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RABBIT REDUX: The Music of Sufjan Stevens for String Quartet

The sound of an electronic organ swirls upward through a sludgy backbeat, as digitized woodwinds sparkle. The shimmering ambience soon gives way to a beat-driven din that inundates the listener.

So begins the song “Year of the Ox,” one of 12 tracks on Enjoy Your Rabbit, Sufjan Stevens’s ode to the Chinese zodiac. The 2001 album is an anomaly in Stevens’s oeuvre: It’s his sole foray into electronic music, unlike his usual acoustic and folk-based material. Now, with the release this month of the album Run Rabbit Run, the recording is about to be reborn as a work for string quartet.

“[Stevens’s] music is generous,” says music-festival organizer Bryce Dessner, a friend and fellow musician. “It’s not afraid to please, but also not just there to please. It’s adventurous. It’s music that is ambitious, in pretty much every sense of the word.” Not long after he first heard Enjoy Your Rabbit, Dessner began to imagine how the work might sound performed by a string quartet. That might seem like an odd match, since the original Rabbit is full of beat-centric, harmonically esoteric material not particularly well-suited to the more formal structures of a string quartet. Still, Dessner thought the versatile timbres and technical vocabulary of string instruments could draw out and further illuminate Enjoy Your Rabbit.

Sufjan Stevens. Photo by Stefan Malzkorn.
Sufjan Stevens. Photo by Stefan Malzkorn.

In February 2007, a preliminary reading of transcribed material was given by violinists Rob Moose and Olivier Manchon, violist Marla Hansen, and cellist Maria Jeffers—all musicians who had previously worked together as part of Stevens’s touring band. Two months later, four songs were premiered as a suite for string quartet as part of MusicNOW, an annual, Cincinnati-based music festival curated by Dessner.

“It was an experiment, and I was prepared for it to fail,” says Dessner of the string-quartet arrangements. But the experiment did not fail, as evidenced by a receptive audience, an approving composer, and contented musicians, who settled on the ensemble name “Osso” the day of the premiere, in part due to its palindromic symmetry. Stevens later decided to expand the suite into the full-length album of arrangements that would become Run Rabbit Run and release the resulting recording on his label, Asthmatic Kitty.

“I think the project was conceived to sort of humanize this electronic music,” says violist Hansen of Run Rabbit Run. “You’re coming from one guy making an electronic record by himself to all these other humans coming to play on acoustic instruments and with different interpretations.”

In approaching the record, Osso sought to transcend mere emulation and transform the electronic music into a set of new works. The interpretation of Stevens’s original electronic timbres proved to be a challenge to that goal. “I think that instead of trying to mimic the electronic sounds very directly,” says cellist Maria Jeffers, “we were just trying to make musical sense out of the arrangements.”

As part of the process of transforming the original songs into meaningful arrangements that could stand independently of Enjoy Your Rabbit, Osso enlisted six arrangers with disparate backgrounds: Michael Atkinson, a French horn player, had worked with Stevens previously, as both an arranger and backing musician. First violinist Moose and second violinist Manchon are composer/arrangers who focus on folk and jazz, respectively. As an indie-classical composer, Nico Muhly is a highly successful wunderkind, while Gabriel Kahane is rapidly making a name for himself. Maxim Moston is a violinist with Antony and the Johnsons.

“Sufjan’s a brilliant composer,” says Atkinson, who arranged Osso’s “Year of the Boar” track. “He understands form, he understands tension and release and all this, and once you get past the wacky sounds of Enjoy Your Rabbit you can find all those elements quite clearly. I felt like as long as I understood the core of the piece, I could arrange it for fifty kazoos and it would still sound good, because the substance of it is that strong.” Atkinson strove to achieve a literal interpretation of the music, an approach that, at times, had to be modified. In the case of his arrangement for “Year of the Monkey,” this meant heavy editing, which included cutting the entire opening section because of its unsuitability for strings.

While Atkinson’s approach was more directly tied to Stevens’s original material, composer/pianist Gabriel Kahane decided not to emulate the music in his arrangement of the track “Year of the Rooster.” Having heard some of Moose and Atkinson’s arrangements, he instead created a theme and variations. “I was totally uninterested in trying to replicate the electronic sounds,” says Kahane. “I think we’ve been there a lot with trying to make acoustic instruments sound like electronic instruments.”

Nico Muhly also decided to diverge from a typical string-quartet formula in his arrangement of “Year of the Dragon.” “Part of transcribing electronic music for strings is retaining the ecstatic, breathless quality of the original,” says Muhly. “What I had to do was make the parts deliberately unidiomatic in places so it seems like an athletic pursuit rather than just going through the motions.”

