We’ve returned to the question of identity and humanity and human rights, and what does it mean to be a person in our world? What is our relationship to our world, and the environment? What does it mean to believe in a divine being, and what does that divine being require of us? That divine being is often inspired by the cosmos. Sufjan Stevens

A hugely ambitious undertaking, Planetarium is a contemporary song cycle of “cosmic” proportions. The project originally emerged in 2011 when Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned American composer Nico Muhly to compose a new piece for string quartet and seven trombones along the theme of the solar system. Muhly turned to singer songwriter and composer Sufjan Stevens (who also enlisted his long-time percussionist James McAlister) and fellow American guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner to develop the concept further. The resulting Planetarium suite first toured the UK in 2012 to huge critical acclaim.

The musicians recorded the songs in 2013 but went back to the studio last year to enhance the original songs, add new pieces and mix the original creation into a 76mn and 17 track opus. Planetarium was released on 9th June 2017 last on the 4AD record label.

Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister - Planetarium (2017)
Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister – Planetarium (2017)

Between themselves, American composers Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner share a huge amount of creative talent, having been involved in several symphonic, electronic, cinematic, choral, visual art and dance projects to date.

Sufjan Stevens is renowned for elaborate song cycles and thematic recordings such as his many volumes of new Christmas songs, the (aborted) 50 States project, the Enjoy Your Rabbit project based on the Chinese Zodiac, his ode to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway etc. As the de-facto leader on this new recording, the singer composed all the lyrics on Planetarium.

Nine songs celebrate the sun, the moon as well as the nine planets of our solar system, including the Earth. Each song is also associated with an original artwork reproduced in the liner notes of the cd and Vinyl editions. The songs are interspersed with electronic, drone and ambient interludes dedicated to other celestial bodies of phenomena such as black holes, Halley’s Comet, the Kuiper Belt etc.

As they were invented, built or improved, early electronic instruments have long featured on science documentaries or science-fiction soundtracks, always in an attempt to express the mystery and infinity of the universe. In a retro-futuristic fashion, many vintage analogue instruments such as the Ace Tone organ as well as Moog, Roland “Jupiter”, Juno or Prophet synthesisers feature extensively on the album. Other older instruments such as the celeste or the Mellotron also underpin the ethereal sound of the album.

Drawing on science and astronomy as well as on astrology and Greek, Roman or Asian cosmogonic myths and legends, most songs communicate an original sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of the universe while others are much more abstract or relate personal experiences.

There’s a sort of beautiful perfect order to life on earth that’s so mysterious and so profound. And yet as people we really f*** it up. We’re so dysfunctional […] Sufjan Stevens

In musical terms, Planetarium is a sonic maelstrom, alternating between piano-led vocoder ballads, soaring prog-rock anthems with a booming brass section (of seven trombones!), quieter string-based modern classical pieces, dreamlike passages embellished by Bryce Dessner’s sumptuous guitar harmonies and glitch-laden electronic transitions.

The cultural and musical references also abound throughout the suite which is sonically very close to Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz (2010). The “Earth” song, a grandiose composition and the longest piece on the album (15mn) references György Ligeti’s requiem from the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack in its introduction.

The entire album recalls of course Gustav Holsts’ The Planets (1914-1916), the landmark seven movement orchestral suite which didn’t include Pluto at the time as the celestial body was only discovered in 1930. It is also interesting to note that Japanese composer Isao Tomita (1932 – 2016) recorded an electronic version of the suite in 1976.

The hugely popular 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey TV series – itself a follow up to Carl Sagan’s 1980s series – has an also obvious bearing on the project, and American astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson is included in the Thank You list in the album liner notes. So is avant-garde electronic musician and composer Laurie Anderson who used the vocoder to striking effect in the 1980s. The omnipresence of the vocoder on the record is perhaps also a nod to electronic duo Air who used it a lot on Moon Safari. Indirectly, the same band also released a new soundtrack for George Méliès’ 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon in February 2012 last.

Described by master arranger Nico Muhly as “a single manuscript, overwritten by many hands, with each individual contribution legible on the finished document”, Planetarium is a fascinating and lush musical odyssey that demands repeated listening.