Originally commissioned and performed by the Houston Ballet in 2019, Sufjan Stevens’ Reflections, with Timo Andres and Conor Hanick, was written for two pianos and eleven dancers.
The studio recording of these seven movements was engineered, mixed, and mastered by Ryan Streber with performances by pianists Timo Andres and Conor Hanick. Reflections is, in Sufjan Stevens' words, about “energy, light and duality.” This piece follows on from several scores Stevens has created with choreographer, Justin Peck, including Year Of The Rabbit (2012), Everywhere We Go (2014), In The Countenance Of Kings (2016), The Decalogue (2017), and Principia (2019). “We have been working together for many years now,” says Stevens. “We respect and trust each other's work.”
“I'm constantly thinking about bodies moving through space when I'm writing for ballet – that is what has informed this music, first and foremost,” says Sufjan Stevens on Reflections, his latest collaboration with Peck.
Reflections is imbued with Stevens's broad experience in orchestral pop and electronica, but here the grandiosity is reduced to just two instruments. The new recording benefits from lively and intelligent interpretations by pianists Andres and Hanick. The performances captured are bold, bright, and skittishly virtuosic, cocooning the listener in glorious technicolor. Andres and Hanick bring percussive flair and a light touch to the fast-paced and varied score, digging into grumbling glissando, free-falling filigrees, and dread-pan bombast with a joyful ease.
There is a long tradition of using pianos to accompany dance, whether it is during lessons at the barre or for rehearsals when hiring a full orchestra is prohibitively expensive, and Stevens was happy to further explore the instrument's capabilities. “Although I've never taken a lesson,” he says, “the piano was my first true love.” Self-taught as both a pianist and a composer, Stevens’ first instrument was the oboe, which he started playing in fifth grade. He played in orchestras from high school through college and listened voraciously to recordings of classical music alongside pop radio. He would often take breaks from the oboe by improvising on the piano, working out music he had heard in passing, like pieces by Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Bach. “I learned by ear, in a very rudimentary way, inspired by a wide range of music,” he says. “A lot of the work that I compose is anachronistic as it doesn't follow a genealogy of aesthetic. It can be a cornucopia of styles.” That's the case with Reflections, where listeners may detect a hint of Debussy, Stravinsky, Philip Glass, and even Bruce Hornsby.
The album artwork by Jessica Slaven, reminiscent in palette and form of the mid-century works by the Delaunays, is a quasi-graphic score. At first glance, the individual cells appear to be shifting, moving at odds with each other, but on closer inspection each part is actually linked to the other. And so it is with Stevens's Reflections, every kaleidoscopic turn brings new shades and shapes.
Born in 1975, New York-based Stevens is best known as a singer-songwriter who has recorded over a dozen solo and collaborative albums. He received Academy and Grammy Award nominations for Best Original Song for “Mystery Of Love,” which was one of three contributions to the soundtrack for Call Me By Your Name.
Peck and Stevens are currently collaborating on a dance theater piece based on Stevens’ songs from the acclaimed album, Illinois, to premiere at Fisher Center at Bard in June of 2023.