In Stevens’s original “Year of the Boar,” a single treble note drones on for several seconds, until a storm of cataclysmic, syncopated noise drenches the listener for over a minute. What sounds like a multiple-car train wreck quickly transitions into the sound of various gears and coils springing loose from their mechanical confines, until, finally, the listener is greeted on the other side of the crash by a chorus of melodious guitars. The original syncopation returns, but without its initial foreboding tension. Instead, a perky, sing-song quality dominates, as a soaring, trill-infused melody hovers above.

Osso’s version of the track sees the song manifest itself as a formidable wall of sound, breached only by the squealing strings of second violinist Manchon cascading up and down his instrument’s neck. What was quirky in the original becomes meandering and contemplative, and what was “melodious” is now truncated in favor of exploring Stevens’ propulsive rhythms and interwoven melodic lines.

In Osso’s take on “Year of the Rabbit,” the initial guitar motive, as voiced by a violin, suddenly takes on the rustic persistence of a folk song, as the irregular, eleven-beat rhythm propels the music forward. On acoustic instruments, the themes sound more fraught with tension, more susceptible to collapse—and indeed, the strings putter out at the song’s close, as if from exhaustion. Atkinson, who arranged the track, finds Stevens’s ability to use minimalism to create fluid melodic and harmonic lines one of his greatest assets as a composer. “That’s something Philip Glass doesn’t really do, or even John Adams. I think Sufjan is the next generation, the next incarnation of American minimalism.”

Stevens’s appropriation of techniques more closely associated with “classical music” is by no means a new development in the relationship between the classical and pop music worlds. The concept of “crossover” is also evidenced by the Hampton String Quartet, a studio ensemble created specifically to play rock ’n’ roll music. The string quartet, whose recording legacy began in 1986 with What if Mozart Wrote, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,has gone on to record the songs of the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Supremes, among others. Unlike Osso, however, the Hampton String Quartet did not collaborate with the original songwriters and performers when arranging the songs.

Al Lutz, former product manager with the RCA record label, sees a problem at work as classical music struggles to retain relevance in the popular culture. “It used to be that when we were in music-appreciation class, you learned who the basics were—the Bachs, the Beethovens—and if you had interest in that music, you were exposed to it. No longer.”

In the post-CD age, Lutz recognizes a disconnect between classical music and the era of digital downloads. “In classical, [people are] buying for quality, they want a full-range sound, and an MP3 just sounds horrible with classical music,” he says. “What downloads are perfect for is pop, because it lets you pick the one three-minute song you want off that album, which you don’t want to buy, and it gives it to you immediately.” Lutz emphasizes that it’s difficult to make classical forms such as the symphony fit the digital model, in part due to the impracticality of fitting such music into what he calls the “three-minute chunk.”

Osso’s Run Rabbit Run represents a kind of reconciliation between classical music and the short-form pop song that is so conducive to the digital format. As string-quartet music, the album still falls securely within the classical realm. But because the tracks are technically individual songs—the majority of which are under five minutes long—they are still practical as digital entities.

Where Lutz sees a disintegration of public exposure to classical music, Bryce Dessner sees a mere shift comparable to what has happened with rock music, in which distribution occurs through the internet and not through record stores or the radio. “In terms of people who are self-educating, searching out new, distinctive kinds of music, it’s right there,” says Dessner. “‘Oh, I really wanna hear that Benjamin Britten piece,’ and there it is. ‘And now I need a score,’ and there it is.”

Atkinson, who is thirty-one, sees his generation of classically trained compatriots as a new breed that seeks musical fulfillment outside of the boundaries of the traditional classical ensembles. “We don’t really get the sort of pathos, the catharsis, from playing in an orchestra,” says Atkinson. “So what has arisen is this home-grown thing, much like starting a band, where you can play Beethoven and do the music by singers and songwriters, but do it with these acoustic instruments. The locus for that comes from a desire to be a part of something that’s happening now, as opposed to being a part of a museum piece from the canon of western, continental, classical culture.”

The music of Run Rabbit Run is both highly visceral and oddly beyond the listener’s grasp. It is, technically speaking, a collection of “cover tunes,” yet it aspires to be a new work to be judged on its own merits. Arranger Gabriel Kahane sees an approach that differentiates the record from string-quartet tribute albums that seek to replicate pop and rock songs. “There aren’t people transcribing note-for-note,” says Kahane. “There’s a huge amount of composition that’s gone into everyone’s arrangements. They were written very specifically for the players involved.”

Osso is part of a growing movement of classically trained musicians who are plying their trade in the indie world. If this niche genre is indeed a safe haven for such musicians, collaborative efforts like Run Rabbit Run will undoubtedly become more widespread.


Daniel J. Kushner

Daniel J. Kushner is a Brooklyn-based music critic whose work has also been published in Opera News and Symphony. @danieljkushner.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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