Traversing Fort Greene in northern Brooklyn, the wind is biting with more frigid courage than expected for the third evening of Spring. The chill is invigorating, the wind aurally stimulating. Roars of wind and scattered honking cars prelude the ambitious production of Planetarium, the collaborative effort of Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, and Bryce Dessner as they performed for four nights this past weekend at the BAM. The Brooklyn Academy of Music asserts itself on Lafayette Ave with its ornate arched windows and tetrad of doorways adorned with sculpted images of infantile angels holding drums. Inside, the foyer is pulsating and the crowd is eclectic with an intangible sense of inquisitive anticipation. Indeed, this weekend marks the East Coast premiere of this show which came together in 2011 while the three composers met abroad in the Netherlands and hatched the idea for the celestial endeavor. The only taste most American listeners have had were recordings from overseas and for more than a year some listeners have waited patiently for this.
One realizes from the anticipation of the crowd that this show is greater than the sum of its parts and must be appreciated in the live setting. Progressing slowly towards the central portal to the main orchestra, snippets of conversations float in and out of reach. The shards of conversation range from academic to deeply avant-garde and the crowd’s variety of cohorts creates a collaborative sentiment fitting for the show at hand. Indie powerhouse Sufjan Stevens has created some of the freshest fusions of indie and classical music for a decade and has the attention of most or all of the people chattering in the room. Prodigious composer Nico Muhly is on the tongue of some of the older patrons, likely the classical faithful, who are describing past productions he has lent his sophisticated craftsmanship to both as a keys player and composer. There was one group in the room quoting obscure poetry about the Solar System back and forth; they appear the literary type from their distinct loquaciousness. The tallest in the group smiles broadly and says he’s enjoyed The National live a few times, but is looking forward to the coming-of-age of guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner who has been successfully developing a jack-of-all trades persona recently with his production chops and compositional skills flourishing above and beyond his work with The National. Dissociating from any one conversation, one appreciates the buzz from the foyer. The visceral feeling is titillating. The deference paid towards these musicians is notable enough as a testament to their artistic careers.
Seated in the orchestra one is struck by the vertical aspect of the theater, easily taller than most theaters built in its day. The lights at the peak of the dome create a solar imagery, the room carries a warmth that contrasts the protracted winter outside. The white noise is exciting and brings a sense of singular focus to the minimal stage setup where four chairs and four notation stands are backed by black curtains. The lights dim and four black clad string musicians walk to their seats. Violinists Rob Moose and Ben Russell, violist Nadia Sirota and cellist Clarice Jensen are an all-star troupe of string players that have performed widely as soloists and studio musicians for acts such as Bon Iver, Steve Reich, Dirty Projectors, and John Luther Adams. They will be performing pieces by each of the three composers at the center of the evening’s show.
Starting with compositions by Dessner, the quartet immediately seizes the hall with their chemistry and properly demonstrate Dessner’s strong crescendos with robust cohesiveness. They are breathtaking, breaking from climaxes into sparse 16th notes jumping back and forth in a fanciful interplay. The players sway with each bowing of the strings, watching one another as they converse via their instruments. To the amusement of the crowd, after one song the self-proclaimed “as-yet-unidentified” quartet explains they are a “just group of friends who play music together.” Continuing on, Nico Muhly’s compositions carry a much more adventurous sense of time signature manipulation and minimalism. The quartet played eight connected tracks which confounded the senses when the music never moved where you thought it would. It was as if the quartet spoke another language entirely for moments in between mini-concertos for each player within each song.
The cello moved through its entire register, compelling the listener to focus heavily on where each sound was coming from because the quartet moved together as a single beast with such a rich and interwoven sound. The first violin had several solos composed entirely of harmonics, the viola kept mathematical canons afloat. Lastly, they performed several tracks from Sufjan’s classic album Enjoy Your Rabbit which were arranged for the quartet and definitely had a very distinct sense of beat which revealed the tracks origins as electronic tunes penned by Sufjan before Michigan. In total, the string quartet was among the most impressive acts of classical music seen by many of the crowd’s youthful patrons because in this day it is rare to have contemporary classical music come alive in front of your eyes. With classical venues tending towards paying homage to classical standards from the past 400 years, it is refreshing as ever to have the talented writing of contemporary composers taken out of the context of contemporary genres and played in the pure arrangement of a string quartet. This opening hour of music set the pace for the provocative production that would consume the BAM after a twenty minute intermission.
Dessner, Stevens, and Muhly entered to heavy applause. The black curtains drawn, Deborah Johnson’s visual design loomed large in the tall performance hall. Above the musicians a 16 foot orb was suspended in midair which would reflect high definition projections of swirling colors, geometric images, and represent the carnal energy of the planets. Throughout the performance, lasers, lights, and rotating disco balls projected a powerfully visual representation of geometric planes, starry skies, and the fury of elemental interactions on each planet. The string quartet took upstage right and a seven person trombone troupe was linearly displayed stage left. Percussion man James McAlister was immediately behind Stevens.
The hall came to life with the melancholic notes of “Neptune”; ‘What’s right and what’s wrong / don’t you hold me too tightly to words’, Stevens sings in his soft spoken tenor over Muhly’s chamber keys. n ethereal trombone chord structure slowly builds from nothing as Stevens’ falsetto cuts the hall for the first chorus of the night. The song ends on deep trombone chords ascending the minor key as Stevens’ falsetto hovers in the alto range, a very chilling climax. From there the hall would thunder to life for each subsequent celestial body; “Mars” with its warlike tension built on dissonance and hammered floor toms, “Venus” with its tremolo and finger picked guitar structures underneath xylophone melodies, “Jupiter” with a persistently ascending melody line led by Stevens’ vocoder modulated vocals, and “Mercury” with its pizzicato opening and trombone solo over Stevens’ desperate lyricism – ‘I am restless / all that I’ve known to be of love / and I am gentle / you ran off with it all…. where do you run to?’
These tracks function as homages to the planets but also pose perplexing existential quandaries. There is a melancholic sense of futility in the phrasing with regards to humanity in relation to the cosmos. Perhaps the universal sense of scale invoked revelatory discussion between the composers on secularism vs. spirituality, on courage and wanderlust vs. despondency. The full effect is one of pure complexity. The music, as well as the vocals, are textured to excess to aid in this complicated deciphering of our place in the cosmos. Not always the same textures, changing even within one song, but very much achieving a meta-auditory experience that transcends each individual instrument alone. “Earth” achieves this to the greatest degree, a ten minute opus with multiple movements that has so many nuances it could only have arisen from a place as spectacularly diverse as our planet. ‘Exploration, competition, ceremony…’ Stevens sings to the cosmos, as though an adventurer on some distant planet explaining how it was that humans came to explore the universe.
Notably, Stevens’ vocals are likely a polarizing aspect of this performance. His delivery is soft, weakened, almost feeble at times. His pitch is imperfect, forsaking perfect intonation for emotional impact. This serves to enhance the sense of melancholy, like a mourning youth gazing upon the Milky Way for reflection. Again, the texture of the performance seems to be a unified effort from all three composers and Stevens’ emotional impact is part of this recipe.
The show was breathtaking for its execution and rich concept. As the final planet “Mercury” commenced, the audience easily stood for ovation before the entire stage cleared quite rapidly. But as quickly as they’d left, the three composers returned and curiously broke into a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which was well received by the crowd. Even if the meaning behind the encore selection was lost on the audience, the classic tune fit the bill of the melancholic wanderlust that evidenced itself throughout the entire performance.
Questions remain about this collaborative success between Stevens, Muhly, and Dessner. What was their creative process? Will they collaborate again? What will each take with them from this experience? Only time will tell, but there will always be a crowd as stoked for these three gentlemen’s music as there was this weekend at the BAM. These composers need heavy applause for their decidedly Herculean efforts at being prolific writers of ambitious music in many different veins. And, in the case of Planetarium’s sophisticated and artistic contemporary classical music, they deserve to be recognized as having penned music as fresh as anything out this year.
Written by Case Newsome
OurVinyl | Contributor