Principia composer Sufjan Stevens, orchestrator Timo Andres, and New York City Ballet conductor Daniel Capps discuss the artistic process behind the score to Justin Peck’s new ballet.
Though they’ve created just four ballets during their short time collaborating together, it’s not hard to think that Justin Peck and Sufjan Stevens are forming a bond reminiscent of the artistic collaboration between George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. And, as with any ballet, there are myriad people who make Stevens’ music come to life – including an orchestrator, a conductor, and 68 orchestra members – not to mention the full cast of dancers.
The process of making Principia’s score went well beyond Stevens putting pen to paper (or composition ideas to orchestration program Sibelius). He enlisted Timo Andres, an established orchestrator, to make his concepts feasible for a working orchestra to play and for Conductor Daniel Capps to lead the musicians with ease.
According to Andres, who also worked with Stevens on Peck’s 2017 ballet The Decalogue, the process of making the score for Principia, which premiered January 31, 2019 on New York City Ballet’s annual New Combinations program, began in the summer of 2018. In that time period, Stevens and Andres worked tirelessly to smooth all the rough edges off the score before it got in the hands of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, who only had two rehearsals to get the music in top shape before the curtain rose on the ballet’s world premiere performance. Any confusion or flaws in the score could derail the performance.
“If the orchestra is having trouble continuing, then the dancers can't continue,” Andres said.
“A good orchestrator brings the musical ideas to life, and also brings them to reality,” says Stevens. He chooses to collaborate with an orchestrator because he’s not a professionally trained composer, but a self-taught musician whose classical experience mainly harkens back to when he played oboe in high school.
Yet Andres enjoys working with an artist who may not necessarily be versed in technical orchestra language. He says, “I remember a particular email from Sufjan where he was trying to describe his approach to each of the movements, but the words he used to describe the music weren't musical terms, they were more poetic terms or more imagistic. And that's actually something that I really like.”
Principia derives its name from Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which outlines Newton’s Law of Motion. In fact, it was Justin Peck and Sufjan Stevens’ fascination with neoclassical architect Étienne-Louis Boullée’s cenotaph for Isaac Newton, an ambitious planetarium-eque memorial that was never built, which put the ballet’s concept in motion.
“Our curiosity basically led us down this rabbit hole, which eventually landed at the very, very basic principles of motion, gravity, and laws of the universe,” Stevens explains. “This to us made perfect sense, because ballet is all about engaging with laws of motion and laws of movement with gravity. It’s organizing chaos to create a beauty and formalism that communicates narratives, communicates truths, and communicates feelings – like what it means to be human. I think all of that really relates to what Isaac Newton was trying to understand about the universe: That there are governing laws to the vastness to it. Even though it does seem like we're just a speck in this huge, disordered chaos, there's actual science and structure and meaning to it.”
Although these concepts did arise throughout the creative process, the score itself began without any real idea in mind. “The music is always an abstraction. It just almost, like, manifests from nothing,” Stevens admits. “It's very strange, but that's exactly what happens.”
Unlike with the music he creates as a singer/songwriter, Sufjan Stevens feels a slight disconnect from his compositions for New York City Ballet.
“When I'm writing a song, I do everything,” he says. “I record it, I arrange it, I mix it, I produce all my own stuff, and I feel incredibly responsible for all of it at every level. I have authorship over everything from the beginning to the end in the realm of my singer/songwriting career, and in the world of ballet, it's the opposite. It's a commissioned piece.”
However, according to both Daniel Capps and Timo Andres, the score is undeniably “Sufjan.”
Andres says, “I have enough of a working knowledge of the kinds of sounds that Sufjan uses and has used in the past that I was able to bring some of that to my orchestration style. I'm thinking in particular of his album called the Age of Adz. The arrangements on it are very dense and very elaborate, very over the top.”
“There are a lot of orchestral instruments involved at various times, and it's just very colorful and aggressively outgoing a lot of the time,” Andres says of Stevens’ 2010 album. “It's very ebullient. I think a lot of the music in this ballet is that way as well.”
Capps explains, “You look at all the ballets he's done – and, frankly, his own music that's nothing to do with ballet – they've always got a catchy little something, and it's always interesting. It's always imaginative.”
“It's very Sufjan,” Capps says of the Principia score. “You can spot the motifs, the little things that pop up over and over again. They're just kind of his signatures, I suppose. The most impressive things are these little snippets, these kernels of musical idea, which are infectious. They're always rhythmic and playful. Then someone has to turn that into a meaningful structure.”
That person is, of course, Timo Andres.
The orchestrator explains, “It was my job to say, ‘Okay, what kind of sound are we after here, and how can I recreate it [to work for an orchestra]’?"
Although Sufjan Stevens didn’t have much interest in ballet when Justin Peck first contacted him to orchestrate his album Enjoy the Rabbit for Peck’s 2012 ballet Year of the Rabbit, the musician soon found himself a fan of the art form that he now praises for being “anachronistic” and “un-modern.” He even admits that he has no interest in composing for other kinds of dance.
“Justin’s work is actually quite formal and traditional for the most part,” Stevens praises of his collaborator’s take on ballet. “I think what he's doing is expanding the language of modern classical ballet in ways that feel really fresh, and feel really unique to him and his generation. I think he has incredible sense of space, structure, and depth perception. Those are things I just never think of, because I just think of music as being flat, being non-dimensional. It's just sound waves. You don't see it, and what he's doing is he's bringing this visual realization of music through this very formalized dance discipline, and it just feels really exciting and new and fresh, but also still very traditional and classical.”
When it comes to ballet, for Sufjan Stevens, the process of being part of something bigger than himself remains an important feature of his already illustrious career.
“The music exists regardless of the composer’s existence,” he says.
He explains, “I've put so much work into it, so much time and energy, and then it's handed off, and someone else is putting all this time and energy into it, and then it's given to the conductor, and then they put all this time and energy into it, and it becomes a communal endeavor. So, I feel very disassociated from it. In a cool way.”
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.