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Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner & Nico Muhly, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner & Nico Muhly, Barbican

Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner & Nico Muhly, Barbican

Orchestral pop goes (almost) intergalactic

Sufjan Stevens: Unearthly Powers

Sufjan Stevens is a singer-songwriter of startling scope, one minute releasing a record dedicated to the state of Illinois, the next a five-disc Christmas box set or an album for the animals of the Chinese Zodiac.

Bryce Dessner is the guitarist in indie rock act The National, but also plays semi-improvised avant-folk with Clogs and works with leading classical ensembles like Kronos Quartet and Bang On A Can.Composer Nico Muhly counts among his collaborators both symphony orchestras and the likes of Bjork, Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Antony and the Johnsons. He’s written soundtracks and operas and released, under his own name, on Valgeir Sigurdsson’s Bedroom Community label.

So the fact that the three musicians have come together – plus drums, string quartet, and seven trombones – shouldn’t necessarily set rock-musician-attempts-classical alarm bells ringing. Given Stevens’ weakness for concepts, even news that they would present a song cycle inspired by planets didn’t necessarily seem cause for concern. It would, in any case, be so predictable to say that tonight’s show was less than the sum of its parts. But… tonight’s show was less than the sum of it parts.

Granted, it could have been excruciating, a prog-style re-casting of Holst - and it certainly wasn’t that. Stevens’ enchanted and enchanting voice was suitably celestial, and the massed trombones stirred memories of Mingus. At least on first listen, though, the songs simply lacked the hooks of Stevens’ Illinoise or The National’s Boxer. Dessner was also a muted presence, with Muhly (pictured right), conducting from the piano, sharing stage banter duties with frontman Sufjan. (Everyone kept a straight face when they introduced "Uranus" but then spoiled it by tittering at "vertical ring".)

Enjoyable but slightly underwhelming, then, especially given the calibre and quantity of musicians on stage and critical response to Sufjan's usual shows. He admits, however, that it’s a work in progress. And if the show tonight didn’t quite live up to the great expectations, let’s at least be grateful that there exist musicians with this ludicrously high of musical and conceptual ambition. From individual American states, Sufjan has now progressed to the solar system. Next step: the universe and beyond.

Igor Toronyi-Lalic writes...

We've seen rather a lot of Nico Muhly recently, as performer, composer, arranger, opera man and general gadabout. And each time he's visited he's come bearing gifts: new music and new chums. Last night he had with him two established names of the indie rock scene, The National guitarist, Bryce Dessner, and sing-songwriter, Sufjan Stevens. And there were world premieres from them all, including a collaborative musical suite on the planetary system for string quartet, trombone septet, guitar, drums, piano, keyboards, celeste and vocalist. Holst, it wasn't. Intriguing, it was.

But before our rock romp through the solar system, we had some delicate chamber music to enjoy. Muhly's string quartet, Diacritical Marks, showed a composer in full and confident control of his medium. Two fabulously twitchy outer movements, virtuosically dispatched by the Navarra Quartet, mark entrance points to a liminal middle world made up of soft, wispy variations on a short, recurring Reichian theme. A moment of real beauty, however, came in Sufjan Stevens's Run Rabbit Run where the string quartet slowed to a crawl and appeared to start to daydream the Heiliger Dankgesang.

Next to these neat and allusive pieces, Dessner three-movement string quintet (two violins, viola, cello and him on guitar) seemed a little too diffuse and untidy both in delivery and construction to hold our interest completely. Nevertheless the Chorale second movement made its enigmatic mark. It was music that was difficult to place but easy to enjoy. Then he lost me in the footling hypnotics of the final movement, Isorhythm, which neither cast a spell nor generated much heat. 

It felt like work in progress. As did the second half's musical take on the heavenly bodies, Planetarium. Stevens said as much at the start. Viewed in this way, it seems unfair to be too critical. Besides, they were hamstrung by the thing that has always hamstrung those who've tried to wax lyrically about the planets. Does anyone have feelings about Uranus? Feelings distinct from those you might have for Neptune? Or Pluto? And what are your thoughts on Mercury? You don't have any? Nor me. Surprisingly, Stevens does. And he has thoughts on the others too. Most of them. Sun and moon (introduced by Muhly as "boring old moon") were oddly overlooked.

It might have been ok if any of the music had pressing things to tell us. But most of it didn't

The major problem was musical and centred around the  issue of having too many cooks. It was hard to make out exactly who had done what in this compositional collaboration (Dessner, Muhly and Stevens were all credited as composers), but what was certain was that they all had done too much. There was too much capricious changing of tack and key, and not enough masterplanning and excising. That they allowed every element of their strange circus of instruments to come in at some point during virtually each and every tone poem was also a mistake. It made for conveyor belt music, where we waited politely for each section to say hello and introduce itself as if we were listening to a jazz set.

It might have been ok if any of the music had pressing things to tell us. But most of it didn't, which is odd because it's not like Muhly to let such a colourful collection of instruments go to waste - or to let such foursquare rhythms (that the trombones compounded) dominate. Music like this can often be rescued by a charismatic vocalist. But we got very little of Stevens's natural, characterfully chipped and cracked voice and a lot of sieved vocoder sound instead (possibly to mask intonation worries that were evident at the start).

Still, when they focussed their thoughts, intermittent pleasure could be had. Pluto was an appropriately tight little piece that, from extremely intimate beginnings, span itself out and drew itself back in in satisfying fashion. The final trio, Saturn, Earth and Mercury (the last of which had some lovely solo trombone contributions from members of the New Trombone Collective), all built impressively enough to anthemy like highs. But by then something else had my attention. The projections on a balloon placed planet-like above the band at the back of the stage that had started humbly enough began by the end to work themselves up into things of neo-Constructivist wonder. Only in these spiralling images did we come close to a sense of the extra-terrestrial.

From individual American states, Sufjan has now progressed to the solar system. Next step: the universe and beyond


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I'm impressed that you managed to review the Barbican gig two whole days before it happened :) The review is currently dated the 7th April, assume that's a typo and it'll be changed. Or maybe you just decided you were going to poo poo it before you'd even seen it? You seem to have had a remarkably less enjoyable experience than the entire audience around me. Universal praise all round. Each to their own I guess.

Agree the earlier time looks highly suspicious. Simple explanation. TAD writers sometimes set up the technical framework for their piece with images, metadata, tags and other stuff a day or even more before they go because it's fiddly & time-consuming, & in the wee small hours they want to focus on writing their review. But then sometimes they forget to update the time on it. Ismene

I'd agree with Marcus the reviewer. There were some outstanding moments which the audience responded to accordingly, but there were also some underwhelming ones. The final comment re 'work in progress' and about being grateful these musicians let us share in it is also fair. I enjoyed the evening but I wish Stevens would cut the electronic processing of his otherwise celestial voice. I'm now looking forward to the finished article.

I actually don't mind the vocoder at all. I'm quite happy to hear how he experiments with it, in anyone else's hands I'd probably run a mile but it doesn't feel out of place in a song suite about the Planets :)

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