PLANETARIUM: Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner & Nico Muhly – Vivid LIVE 2012 Opera House, Sydney 28/05/2012Written by Alex Langlands on May 29, 2012
As the sun set and the light installations were turned on for the evening, it seemed as if the entire hipster delegation from Surry Hills journeyed to the Sydney Opera House to witness what would be one of the most peculiar concerts this year. The triple entente of composers: Brynce Dessner, Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens, all of whom have credentials to prove their worth, were ready to take the stage and perform an immensely complex and fantastic musical concept.
The concert began, obviously, with Part 1: the String Quartet. The Orava String Quartet was more of an opening act for the trio, however, they performed a series of songs composed by Dessner, Muhly and Stevens, all of which amazed the entire audience, and with some aspects of it being beyond the comprehension of some. Muhly’s Diacritical Marks proved to be a challenge for the four, but they displayed their true musical prowess and engaged the crowd in what seemed to sound like an alternative film score for a film set in Middle Earth. This somewhat mind-blowing performance was followed by the Zodiac-inspired compositions of main attraction, Sufjan Stevens.
His work consisted of three movements: Year of the Year of the Boar, Year of the Horse and Year of Our Lord, all of which were obviously the recent product of the wonderful mind that brought us the cult hit Illinois and more recently The Age of Adz, with some crowd members expecting the strings to break into a classical cover of Chicago. Although it was clear that Sufjan was the main attraction, Bryce Dessner’s work Aheym proved to be the most entertaining. Described by himself as “metal music for violins” the quartet slammed through what seemed like an impossible piece, with the hairs on their bows fraying all over the place. The crowd sat shocked and filled with amazement as they eagerly awaited more.
The bell sounded, signalling the end of the interval, and the crowd quickly returned to their seats, eagerly awaiting the Planetarium song cycle, which has received sensational reviews across the world, and for good reason. The lights dimmed and a massive spherical projector screen, situated above the heads of the performers, was quickly illuminated as Dessner, Muhly and Stevens stepped onto the stage, accompanied by the string quartet, trombone ensemble and drummer. The concert hall quickly radiated a vibrant blue and the song cycle began with Neptune. The instrumental enticed the crowd, and left them somewhat musically intoxicated, with the projector display conveying the feel of the planet through flowing soft colours, which emphasized the feel of each song throughout the remainder of the show. As the group shot through the Solar System in songs, they entertained the crowd with quick comical inputs in-between songs, commenting on the vast array of technological equipment that they had to deal with before each song. Jupiter, Venus and Uranus delighted the crowd, all with completely different styles, ranging from a more classical feel to something that one would expect to hear at a SBTRKT performance.
In all honesty, attempting to describe the songs that were performed is quite a task. The variety of sounds and genres that they could fit into make it hard to pinpoint what they actually were; however, all classification aside, it was obvious that the Planetarium performance was something extremely special. The climax came in the last three songs: Saturn, Earth, and Mercury.
Describing Saturn as the “lonely planet”, Sufjan managed to explore lyrically something that I’m sure no one else ever has: the social issues that a ringed giant such as Saturn faces on a day-to-day basis. Earth took a similar approach to Neptune, yet it was Mercury that was the real crowd pleaser.
The complex nature of Mercury makes it even more difficult to describe; however, after much thought, it would have sounded like the soundtrack to the second coming of Jesus would to a blind man. It was honestly one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces that has ever graced my ears, and I’m sure that was the case for a vast majority of the audience.
The encore consisted of a vocal version of Neptune; however, after the epic that was Mercury, it was a slight anti-climax. As the masses of hipsters, industry personnel and general fans departed the insides of the iconic Sydney Opera House in the soft rain, one thing was clear: the combination of Sufjan Stevens, Brynce Dessner and Nico Muhly is one of the greatest collaborations that has occurred in recent years.