Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly on making space music for a hard time on Earth

“Planetarium,” a new album from Stevens, Dessner, Muhly and James McAlister heads out into the solar system

By Max Cea
June 3, 2017 8:30PM (UTC)
main article image
"Planetarium" by Bryce Dessner, James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and Sufjan Stevens (4AD)

In March of 2013, composer Nico Muhly and indie-rock stars Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner took the stage at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House and took the audience to the stars.

The new music project, “Planetarium,” was a solar system-themed spectacle, a cycle of songs dedicated to the monuments of space: the planets, the sun, the moon. The show was equally ambitious and immense, featuring an orchestra, a brass band, lasers, and a huge orb above the stage on which images corresponding to the songs’ themes were projected.


“Planetarium” has its origin in 2011, when Muhly received an open commission from the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven. Muhly typically receives strict guidelines for commissioned work, so he viewed this one as an opportunity to “see how big a mess we can make and get someone else to pay.”

Getting someone else to pay, Muhly enlisted his friends, Stevens and Dessner. According to Dessner, “the three of us brought musical ideas to each other, and we did a residency where we were really just sitting together, playing through song forms. The elements of the music were quite simple at the beginning — just chords and melodies — and then from there it expanded to kind of monumental proportions.”

The three musicians — plus Stevens’ drummer James McAlister — toured the show through Europe. For a time, that was that. Muhly, Stevens, Dessner and McAlister returned to their main gigs and all the public could walk away with were periodic clips surfacing on YouTube.


But then, as the new administration's environmental policies seemed to threaten Earth in new ways, Muhly and company returned to outer space, translating the show into an album.

It proved challenging. “The actual process of recording [‘Planetarium’] was kind of distilling all of its ideas into something presentable,” Dessner said. “Usually you make a record and figure out how to play it live, and in this case we were making this big live show and then figuring out how to record it. It's actually harder to make a live show in a way. Making a record is kind of set up for that.”

What the group recorded is a very different work from the one they performed. But like the show, listening to it can be both delightful and difficult. It is a vast, abstract work that explores the solar system through soundscape, song, science and myth. Sonically, it is epic — an hour and 16 minutes of sounds that are at times ambient, at times rollicking, often digitally distorted -- as dense as it is beautiful.


Salon sat down with Muhly, Stevens and Dessner ahead of the album’s June 9 release, to try to make sense of it all.

So why did you initially conceptualize “Planetarium” as a live project?

Bryce Dessner: Well, there were commissions. [Nico] works in the classical world — the commission world. So he was doing commissions for two years, and this was the last commission. And they wanted him to do something different. And he wanted to do a big project with friends. And we had all kind of worked together peripherally with The National stuff.


Nico Muhly: In the universe I inhabit, it's so rare to get a kind of carte blanche thing where I'm not told what it is. Because usually it's like, "Here’s what we want you to write. Here's when we need it. Here's $5 and give us five pieces of paper." So this is much more like, let's see how big a mess we can make and get someone else to pay.

Dessner: In truth, there was a certain formality to the commission, which is really just the impetus — it didn't take a lot of convincing for us to get in the same room and make something together. It quickly became like, "Oh, we're starting this funny band."

Sufjan Stevens: And I think we just happened to be in the right head space and to have the time. Which is really vital in getting people together from different worlds. So we created the time for that. And then as the project expanded, we kept getting other co-commissions to do it elsewhere. So it was sort of self-perpetuating, so that we did it in Sydney, we did it at BAM, somewhere in Paris, Amsterdam.


Muhly: Which was weird. In the Netherlands, they were like, “Let's do a tour of the Netherlands.” That's like, “Let's play eight venues in Brooklyn.” . . .  And I got pink eye from that cot.

Stevens: No, I did. [Laughs]

Muhly: No, you got pink eye. [Laughs]   


Stevens: Still, when I get stressed out it comes back. We slept on these cots. And I had covered the cot with all these dirty blankets and pillows and whatever and I had pulled them off in my sleep and my face was smashed against the cot.

Muhly: That was a good nap though overall.

Stevens: It was a good nap. [Laughs]

Muhly: “Worth the Pink Eye.” That's your next album.


