Album Reviews

Sufjan Stevens – Reflections

(Asthmatic Kitty) UK release date: 19 May 2023

Minimalism meets an early 20th century sound world in an album of double-piano ballet music performed by Timo Andres and Conor Hanick

Sufjan Stevens - Reflections A lengthy title that carries a touch of quirky wit is always a good way to get attention, and the final track on ReflectionsAnd I Shall Come To You Like A Stormtrooper In Drag Serving Imperial Realness – does just this. Released earlier this month, Sufjan Stevens’ album is a studio recording of the music for the ballet of the same name, originally commissioned by Houston Ballet in 2019, and it features the original performers, pianists Timo Andres and Conor Hanick.

“I’m constantly thinking about bodies moving through space when I’m writing for ballet,” says Stevens of the work, and you can hear this in every bar. The music itself is the love child of late 20th century Minimalism and early 20th century harmonic experimentation. Repeating passages – often busy exercises in sounding the whole span of the piano keyboard – abound, particularly in tracks such as Ekstasis, Revanche – whose angular opening barrage suggests drive from the outset – and the aforementioned Stormtrooper.

The harmonic material, though, seems to come very much from 50 years earlier; it pulls in the early influences of jazz on composers such as Debussy (the placed chords at the opening of Rodina ,and the subsequent gentle rippling make this almost a homage to this giant of French Impressionism); there are touches of Eastern European spikiness throughout that call to mind piano works by the likes of Martinů, Bartók or even Scriabin. In Euphoros a jaunty melody that feels as though it might even be an English folksong arrangement by Percy Grainger briefly pokes its head out from the swathes of arpeggios. For those wishing the gentle wash of an ambient track that doesn’t really go anywhere, Mnemosyne, with its slight over-reliance on the damper pedal being depressed, is the one to go for. Reflexion begins with a lyrical passage that emerges from the rocking arpeggios, but it mutates into a much stricter form in which these arpeggios become almost Bach-like in their mathematical procession of harmonic possibilities.

What shouts throughout, though, is that this is music by a pianist; although Stevens is largely self-taught, you can hear that this is music written at the instrument, with all its techniques fully realised, and not simply transferred from another medium; it’s also clearly written with the shifting moods of expression through dance to the fore. Andres and Hanick tackle the material with virtuosic élan, so that full attention is given to mood through speed, dynamic and attack.

This is certainly an album to get your teeth into; it is not anodyne background music, or easy melody – it’s full of fierce counterpoint (a delight to hear in these days of the ambient wash of cluster chords) and occasionally prickly harmonies, but it’s definitely worth the trouble of an intelligent listen.

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More on Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens – Javelin
Sufjan Stevens – Reflections
Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister – Planetarium
Sufjan Stevens @ Royal Festival Hall, London