After extended dormancy, recordings of those live performances were unearthed and reconstructed in the studio and if the intention was to orchestrate a galactic ode, mission accomplished.

Forgive the liberal use of spatial analogy, but it's only fitting of the grandeur of arrangement and production on Planetarium. Stevens is the quintessential celestial narrator and adapts to the scale of the musical medium through experiments modulating his already heaven sent voice, both with and without computerization. It works to varying effect in catapulting "Jupiter" while becoming somewhat overbearing on the sprawling "Mars."

Though there are parts of zealous over extension, the adherence to vision in this collective effort is quite impressive. The album launches elaborately, then from the finale of "Uranus" trails off into a space with less clutter, where a wordless exploration of ambience drifts over the middle of the hour and seventeen minute odyssey that feels vast. But these are welcome departures that aim for and achieve simulation of the thematic territory.

Where Planetarium is most brilliant is on the Vangelis-like soundscape "Black Energy," which could have fit seamlessly into the Chariots of Fire soundtrack. Then just when the dark vortex of "Black Hole" pulls inward to a point of no return, there are resilient leaps into drum machine laid electro dance patterns on "Saturn" and "Earth," no doubt augmented by the hand of McAlister.  In the end and like a guiding light, the pure resonance of Stevens returns for the grand finale "Mercury," giving way graciously to Dessner's gravity defying, high scale guitar artistry that, true to form, simply and beautifully uplifts.

In its entirety, the ambition and scope of the project is matched by the combined talent and imagination of four musical friends whose association seemed to just emerge from the ether. May there be more such fortuitous arrangements in the future. Away we go! (

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