Early on a spring morning in Manhattan, Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and Nadia Sirota gathered at Reservoir Studios in Manhattan to play a song first performed five years ago and an ocean away.
“Mercury” is the closing track off Planetarium, a song cycle about the planets by Stevens, Dessner, Muhly and James McAlister. The work was originally composed on commission for the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, and first performed there in 2012. Five turns around the sun later, Planetarium will arrive in recorded form on June 9 via 4AD.
“Mercury” is one of the most intimate songs on the record, a quality that’s emphasized by its spot just after the 15-minute, ambient, electronic epic, “Earth.” Where the record’s other songs foreground synthesizers and spastic electric drum samples reminiscent of 2010’s The Age of Adz, “Mercury” largely rests on Muhly’s gentle piano work and Stevens’ beautiful vocal. Where once, in the original live performances, the song swelled to a cinematic rush on the order of Illinois, it’s now spare and elegant. Its warm intimacy is all the more apparent in the group’s live performance, which features Dessner of The National lightly doubling on guitar Stevens’ wordless refrain at the song’s close.
Like many of the pieces on the record, its lyrics are a constellation of the cosmic, the personal and the mythological. The song, named for the messenger god, is a perfect musical setting for the feeling of having something dear carried away from you. “All that I’ve known to be of life / and I am gentle,” Stevens sings. “You ran off with it all.”
“Life is so abundant here, and yet we’re so obsessed with the exterior of here,” Stevens told All Songs Considered‘s Bob Boilen in a companion interview. “That’s what’s so interesting, there’s a sort of beautiful, perfect order to life on earth that’s so mysterious and so profound. And yet, as people, we really fuck it up. We’re so dysfunctional. And we seek guidance from the exterior world — from the heavens — to help us understand our purpose here, and to sort of create a sense of order.”
Stevens, Muhly and Dessner have created their own sense of order here. The musicians will present Planetarium at four shows this summer (all of them terrestrial):
July 10 — Paris, FR — Philharmonie de Paris
July 18 — Brooklyn, NY — Celebrate Brooklyn! – Prospect Park
July 20 — Los Angeles, CA — Hollywood Forever Cemetery
July 21 — Oakland, CA — Fox Theater
You can watch a video of the interview — and listen to the full-length interview — on All Songs Considered.
Producers: Bob Boilen, Ben Naddaff-Hafrey; Director: Mito Habe-Evans; Editor: Nickolai Hammar; Violist: Nadia Sirota; Audio Engineering: Daniel Availa, Fritz Meyers, Josh Rogosin, James Yost; Videographers: Annabel Edwards, Mito Habe-Evans, Nickolai Hammar; Special Thanks: St. Rose Music; Series Producer: Mito Habe-Evans; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann, Keith Jenkins; Special Thanks: Mark and Rachel Dibner of the Argus Fund
“after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”