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Thursday, March 14, 2013

When Musical Stars Align

by Jane Jansen Seymour

Planetarium. Photo courtesy of the artists

Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and Sufjan Stevens are musical multi-taskers and have been friends for over a decade. The idea of finding a project to tackle together floated around while tours, recordings, and maxed-out schedules got in the way. Their idea was to create a true collaboration, not just something shaped by emailing musical files back and forth. In Muhly’s words, they wanted “to have that effect of everyone cooking in the same kitchen at the same time, as opposed to an assembly line.” Over the course of a few years, Planetarium materialized simply by carving out time together. Muhly is a composer in residence at Muziekegebouq Eindhoven in Holland, which, in collaboration with the Sydney Opera House and the Barbican Centre in London, commissioned Planetarium, at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House from March 21 to 24.

Bryce Dessner is best known as a guitarist, with his twin brother Aaron, in the indie band The National, which played at BAM in 2010. But he is also a classical guitarist, a composer for the new-music quartet Clogs, and the founder of the annual MusicNOW festival, a celebration of contemporary music, in his hometown of Cincinnati. Composer Muhly has written two operas, film scores (including 2008 Oscar Best Picture nominee The Reader), and choral and orchestral pieces. He has served as an arranger for artists such as Jónsi, Mew, Grizzly Bear, and Usher. Muhly is also a frequent orchestrator for The National and has appeared with the band.

Sufjan Stevens’ prolific offerings as a multi-instrumentalist range from introspective, folk-influenced songs in his fragile tenor to interwoven synth blasts on an epic scale. He has contributed to the The National’s recordings and performances, and the Dessner brothers played guitar on Stevens’ first collection of Christmas songs. The 2006 compilation curated by the Dessners for the Red Hot Organization, Dark Was the Night, included contributions by all three musicians.

Muhly, Dessner, and Stevens are all now New Yorkers and have strong ties to BAM. In high school, Muhly took the bus from Providence, RI to attend performances here. When he moved to the city to attend Columbia University in the late 90s, one of the first things he spent money on was a BAM subscription. Dessner remembers seeing Next Wave productions after moving to Brooklyn around the same time. “At that point it would have been a really big dream to play there,” he admits. In 2009, BAM commissioned the Dessners’ The Long Count. The brothers also curate Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the new-music and film festival, which returns April 25 to 27 for the second year. After growing up in the midwest, Stevens has established a presence in Brooklyn, as well as his own record company, Asthmatic Kitty Records. BAM commissioned his project The BQE for the 2007 Next Wave Festival, which utilized a big ensemble with hula-hoopers juxtaposed with a hypnotic film. The elements are immortalized in a 2009 DVD release.

Dessner has said that BAM was the first venue they thought of to present Planetarium in the US. “It’s all this collaborative spirit that is really a big part of our community. I think that a lot of the artists that have come up through BAM over the last 20 or 30 years have embodied that spirit as well.”

Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner. Photo: Daniel Boud

Stevens, who has experimented with large organizing principals—a series of albums named after states, for example—established the planetary theme. Another starting point was the muscular instrumentation, realizing a shared desire to work with Holland’s renowned New Trombone Collective. The three have strong ties to many visual artists, so the introduction of a graphic element to the production surfaced early. A 16-foot orb receives film projections, representing the planets, the sun, and the moon, by Deborah Johnson. There is abundant room at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House to deliver this atmospheric accompaniment. “The music really lends itself well to that and the visual show is really spectacular,” Dessner said.

The first half of the program features the individual composers’ work played by the Acme String Quartet. Muhly’s Diacritical Marks 1—8 is followed by a work for string quartet by Dessner and selections from Stevens’ Enjoy Your Rabbit arranged for strings. Then the stage opens up to engage the life force of the musicians, visuals, and sound. “It’s actually quite straightforward,” explains Muhly. “The first half is like amplified tambourines and the second half is this big explosion of a thing.” If not a big bang, then perhaps a big BAM.

Jane Jansen Seymour is a music writer for PopMatters and her own blog, NewMusicMatters. Reprinted from February 2013 BAMbill.

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