There's a stunning project by a handful of music's current big-thinkers: composer Nico Muhly, songwriter and singer Sufjan Stevens and guitarist-composer Bryce Dessner of The National. The trio, along with percussionist James McAlister, have created Planetarium, an existential song cycle that confronts both the heavens and the human condition in a marriage of hypnotic sound and song.
The NPR Music team met Muhly, Dessner and Stevens at Reservoir Studios in Manhattan to capture a video of the trio performing the song "Mercury" with violist Nadia Sirota, which you can watch here.
I also got a chance to to talk with them about the work's complex creation. We have a brief video interview here and a more extensive conversation in the All Songs Considered podcast.
You can also read edited highlights from the interview below.
Bryce Dessner on how they reverse-engineered the 'Planetarium' project
"I think what's interesting about this is that normally when we make records you can make a record and then you figure out how to play it [live]. In this case we made a big live show and then figured out how to record it. And so we did actually record most everything [live]. So we wrote this material and then toured it a bit and then shortly after finishing the last concert we recorded it and then put it away for a few years and came back and opened it up was like, 'Oh, what is this madness?'"
Nico Muhly on the visuals they used for the 'Planetarium' live show
"There was this huge visual element to it with this giant inflatable orb.We did it in London and it deflated really just over the course of the video. It was all crazy. I didn't realize it. But someone observed quite dryly that it looked rather like a sagging testicle. Eventually there was a third orb, a backup orb. Then there was an orb sheath [to fireproof it]. It had a condom that went over the orb. It was all so crazy. I don't foresee any more shows [with the orb]. It's been retired."
Sufjan Stevens on where he found inspiration for the project
"I knew I wanted to write songs. I didn't want it to be like art music. So I thought that's what I would bring, is just the lyrics. And at first it didn't have lyrics, and we were naming everything based on astrology ... we were just using our kind of horoscope-like concepts. And so I was thinking about astrology and then I started writing the lyrics and it started to shape into songs about the planets. So then I just decided to go with that. I mean lyrically it's a word salad. Half the time I had no idea what I was saying. It was just like I was just grabbing.
"I was also struck by the abundance of our lives here — of the human body, just our own biology, what we contain our anatomy — all kinds of stuff. There's stuff going on and it's like, life is so abundant here and yet we're still obsessed with the exterior of here — and it's just chaos. It's methane gas and helium, just violent chaos. That's what's so interesting. There's a sort of beautiful perfect order to life on earth that's so mysterious and so profound. And yet as people we really f*** it up. We're so dysfunctional, and we seek guidance from the exterior world, from the heavens, to help us understand our purpose here and to sort of create a sense of order."
Nico Muhly on the greater mysteries wrapped up in the project
"And one of the one of the things about planet art and planet thought and astrology — but also just like any religion or any time in history when people have been looking at the sky — is that the interpretation is everything. That's basically the history of people looking at the sky and being like, 'What's going on?' And you see all these scattered dots and then your brain knows how to arrange them into these animals and then you figure what that means. I think the fun thing about the vagueness of some of the lyrics is that it offers a million possible interpretive strategies that cannot be wrong."
Bryce Dessner on the joy of collaborating with Sufjan Stevens and Nico Muhly
"I mean I can speak about my friends here that they're both amazing collaborators and have long, long histories working with various musicians and also working together. This is not the first time that we've made music together. For me specifically what I can say is that they are creatively very expansive and always want to go further, but also if they don't like something you hear about it right away. So that's a good combination. You know in my other collaborative project you can get muted pretty quickly. We're in this situation there is no muting going on. We would spend a whole afternoon just chasing some guitar part together, [with] Sufjan helping me. I think that that's what I've really enjoyed about this process."
The musicians will tour Planetarium at four shows this summer:
July 10 — Paris, FR — Philharmonie de Paris
July 18 — Brooklyn, NY — Celebrate Brooklyn! – Prospect Park
July 20 — Los Angeles, CA — Hollywood Forever Cemetery
July 21 — Oakland, CA — Fox Theater