Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and Co. Take “Planetarium” On Tour

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For composer Nico Muhly, composer and guitarist Bryce Dessner, and singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, the idea for their new project, Planetarium, first surfaced back in 2011, when Muhly was commissioned by Muziekgebouw Eindhoven to craft a musical collaboration. The three musicians had been friends for a long time but had never had the opportunity to work together. “We wrote [Planetarium] over the course of a few weeks, and it slowly took shape that it was going to be about constellations, planets, and shapes,” explains Muhly. The loose atmosphere of the sessions allowed the trio to think as abstractly as it wanted to, bringing in dynamic sounds that could fuse together. Last month, the musicians released the finished record, and now Muhly, Stevens, Dessner, and drummer James McAlister are touring behind the project, giving the musicians the opportunity to explore the album’s themes of mythology, astrology, astronomy, and humanity in a live setting.

This week, the group and an ensemble of additional musicians brought the project to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell, and it will play the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles on Thursday. “We’re creating the energy of the [Planetarium] record with a lot of live orchestral strings, brass, and all the textures that you hear us playing,” explains Dessner, who is also the guitarist for Brooklyn band the National. “I think it will work really well.” Before their performance in Brooklyn, Muhly and Dessner filled us in on how the planets inspired them and their long-awaited collaboration.

Can you tell me about how Planetarium came to life and how you’re translating it into a live show?

Nico Muhly: A couple of years ago, I was a composer and resident at this town in the Netherlands called Eindhoven, which is a small town, but they have a wonderful art center. I was writing a bunch of chamber music for them, and eventually one of the things they wanted to commission was a large-scale collaborative project. I always wanted to work with Bryce and Sufjan, because we’ve been friends for a million years but we’ve never worked together. I said, “Let’s write something huge,” and they agreed and said it sounded fun. It was sort of abstract: We met a whole bunch of times and went away together; we went to West Virginia and went to the Netherlands. We just wrote [Planetarium] over the course of a bunch of weeks, and it slowly took shape that it was going to be about constellations, planets, and shapes, and so we went in and out of different concepts. But to answer the second part of your question, it was designed as a live show first. We built it as a live show, and we actually toured it a bit in Europe in 2011.

What can fans expect out of the dynamic performance?

Bryce Dessner: The live show is really pretty ambitious. A scintillating visual artist named Deborah Johnson made a film for it, and there is a lighting designer that is also working directly with her, so it has a kind of immersive, planetarium-experience [feel to it]. We’re creating the energy of the [Planetarium] record with a lot of live orchestral strings, brass, and all the textures that you hear us playing, whether it be guitar or Sufjan’s synthesizer, or Nico’s piano, or James playing a lot of electronic percussion. So it has a lot of really huge sounds. 

Tell me about how artwork corresponded to the project, because all the visuals that go along with it are really amazing.

Muhly: Deborah Johnson has worked with Sufjan on his other shows, and she’s kind of a silent partner because she is amazing at creating a single look that spans a bunch of different — I don’t want to say songs, but pieces. She can take a bunch of different things and turn them into a single visual environment. And one of the coolest things for me is just where I’m sat onstage — everyone else is facing to the front, and I’m facing to the side. So I can see everything during the show, and it makes me so happy each time.

Dessner: We all have great relationships with visual artists, and so actually I curated a ton of artists to create an image for each planet, including the sun and the moon. My sister Jessica [Dessner], she’s worked with Sufjan a lot in the past, so she drew the cover of the record. We hope people will discover the art on the inside of the record. It’s something we’re excited about.

Bryce, tell me about how this project is similar or departs from your work with the National.

Dessner: You know, even with the National, we write collaboratively, and with Planetarium we really did develop music together. It’s different in that this project really focused around this theme and concept of the planets, featuring what each of us does on our own but really oriented around Sufjan’s voice and songwriting. So it has that about it, that it is very specific to his voice. I don’t really see us as similar. I play guitar, but it’s pretty different.

Is this a one-off project or something you guys would continue with?

Muhly: Well, we’re touring it a bunch of times. Basically, it’s complicated, because we all have completely different lives. Like, James lives in Los Angeles, Bryce lives in Paris, Sufjan and I are here [in New York], but I’m back and forth to London a lot. So actually, yes, we’re obviously going to try and continue it as much as possible. And what’s so fun about doing a sort of cluster of performances is that we get to spend time all together, which is rare, right? As you get older, people move away, people have their own lives, people have kids. So it’s such a treat to be able to spend a bunch of time together.

Why the fascination with the solar system?

Muhly: Originally it started as an organizing principle only. Each piece was different from the next one, but we soon realized that we needed one way to kind of divide things up, to distinguish from the pile of material that we were generating. At that time, Sufjan had been reading a lot about astrology, which of course is related to astronomy and the solar system. I think the minute we had that idea presented [to us], it came out as what we had to do. It’s so universal, and it’s something that is so personal; it traces back to Greek and Roman times, where there was always this constant transference between what the gods were up to — not just in Olympus, but also on Earth. They’d come down, fuck with people, and then universally when the hero dies, he gets thrown up into the sky and turns into Orion’s Belt. So, there’s a way in which it’s very personal, and a way in which it’s very intimate. For a collaboration, it feels like the way to go, so it’s not the kind of jewel-box MIDI music that Sufjan makes, the straightforward classical concept music that I make, or the chamber music that Bryce makes. It’s the thing that multiplies out.

Were you fascinated by this stuff when you were a kid? Is that something that played into it?

Muhly: I think for kids that grow up in a non-religious atmosphere, the exposure to the solar system is your first exposure to the idea of infinity and the idea of things going on forever. So I remember that feeling of, “Whoa, things are big here. They are a lot bigger than the things that are right in front of my face.” It’s interesting because once you start learning about it in the school kind of way, it’s amazing, but it’s also in a weird way a process of demystification, which can remove some of the romance. I was fascinated to a certain extent.

Did religion play into this record at all?

Muhly: I would encourage you to read the lyrics and draw your own conclusion about that. A lot of my music is sacred music; I write a lot for choral music, and I try to imbue most music with a sense of occasion. When I say “occasion,” I mean like a ritualized thing. That of course is a part of it, but it’s not that explicit — it’s more part of the texture.

Can you tell me what were you thinking when you composed the music? What inspired you?

Muhly: That’s always a slightly frustrating question because, for me, the way that music you’re listening to and music you’re writing at that time relates is never one-to-one. I think this project is the opposite of what all of us were doing; it was right before Sufjan finished [his Age of Adz] tour, which was all crazy electronic, and before he wrote [2015’s] Carrie & Lowell; Bryce was doing stuff with the National, and I’d just finished an opera. It felt like an oasis in light of everything else going on.

Dessner: At the time, I was listening to Brian Eno’s Another Green World. I really like that record, and Robert Fripp [who appears on the album] is an amazing guitar player. This Mortal Coil was this great collaborative band back in the Nineties, which had Cocteau Twins singing [on some songs]. I like the tradition of these collaborative bands. Obviously Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” is probably the most famous piece of music inspired by space. Nico and I really love the composer Oliver Knussen: “The Sun” is inspired by his harmonic language.

Can you talk about the instruments you used for this?

Muhly: One of the things that I wanted to do was work with a local ensemble in the Netherlands who were seven trombonists, which is the most awesome sound ever. I’m playing piano, two different synthesizers, and celeste, which is this kind of keyboard thing. Bryce is playing guitar, as he does; James is playing drums, a bunch of synthesized sounds; and Sufjan is playing keyboard and singing. For the purpose of this tour, we’re doing [the performances] with two strings and three trombones, so it’s a leaner, meaner machine. Seven trombones is so luxurious, so it feels like you only want to have that once or twice in your life. Otherwise you’ll get addicted.

Is there a deeper meaning behind the project?

Dessner: I think Sufjan would answer that better. But I would say that looking into outer space for meaning is actually the most interesting universe is within the human body so there is this kind of intimate and interior meaning behind all the songs that goes deeper in a way. Obviously we’re talking about big concepts, right and wrong, astrology and these things, but then there’s also a personal narrative inside.

On Thursday, July 20, Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister perform Planetarium at Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles

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