Suggested Listening: “Year of Our Lord” by Sufjan Stevens, arr. Michael Atkinson

I usually plan out these posts, like, three weeks ahead… but today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC is a new addition to my library that totally took me by surprise!  Pretty cool.  Enjoy Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of “Year of Our Lord” by Sufjan Stevens, performed below by Osso string quartet (USA).

About the Composer & Arranger:

Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens (1975- ) grew up in Michigan and now resides in Brooklyn, NY, where he is the sole staff member of Asthmatic Kitty Records‘ Brooklyn office.  While studying at Hope College, he released his debut album (A Sun Cameon the Asthmatic Kitty label; the album set the stage for Stevens’ future music with its incorporation of folk and world elements and a broad variety of acoustic instrumentation — everything from banjo to oboe to sitar, mostly played by multi-instrumentalist Stevens himself — lending much of his music a distinct, symphonic sound.  Stevens has taken on many unique musical projects, including his “Fifty States Project,” for which two albums of folk-style songs dedicated to different U.S. states (Michigan and Illinoishave thus far been released; an electronic album about the Chinese zodiac (Enjoy Your Rabbit); and an award-winning tone-poem/film project about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (The BQEcommissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (“the home for adventurous artists, audiences, and ideas”).  For these latter two projects, Stevens collaborated with…

Composer/arranger/performer/conductor/producer Michael Atkinson is an accomplished NYC-based French hornist, having played with such prestigious groups as the New York Philharmonic and Orpheus, and currently serving as Solo Horn with the innovative Knights orchestra (which I wrote about here).  A Juilliard alum, Atkinson can be heard on numerous film, commercial, and video game soundtracks, and has played in several award-winning Broadway pit orchestras.  Atkinson has had his arrangements performed across a broad range of genres, including at the famous Ravinia Festival and even on Genghis Barbie‘s debut album (I wrote about them here).  Atkinson’s collaboration with Sufjan Stevens stretches back several years and has resulted in many awards and much critical acclaim, especially regarding the Run Rabbit Run project from which today’s Suggested Listening was selected. 

About the Piece:

In 2007, Michael Atkinson was commissioned to take five of the songs from Sufjan Stevens’ 2001 all-electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit, and arrange them for string quartet.  How could electronic music, computerized and synthesized, possibly lend itself to performance by such an acoustic, “old-fashioned” medium?  Surprisingly — quite well.  Each of the songs on Stevens’ album conjures the image of one of the symbols of the Chinese zodiac (tracks include “Year of the Ox” and “Year of the Dragon,” for example).  Atkinson’s arrangements capture all the fun and imagery of Stevens’ originals, but with a more rustic, grounded sort of sound — less surreal, but just as compelling.  Atkinson asks the string quartet to push the boundaries of their instruments, creating acoustic sound effects by manipulating the bow and strings in various unusual ways in order to recreate the electronic effects from the original music.  Several other composers completed string quartet interpretations of the rest of the tracks on Stevens’ album.  The Osso quartet, with their mission of “bringing a traditional medium to new audiences and forging into new worlds of music with a broad appeal,” was the ideal choice to premiere and record this unlikely collaboration between classically-trained composers and indie-electronic songwriter.  The album Run Rabbit Runreleased in 2009, was met with great acclaim, and intrigued Justin Peck, a New York City Ballet choreographer, who in 2011 commissioned Atkinson to transform seven of the movements from Run Rabbit Run into a full-orchestra score for a ballet entitled Year of the Rabbit.

Isn’t that awesome?  It’s classical music in multiple dimensions, collaborative and interdisciplinary and far from static.  Run Rabbit Run is a string quartet album, but the album cover looks like it could belong to any rock band — eye-catching, offbeat, youthful and fun.  Classical music should be like this all the time!  Not necessarily arrangements of hipster electronica — Mozart can be just as collaborative and interactive — although, the fact that the songs are arrangements does not at all detract from the quality of the performance or its classification as chamber music.  Instead, it’s an added layer of transformation, the music in creative dialogue across contexts.

“Year of Our Lord” is my favorite song from Run Rabbit Run.  It’s soft and meditative, full of striking, clustered dissonances that emerge and soar and never quite resolve.  There’s something nostalgic about it, and a little bit eerie — but also very serene, with the smooth, long notes creating a continuous stream of harmonies that swell in volume and intensity.  Here’s Sufjan Stevens’ electronic original — how do you think it compares?

If you enjoyed Year of Our Lord, you might also like…

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