So what was it that motivated you to go outward into space?

Stevens: The space thing came out of random nomenclature we were using to identify audio sketches that we would bring to the table. We were just calling things by astrological terms. So there'd be a little bit of tinker bell from Nico that we would just call Sagittarius. And then there would be some guitar phrase from Bryce that we would call Taurus. And then I would come up with something and call it Cancer. We just had all these files that we were working from. And eventually, as we started to turn them into songs and add lyrics and stuff, they just kind of moved from astrology into the planets and astronomy.   

Was there a reason for the astrology? Was there something in the music that made you think of that?

Stevens: There was something spectral. There were lots of gestural things.


Dessner: There were a lot of chords.

Muhly:  But it was abstract. So we knew that they were going to be melodies, but we were just throwing the material out. It felt much bigger than, like, “This is an album about this story.”

Stevens: It didn't feel of the Earth. It felt of the larger cosmos.

Are you guys into astrology? Is that something you think about?


Stevens: A little bit.

Muhly:  I'm the worst. I forget my own star.

Stevens: But Cassini is actually a satellite that we sent up 20 years ago. It's been photographing Saturn. And its last mission is to fly between Saturn and its rings. And it's a suicide mission.

Muhly: I think the most moving thing in the world is that Mars rover that's still working — they thought it was going to stop and now it's still working. Apparently, it mini-beeps itself "Happy Birthday" once a year. Which is the saddest thing I've ever heard.

Stevens: I think I'm the one who's obsessed with space. And that was my job. I need to write melodies and lyrics.

Muhly:  And lyrics help. It works in a bunch of different ways. Once we knew what the material was, then lyrics helped me do the large-scale vertical orchestration stuff. So it's about how we perform it — making room for certain things and going really delicate. And then there's a few moments where the whole sound world channel switches.

Dessner: And the lyrics made it a much more powerful piece, too. You could've easily made a 60-minute ambient jam, but the fact that we actually wrote songs and that the songs ended up being good, we were all like, “Oh, hey.” We didn't have a big agenda about it when we started. But it quickly coalesced into something meaningful.

Sufjan, I've read that you get inspiration from things you're reading or things you’re listening to or from art shows. Was there anything that triggered the space obsession for this one? Or anything that bled in?

Stevens: I was listening to Laurie Anderson. And I was listening to early Genesis stuff, which is kind of cosmic and prog-rocky. And I remember as a kid playing Holst's “The Planets” in the orchestra. And I had been to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles recently, so it's possible that influenced me.

When I finished the "Age of Adz" tour, I went to L.A. and went to that. And I brought one of my cousins to the planetarium here at the Natural History Museum. It was like a really, really, really existential presentation on dark matter and dark energy.  

So how far did you guys go? Take for instance the line "Jupiter is the loneliest planet." Did that come from somewhere?

Stevens: I don't know where the loneliness came from — well, I think that just comes from Jupiter being the one planet in our solar system that's a potential star. It's a failed star. And therefore it's sort of a quasi-planet. Now because of its size, its mass, its gravitational pull, it basically keeps us safe.

You thanked Neil deGrasse Tyson on the album notes. Did he consult at all?

Muhly: We were just thanking random people. [Laughs]

Well, there are a lot of thank yous. Obama got a thank you, too.

Dessner: Really?

Stevens: Who added Obama?  

Muhly:  It must've been [Sufjan’s drummer] James [McAlister].

Stevens: I love Neil deGrasse Tyson. I watch that shit all the time.

Muhly:  It's terrifying. I now have friends who have kids who are learning science. And it's so fascinating. It's one of those things that as an adult you're like “I didn't remember any of this. It's way freakier than I thought.” [Shivers]

Was there something particularly existentially haunting?

Muhly:  It's all pretty existentially haunting.

Dessner: I mean, the world changed while we were making this. Lots of shit happened. Also, creatively we were all in different places when we began. I also moved away. I left New York. That's been a big shift. It's weathered some different seasons.

So given that you guys dove back into this now, is there an element of escape? Going into outer space now when Earth seems threatened.

All: Yeah.

Dessner: I think that's part of why we finished it.

