Sufjan Stevens, Timo Andres and Conor Hanick : Reflections

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Sufjan Stevens Reflections review

Next to his best-known work, Reflections seems like an oddity in Sufjan Stevens’ discography. For one, the baroque pop/indie folk/electronic polymath’s 15th studio LP doesn’t feature any of his own singing or playing. It’s a ballet score for 11 dancers in seven short movements, written for two pianos in collaboration with choreographer Justin Peck. The only performers are classically-trained pianists Timo Andres and Conor Hanick. Illinois this is not.

But in reality, Reflections is far from unprecedented. Sufjan is no stranger to ballet at this point in his career; in fact, in the 10-year period leading up to 2020’s The Ascension, he had scored twice as many ballets as he’s recorded solo albums. The closest cousin to Reflections is 2019’s The Decalogue, a solo piano score written by Stevens and performed by Andres on record. The Decalogue is an impressive achievement; Stevens has some interesting musical ideas, and Andres’ talent for realizing them is indisputable. But the score doesn’t amount to much more than a technical exercise, suitable as a pleasant backdrop but lacking the emotional depth to reward repeated close listening. 

The compositions on Reflections are far more playful and dynamic, and the addition of Hanick’s second piano livens the proceedings considerably. Ultimately, none of these pieces settles on a single idea—which is, perhaps, the point. “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,” Stevens said of the record.

Even without watching the accompanying dance, it’s easy to hear what he means. Opening with a piano whoosh, “Ekstasis” sets the tone: stately, fast-paced, sprightly. Here, and across the entire record, the music is unpredictable and full of life, a constant negotiation between force and restraint. On the whole, the playing leans more toward the latter, and the moments of bombast—“Revanche”’s opening percussive stomp, the thunderous glissandos strategically injected throughout “Euphoros”—hit harder as a result. 

Together, the three middle tracks, “Mnemosyne,” “Rodinia,” and “Reflexion” carve out some breathing room. The former two take the tempo down, flirting with melancholy more closely than any other tracks here. “Reflexion” is shorter and more transitional, the twinkle-eyed sound of a slow awakening before the final cut, “And I Shall Come To You Like a Stormtrooper in Drag Serving Imperial Realness.” As the title might suggest, this track brings the sauce. It’s the longest and most protean song here—essentially a suite comprising several mini-movements that rise, swirl and fade out in a gentle staccato pulse. 

Reflections does lag in certain passages, especially for such a short album. Divorced from the ballet it’s meant to soundtrack, though, it’s hardly a wonder that this studio recording feels incomplete at times. Far more notable is how well the score does stand on its own, all things considered. While it may not be what many fans were expecting, it’s the work of an artist in full control of his kaleidoscopic vision, steering his career down a lesser-known tributary with more confidence than ever.

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Year: 2023

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