Sufjan Stevens is out of this world (literally)

From his Marzuki roots to his performance at the Oscars, nobody illustrates the rebirth of instrumental music like the incomparable Sufjan Stevens

‘Mercury' by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister. Taken from the album 'Planetarium', released June 9 on 4AD

Lily McCormick, 2018 Knight staff

The renaissance of instrumental music has begun and it’s back in a way unimaginable.

An ambassador of this revival is Detroit-born Sufjan Stevens. Born in 1975, Stevens has built a long-lasting career starting in the mid ’90s in a band called Marzuki, leading up to now, an Academy Award-nominated songwriter.

His music incorporates elements of orchestral music along with modern lyrics and themes. An album that came to fruition in June of 2017 called Planetarium is an iconic example of this fusion. He worked with composer Nick Muhly, and other modern artists Bryce Dessner and James McCallister to create a studio album based on a live performance originally put on in London.

The album is made up of songs that correlate to all nine planets and other cosmic entities. Students at McCallum have either recently or not so recently started to take an interest in his work and have some strong opinions about it. Senior Maribel Alverson started listening to Stevens in 2016 when her sister had a song of his on her iPod that she often skipped over. Alverson took an immediate interest in the song and her enthusiasm grew.

“I hadn’t realized how much the lyrics were poetically written, and I just fell in love with his writing style and his instrumentation,” Alverson said. ”The meaning in his lyrics are so much more in-depth than almost anyone else you could listen to and he’s a great songwriter.”

I asked Alverson and junior Atticus Tait to share their thoughts on Stevens’ music by asking them to respond to these four questions:

  1. When did you start listening to Sufjan Stevens?
  2. What’s your favorite album/song of his? Why?
  3. Has he influenced you in any way musically or otherwise?
  4. What are your thoughts on his incorporation of classical themes into his music?

Here’s what they had to say.

Sufjan Stevens, The BQE from Asthmatic Kitty Records on Vimeo.

“I hadn’t realized how much the lyrics were poetically written and I just fell in love with his writing style and his instrumentation. The meaning in his lyrics are so much more in depth than almost anyone else you could listen to and he’s a great songwriter.

“The way he does instrumentation, he likes to use brass and flute. Sometimes he uses like 200-piece orchestras for his songs, which is amazing because there are still underlying electronic sounds. It’s incredible because he has somewhat of a classical background and the fact that he’s been able to orchestrate the songs on his records. They have so many people involved and I think it’s really crazy and really beautiful how he does it.” — Maribel Alverson


“It’s super unique. He has this style and this voice that I haven’t heard really anywhere else.

“On the album Carrie and Lowell, [the song] ‘Should Have Known Better,’ the chord progression and the way the melodic line and the vocal line flow together, kind of contrasts. It has contrary and parallel motion so he flows with the guitar at some points but also goes against it. Just the way that he does it and arranges it is just really cool and unique.

“We grew up in the generation of pop music and that kind of stuff so it’s kind of basic and similar in style but when you hear this, it’s completely different. Every song that he has is completely different.” — Atticus Tait