The Collaborative Concept Album 'Planetarium' Captures Cosmic Grandeur And Desolation

Jul 3, 2017
Originally published on July 3, 2017 9:10 pm

Since its premiere in 1918, Gustav Holst's symphonic cycle The Planets has effectively defined the informal genre of "music about space." But more recently, four prominent artists from different musical realms collaborated on a cosmic exploration of their own. It culminated in Planetarium, which was released earlier this month.

Work on Planetarium began in 2011, when composer Nico Muhly was commissioned to create a longform work for a concert hall in Europe. He gathered friends from the rock world — the singer and songwriter Sufjan Stevens and his longtime drummer James McAlister, as well as guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner from The National. They set out to make a sprawling song cycle about the solar system, spending a few days brainstorming, harvesting grooves and song ideas.

They then divided up the best fragments and developed them independently: Stevens came up with the pop hooks, McAlister the rhythmic foundations and some electronic textures. Dessner added spectral arrays of guitar while Muhly handled the orchestrations for string quartet and a brass choir comprised of seven trombones.

Planetarium devotes a separate track to each planet, then adds sections on other space phenomena like black holes and comets. The 80-minute concept album unfolds like a Disney ride, alternating between turbulent passages and moments of disturbing calm.

As Holst knew, music about space should evoke that eerie feeling of desolation. Planetarium captures that spectacularly, those episodes offset by Stevens' songs. Where he once planned to release an album dedicated to each state in the union, the indie songwriter has now moved off-planet. His writing vibrates with metaphysical awe and wonder, as if he's trying to understand the incomprehensible.

The ambitious scope and grandeur of Planetarium is enough to melt any cynical assumptions about its hipster artistic pretension. These four musicians probably would rather not be referred to as a "supergroup," but the veritable constellation of sound emerging from the combination of their talents is dizzying.

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(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF HOLST'S "THE PLANETS, OP. 32")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since its premiere in 1918, Gustav Holst's symphonic cycle "The Planets" has pretty much defined the category of music about space. Recently four prominent artists from different realms of music collaborated on a cosmic exploration of their own. It's called "Planetarium." Reviewer Tom Moon says like Holst's work, it devotes a separate track to each planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER, SUFJAN STEVENS, JAMES MCALISTER AND NICO MUHLY SONG, "PLUTO")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: "Planetarium" began in 2011 when composer Nico Muhly was commissioned to create a long-form work for a concert hall in Europe. He gathered friends from the rock world - the singer and songwriter Sufjan Stevens and his longtime drummer James McAlister as well as guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner from The National. They set out to make a sprawling song cycle about the solar system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARS")

SUFJAN STEVENS: (Singing) In the future, there will only be war, profanity outside.

MOON: They spent a few days brainstorming, harvesting grooves and song ideas, then divided up the best fragments and went off to develop them independently.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUPITER")

STEVENS: (Singing) Wandering star put in its place. Sermon of death says Jupiter is the only contest. Father of light, father of death...

MOON: Stevens came up with the pop hooks. McAlister created the rhythmic foundations and some electronic textures. Dessner added spectral arrays of guitar. Muhly handled the orchestrations for string quartet and a brass choir comprised of seven trombones.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER, SUFJAN STEVENS, JAMES MCALISTER AND NICO MUHLY SONG, "JUPITER")

MOON: The 80-minute concept album unfolds like a Disney ride, alternating between turbulent passages and moments of disturbing calm. As Holst knew, music about space should evoke that eerie feeling of desolation. "Planetarium" captures that spectacularly.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER, SUFJAN STEVENS, JAMES MCALISTER AND NICO MUHLY SONG, "SUN")

MOON: Those episodes are offset by the songs of Sufjan Stevens. He's the indie songwriter who once planned to release an album devoted to each state in the union. He's now moved off-planet, and his writing vibrates with metaphysical awe and wonder. It's like he's trying to understand the incomprehensible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOON")

STEVENS: (Singing) As I'm about to enter your world, as I'm about to enter your world, I give you light.

MOON: When I first heard about this project, it seemed like a perfect storm of hipster artistic pretension. As I listened, though, that cynicism was melted by the ambitious scope and grandeur of these pieces and by the way these four musicians who would probably rather not be referred to as a supergroup combined their talents into a dizzying constellation of sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER, SUFJAN STEVENS, JAMES MCALISTER AND NICO MUHLY SONG, "EARTH")

SHAPIRO: The latest from Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister is called "Planetarium." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER, SUFJAN STEVENS, JAMES MCALISTER AND NICO MUHLY SONG, "EARTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.