Stevens: I had just finished this long tour on this project that was so personal — about death and about mortality, about my mother; it was really intimate and close. And then to sort of open up these audio files of this music that we had recorded many years ago and just sort of revise everything and have a kind of global, almost cosmic perspective on things felt really refreshing. And to not sing about myself and my own misery but to just sing about the misery of all of us, the universe, it felt really exciting and refreshing.

Muhly: Right now it's so great and important to be able to make work with friends. What I mainly do is make work for strangers. And it's kind of lonely. You turn up in some random town and they're going to play some orchestra pieces of yours and you're just there alone, drinking in your hotel bar. So this is the opposite of that. It's like an excuse to hang out now that we don't live in the same place.

Dessner: We're also deeply involved with each other's stuff. And this is an opportunity to do something new and pretty expansive together, which is exciting.

What was the reception in different European countries and how do you anticipate that being different in America?

Muhly: It's funny. I wish everyone would do this — do an identical concert in a different European city every day. Even if people all love it, the way they register the love is so different. Like in the Netherlands, they clap lightly.

Dessner: And then in Denmark, they're tearing their clothes off.


Stevens: The show is a spectacle because it had this huge orb. There were lasers and video. An hour-long spectacle that was kind of an abstract planetarium show in the spirit of Pink Floyd.

Muhly:  It definitely felt messy. But we're going to reimagine it for this next wave of shows. There's no orb. But there's going to be other stuff . . . Should we aim to horrify people?

Stevens: I feel like a lot of the material feels prescient now, feels much more relevant. More so than five years ago.

Muhly: Right now, nothing abstract feels abstract.

Stevens: There's unintentional prophetic musings in this material that I couldn't account for back then, because I was really just working under deadline and writing lyrics furiously, trying to just put rhyme schemes together and fit the word “callipygian” into some melody. It was really tough to sing at the time for me.   

Did you have a conception of how a listener would listen to this album?

Muhly:  So, people ask me this all the damn time. People listen to music in whatever fucked up, weird way they're going to listen to music. My mother is going to listen to this album, and there is one way that she listens to music. She puts the CD in the thing, stands in the kitchen, listens to it. You can never be prescriptive. If you live in New York City you're not going to listen to a piece of music without a siren happening [as a siren goes off outside]. That's just how you hear music.

You might not. But you might enjoy it more when you take it to a field with your friends to trip on mushrooms.

Dessner: That sounds like a good idea.

Stevens: This is a drug album, right? A psychedelic, experimental drug album. I say, at least get stoned.

Muhly: At least. Or, no, it could also be in a planetarium kind of thing.

Dessner: I mean, obviously it's a vast thing. So there needs to be the commitment of finding the space to listen to the whole thing. I listen to it a lot running, which I find really great.

So were you guys doing any drugs when you made this album?

Stevens: No.

Did you have any formative drug experiences that informed it?

Dessner: The cool answer to that is yes.

Muhly: I feel like I was trying to be a pothead.

Dessner: How'd that work?

Muhly: I failed. Pot is so nasty.

Stevens: Yeah, I wanted to be a pothead, but I'm not. I always forget — "Oh, shit, I forgot to get stoned yesterday."

Moving on, tell me about Methodist summer camp [a reference on “Venus”].

Stevens: Well, that's when I had my first sexual experience.

Muhly: Is that actually true?

Stevens: Yes.

Muhly: That's nasty.

How old?

Stevens: [Laughs] I've never been asked that!

Well, Methodist summer camp.

Stevens: I was old enough. I was in high school. I went to many different summer camps. And I remember going to Methodist summer camp, and it's when I first learned that God is not male. So we would sing these classic hymns — “Our god is an awesome god, he brings. . .” -- and this woman would always stop us and be like, “Actually, we shouldn't use he or she pronouns. We should just use 'God.’”

The Methodists were way ahead of their time.

Stevens: My mind was blown. And the phrase was, everything "rocks." "God rocks." And there was a lot of cigarette smoking.

Was it a romantic experience?

Stevens: Yeah, it was an awakening. [Laughs] I was probably 16.


Max Cea


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Albums Bryce Dessner James Mcalister Music Nico Muhly Planetarium Sufjan Stevens