Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, New Trombone Collective, Navarra Quartet - Barbican, 9 April 2012
Although it was billed as a collaboration with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, the new song cycle Sufjan Stevens presented on Monday night at the Barbican sounded pretty much like all his own work. Or at least more like his last album than theirs.
Planetarium is a sort of tribute to the solar system, each of its nine songs obliquely inspired by a heavenly body. The ‘work in progress’, as Stevens termed it, backed the keyboard/guitar trio with a percussionist, a string quartet and an almighty seven trombonists.
The unusual combination created an unusual but also unvaried texture, not helped by Muhly’s partiality to the celesta, an instrument always better as a seasoning than an ingredient. Stevens too had addiction issues. Vocoder abuse disguised the fraught combination of high-flying lines and a short functional vocal range, but at the same time masked the warmth and fragility which is such a major part of his appeal.
Some magical, memorable lines - and we were privileged to attend one of just four worldwide airings of the work in this form – but I hope it’s tweaked a little before studio pickling.
The first half of the evening was like a completely different show. The (heavily amplified) Navarra Quartet played a quintet with electric guitar, wielded by composer Bryce Dessner, followed by Nico Muhly’s quartet Diacritical Marks and a short piece by Stevens.
The Dessner work (I didn’t catch the title) was an exercise in glum, derivative minimalism in which the guitar line never quite melded with the quartet. The Muhly quartet was a lot more interesting, a limpid nugget nestled between frantic outer movements. Best of all, and unlike other Muhly works I’ve heard recently, it actually sounds finished. The Stevens quartet, shimmering by so quickly it's barely more than an idea, is inventive enough to deserve further polishing.
Videos from the 8 April performance in Amsterdam: