Photo: Kim Sanders

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly & Bryce Dessner
May 29 @ The Sydney Opera House

Chris Ryan whines about the futility of gig reviews, then writes a 600-word-long one.

I’ve often wondered what’s the point of writing a gig review when a show has finished its run. If you aren’t shit-canning the show, you’re telling your readers, “Suck shit, you missed out.” Neither are nice.

But here goes anyway…

I heard that Sufjan Stevens was performing at the Opera House. After the rave review he received from Tim Gonzarelli last year, I decided I had to check it out.

I was a little perturbed when the show opened with the Orava String Quartet playing pieces composed by Sufjan Stevens, The National’s Bryce Dessner, and Mr and Mrs Muhly’s Nico. The sounds they managed to wrench from their instruments were astounding and I assume deliberate. I thought they were great, but that should be qualified by the point that they are the only string quartet I have ever seen.

At the intermission there were a few grumbles around the bar. We hadn’t come to see some violinists [Ed: Plus a violist and cellist], we wanted Sufjan Stevens, the bloke who blew them away with Age of Adz at the Sydney Festival. The bells rang and we headed back into the auditorium with crossed fingers and beers in hand.

There was a cheer of relief when Sufjan took centre stage. He was flanked by Nico Muhly, sitting behind a keyboard, and Bryce Dessner armed with his guitar. Joining them was the Orava Quartet, safely at the back of the stage out of the limelight, a drummer, and seven trombonists. Where do you get seven competent trombonists? I don’t even know one bad one.

After opening with Neptune Sufjan explained the nature of the show, which saw the collaborators creating pieces inspired by the planets of our solar system. Dessner noted that the performance allowed Sufjan to fulfil his unrealised dream of being a science teacher, as the singer peppered the intro to each song with facts about the planet in question.

A massive black globe hovered ominously above the stage. Pictures of spinning planets, swirling gas clouds, and fiery landscapes were projected on the ball through the evening to complement the music.

It’s ridiculous describing the music when a YouTube clip is better than I could ever manage, but I’ll try: The music was transcendent, it reached to another plane, while plumbing the depths of human emotion. Staring at the orb suspended above the stage, while listening to otherworldly sounds, one felt they were being taken on a – okay, another clip:

With all the planets serenaded, and the moon thrown in for good measure, it was understandable if there was no encore. Still, the trio of collaborators returned to a grateful audience and treated us to a cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Not Sufjan Stevens

Outside a crisp Autumn night met the audience. If Venus was rising, or Jupiter setting, you couldn’t tell looking at the clouded sky.

Sufjan, Muhly and Dessner had left me feeling like I’d spent the night staring at the constellations. In the vastness of the universe we are mere specks of dust. At the same time we are a part of a whole that, though unknowable, is indescribably beautiful. Sometimes, on a night like this, music can connect us to that whole, and to one another.

“Suck shit.”