If you're just joining us, I was two days recovered from the Antlers and their wall of sound performance in the high tech Walt Disney Concert Hall. The "Brooklyn Festival" continued there through the weekend, but I was only interested in attending the closer: "Planetarium," a solar-system inspired collaborative set of songs by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner (The National) and Nico Muhly. The combination of Sufjan Stevens and the vague description, I was prepared for anything. Wordless orchestral composition in 15 movements, an educational film set to music and a giant diorama with costumed characters were all on the board. It turned out to be a bombastic, larger than life visual/audio feast full of video art, light shows, and prog rock songs from an alternate universe.
Despite the all-star lineup and musical talent on stage, the show was made by its visual component. Hanging above center stage was a 20 foot tall, pitch-black inflated sphere. I had originally thought it was 2 dimensional because of how much it sucked in light, giving no clues to its shape. When the songs were on, visualizer-style abstract video art was projected precisely onto it. For the song "Jupiter," a light flare would swirl in hot colors, resembling the giant's eye. For "Saturn," stripes with the texture of vinyl would run across the sphere and occasionally look like cut up close ups of its rings. For "The Sun," a snake-like trail of fire drew across the darkened orb, dying and sparking in a cycle as Sufjan sent adrift a short, "Redmond"-like ambient piece. For "Earth", a blue smoke that eventually faded into a 3 dimensional kaleidoscope with the texture of Earth's satellite photos.
Each was complimented by 360 degrees of colored spotlight constructions and lasers cutting across the darkened auditorium. I try my best, but it's almost pointless for me to try and describe the effect of the art. Even the video embedded above doesn't do it justice — it's one thing to see it in a tiny 560 pixel rectangle, it's another thing to be surrounded by it — it was the atmosphere of the night. The visuals were creative, playful and emotive, all set to the music of Sufjan Stevens.
Make no mistake, these were his songs and he was playing point. Planted at center stage, these immediately rang like Sufjan songs that his friends Nico & Bryce just happened to compose some riffs on. That's okay. Stylistically, they're all so distinct that you need them to anchor to one style. I loved the songs, but it's strange that for now I won't get to hear them again in a form that they're meant to be heard. It's like he performed an entire new album for us and a few hundred others across the world, and that's the only way anyone will ever really experience it.
Without the benefit of replays or even a program that I could read in the dark, it was also hard to pin down these songs. Some were obvious, like the opener "Neptune," which was telegraphed by the blue hues and references to the ocean. But each subsequent track, with a few exceptions, seemed to be more hard-riding and bombastic than the last. Explosion after explosion, they kept pushing the last thing you had seen out of your mind. "Which explosion was your favorite?" "The one with the blooming fire."
The sheer size of this army of musicians also meant it sounded like a real Sufjan experience. Since ILLINOIS, his songs have been characterized by their bursting-at-the-seams overflow of instruments. The amount of instruments he can pack onto a single track can be a fire hazard. The last time I saw him he had maybe 3 brass instruments, and while that's all you really need, there's something truer to his vision when he brings a gang. Sufjan can work in sparsity as well as excess, but you can bring sparsity with you anywhere. 7 trombones and a string quartet? This shit is real.
It was also fun to see Sufjan's soft spoken humor interact with other stage personalities. I don't know why I pay this much attention to stage banter. Dessner acted like his mic was dead, but Nico Muhly was a surprisingly jovial dude. During an extended break where Sufjan tried to explain an idea about the desire for outer space as an expression of an ungrateful restlessness with Earth, Muhly undercut him before he could finish with, "Basically, we're all really jet lagged." Everyone laughed. Later on, he would raise an objection to being part of an apparent "Brooklyn Festival" and let it be known that he goes to LA more than he goes there and, in general, he doesn't fux wit Brooklyn. Everyone applauded.
With the entire solar system mined for content (how many musicians make you type that sentence?), the encore song was a mystery. I had figured most of us were hoping for a song or 3 from their main back catalogs, or perhaps they'd break out something on the asteroid belt. It was neither. "We'd like to dedicate this to Hollywood," he said, before entering a vocoded rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." I thought it was something LA-specific, like a cover they polished just a few hours ago for local flavor, but it turns out it's everywhere. "I always thought this song was about outer space," he said last year at the Sydney Opera House. "But after this week I think it's about Australia."
If THE BQE, Sufjan's orchestral ode to a highway in New York was a transition out of ILLINOIS, then surely PLANETARIUM is a bridge out of AGE OF ADZ. I can't imagine what's on the other end. It's still in a zone of electronic experimentation, although the illegible processed vocals are no longer a tickling surprise but, finally, an instrumental choice that people will consider and understand. But that doesn't matter — I'm sure whatever is next for Sufjan will surprise people in a way that makes us unsure of how to react, so we giggle nervously, or titter as if it wasn't serious. That's fine, that's the way it ought to be. Sufjan Stevens is New Music.