How Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly & The 'Planetarium' Crew Made Astronomy 'Fun and Flirty'

Matthew Eisman
Planetarium live performance featuring Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn, New York on March 21, 2013.

Six years ago, when composer Nico Muhly (Björk, Grizzly Bear) was commissioned to create a piece for Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, he called his indie-rock super-friends (Sufjan Stevens, The National guitarist Bryce Dessner and drummer James McAlister) to lend a hand. The project has been performed sporadically since 2012 and fashioned into Planetarium, a concept album (out June 9) based on the mythologies of the planets and stars. In spite of the subject matter, the quartet wasn’t out to create anything too dramatic. “I didn’t want to do ‘art music,’ ” says Stevens. “I wanted it to be fun and flirty.”

Why the cosmos as a guiding theme?

Muhly: With [ancient] Greek and Roman religions, there’s an active connection between observing something and making art about it. Naming stars is a weird combination of the scientific and poetic.

Stevens: It’s a song cycle, but the narrative environments are unique to each song. For [the myth of] Venus, all these references exist to the word “callipygian,” which means “nice buttocks.” You find a word like “callipygian,” you have to use it.

Did you look to any classic concept albums for inspiration?

Stevens: I was thinking about early Genesis and listening to Laurie Anderson.

Dessner: I was [listening to] collaborative albums -- something that comes out of a musical friendship, like This Mortal Coil -- since these are my closest friends.

The idea of making order out of chaos feels pretty timely. Has the meaning of the piece changed for you through the years?

Stevens: There’s a phrase I sing: “Run nation run, before we go by.” I was thinking of navigation, a voyage to a new frontier, whether in Star Trek or the real world. Now it just sounds really dark.

This article originally appeared in the May 27 issue of Billboard.


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