Watching the Planets Collide with Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, and Bryce Dessner

"Planetarium" at BAM (Photograph by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music)
“Planetarium” at BAM (Photograph by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Space-themed music experiences were having something of a moment last week. While Oktophonie at the Park Avenue Armory brought the stark coldness of the world beyond our earth in minimal electronica, over at the Brooklyn Academy of Music there was Planetarium, a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, and Bryce Dessner. Beneath an assault of lasers and lights and projections on an orb that stood in for the nine planets (yes, poor rejected Pluto got to join), plus the Moon and the Sun, the three musicians were joined by an eclectic backing band of drums, a string quartet, and trombones to create interpretations of our immediate universe. Yet while it was definitely special to see those three talented people perform together, and I absolutely loved that there were seven trombones sounding at once in crashes of brass, Planetarium, like Oktophonie, still didn’t quite capture the vast wonder of space.

Sufjan Stevens in "Planetarium" at BAM (Photograph by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music)
Sufjan Stevens in “Planetarium” at BAM (Photograph by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Perhaps taking on something as big and awe-inspiring as planets is just always going to fall a bit short, as, well, we’re only humans here. Gustav Holst certainly gave it his best go with The Planets orchestral suite from 1916 that honors each celestial sphere with a romantic tribute, but each is more based on their astrological significance than their astronomy. Planetarium, similarly, was more free-association about our projected personalities of the planets, like the loneliness of Jupiter. Sufjan Stevens, as shown in his haunting indie tributes to the states on albums like Michigan and Illinois, definitely has a knack for embodying a place through his songs. Composer Nico Muhly can make both classical pieces and indie arrangements with a complexity reminiscent of his mentor Philip Glass, and when Bryce Dessner of the National starts to really rock out on the guitar it’s riveting. Yet while all three of their talents were definitely in orbit, it felt like each planet’s movement ended too short and suddenly rocketed off to the next before it really had a chance to peak.

Whether or not Planetarium managed to capture the feeling of looking out on our solar system from our own planet,  there are elements brewing in the primordial soup here that could definitely evolve into something stunning. Maybe subdue the light show, allow the layered atonal orchestrations on pieces like “Mars” and “Sun” to linger, or get Stevens off the autotune and let his fragile vocals be exposed like on the touching and apologetic “Mercury” that ended the song cycle. Before its New York premiere at BAM, Planetarium was performed at the Barbican, which commissioned it, as well as the Sydney Opera House, and the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam. It landing in New York the exact same week as Oktophonie is a coincidence, but it provided an engaging look at two totally different ways of seeing the universe and interpreting it into music. While neither was completely successful, they did both inspire contemplation about what space and the mysterious planets mean, psychologically, to us. We haven’t quite reached the stars, but as Stevens, Muhly, and Dessner returned for an encore to perform a delicate and wavering cover of “Over the Rainbow,” something in Planetarium resonated with our earth-bound yearning to get close.

Planetarium was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) March 21–24. It will be performed April 22 as part of the Brooklyn Festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall (111 South Grand Avenue, Downtown, LA) in Los Angeles. 

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