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  • Genre:

    Folk/Country / Experimental

  • Label:

    Asthmatic Kitty

  • Reviewed:

    October 25, 2019

This score for Justin Peck’s 2017 ballet, performed by the pianist Timo Andres, is a knotty but welcome addition to the singer-songwriter’s growing set of compositions for dance.

It’s hard to believe, but over the last 10 years, Sufjan Stevens has soundtracked twice as many ballets as he’s recorded solo albums. He and choreographer Justin Peck began working together in 2012, when the rising dance star asked Stevens to rework selections from his experimental electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit for the New York City Ballet. Stevens balked at first, but after George Balanchine’s Stravinsky-scored classics (namely Agon) opened his ears to the expressive possibilities of the form, the singer-songwriter relented, which led to the blossoming of a meaningful creative relationship with Peck.

Stevens’ initial hesitation around entering the world of ballet stemmed not only from his qualms with Enjoy Your Rabbit—he downplayed it as “a ramshackle little personal hobby project”—but also his perceptions of ballet itself. “Ballet seemed so anachronistic, so formal and classical and archaic and irrelevant to pop culture,” he said in 2014. Everywhere We Go, the first collaboration with Peck to feature all new, original music, was defined by its intricate arrangements and emphasis on melody, a pointed repudiation of that perceived stuffiness. By contrast, The Decalogue—a borderline academic suite for solo piano, inspired by the Ten Commandments—suggests a self-conscious attempt to compose according to a notion of what contemporary ballet music should sound like. The result is a knotty but welcome entry to Stevens’ discography, albeit one that feels like the result of the artist immersing himself in Peck’s influences rather than the other way round.

This new studio recording of The Decalogue, which arrives two years after the debut of Peck’s ballet, does not actually feature Stevens in a performing role. The composer instead opts to have the pianist and contemporary classical composer Timo Andres interpret the score. In Andres’ skilled hands, the pieces move and breathe dynamically, and it’s easy to imagine a cadre of dancers performing pirouettes to the constantly modulating chords. Still, as a standalone piece of music, Decalogue may come across as unusually atonal for any Sufjan fans expecting familiar motifs from their favorite baroque pop polymath, who culled from approximately 50 “impromptu improvisations” to assemble the score.

With some exceptions, Decalogue’s piano passages wash over the listener and disappear almost as soon as they materialize. That isn’t to say there are no affecting scenes: The ascendant arpeggios at the beginning of “V” provide an immediately arresting structure for the rest of the piece to flow into. Andres’ execution of the skittering downward runs at the end of “VIII” prove a breathtaking display of musicianship, and the thunderous grand finale in “X” is stirring, if a bit rote. But the album never reveals any whole greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts suffer from a lack of focus.

Stevens has said he wanted The Decalogue to be “more pensive and more cerebral, and less explicitly harmonic and melodic” than Everywhere We Go, and he certainly achieves his goal. He’s since moved on from such exercises, describing his most recent work with Peck, Principia, as a middle ground between those prior scores. That new ballet just so happens to feature orchestrations by Andres, a link that implies the pianist isn’t merely a gifted hired gun. Their collaborations may bear more fruit in the years to come, but ultimately The Decalogue is a Stevens curio like Enjoy Your Rabbit and The BQE before it: riveting to diehards, an agreeable footnote for anyone else.


Buy: Rough Trade

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