Commentary: What's Happening to Music Criticism?
Zs and Mivos Quartet at Issue Project Room

Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens & Bryce Dessner's "Planetarium" at BAM

by Aristea Mellos and FoMPlanetarium, BAM, 3/22/13

For those who remember stealing their parents' car to catch the old Pink Floyd laser-light shows at the Hayden Planetarium (okay, maybe that was just me), last weekend's performances of Planetarium at BAM were a mutlimedia walk down memory lane.

Backed by Nico Muhly on celesta and keyboards, Bryce Dessner on guitar, James McAllister on drums, a string quartet, and a battery of seven trombone players, Sufjan Stevens sang his way through all of the celestial bodies of our solar system: the planets, the sun, and moon—even poor Pluto, which was downgraded to a "dwarf planet" in 2006. 

Co-commissioned by the Barbican, the Sydney Opera House, and the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, the 60-minute song cycle was a feast for the senses. Deborah Johnson bathed BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House in vivid celestial hues while lasers danced above the audience's heads. Above the stage hung a massive sphere onto which were projected numerous gaesous images evoking each of the planets.


Planetarium's "lost in space" sound world relied heavily upon Stevens’ use of pitch-bend wheels, novelty noises, and auto-tuning, but—despite these electronic tricks—the music came across as genuine. This was edgy rock and pop, and its straightforward presentation enabled it to breathe and communicate without being suffocated by mists of pretension. Lush harmonies melded together with a luxurious flow and were enhanced by the smoky projections on stage; you couldn’t help but be moved by the aural and visual spectacle. Gustav Holst, eat your heart out.

The show opened with a sparse set of string quartet music, featuring works by Stevens, Dessner, and Muhly. The hip quartet, comprising Rob Moose (violin), Ben Russell (violin), Nadia Sirota (viola), and Clarice Jensen (cello) animatedly sawed away at their instruments, but their captivating stage presence did not mask the disappointing quality of the music.

planetarium quartet

Each of the quartet miniatures were alarmingly uniform in style, with simple patterns overlaid on slowly pulsating harmonic blocks, vacillating from one chord to the next in a minimalist manner, but without any of that school's charm, intelligence, or ingenuity. Instead, the audience was subjected to an hour of string music that sounded like the backing track to a relaxation CD.

The two most interesting compositions—Stevens’ "Year of Our Lord" and "Year of the Boar" (both originally electronic works later arranged by Muhly), effectively played with the quartet’s timbre and textural versatility. In "Year of Our Lord," sliding glissandi captured a grieving and contemplative character, while the raw-edged sound world of "Year of the Boar" was conjured by having the quartet bow on both sides of the bridge.

Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Planetarium, BAM, 3/22/13

Additional pics on the photo page.