Cutting-Edge Bands Take Scientific Approach to Make New Music That’s Not Formulaic

Music critic Jim Farber on two bands' embrace of science to find higher art.

June 29, 2017 5:00 am

Floating Points
Mojave Desert (Luaka Bop Records)

Making a record isn’t brain surgery, but it turns out a young neuroscientist has quite a knack for it.
In fact, science and music are more intertwined than many people realize. Aristotle described the universe as a harmonic expression, while Einstein famously said “if I were not a scientist, I would probably be a musician.”

The reverse likely holds true for the artists behind two visionary new albums. The first, by the British act Floating Points, draws inspiration from earth science, while the other – which corrals four hip, Brooklyn-based artists, including Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner of The National and Nico Muhley – shifts the focus to outer space.

Floating Points is the nom-du-rock for Sam Shepherd, a young keyboardist, DJ and – you-guessed-it – neuroscientist, who fell so hard for Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert that he trucked out to record an album there. To chronicle his trip, he brought along filmmaker Anna Diaz Ortuno, who created a movie that can be purchased in a bundle with the album.

At Joshua Tree, the sound of wind rushing over, and around, the dramatic rock formations suggested songs to Shepherd. He recorded the sounds of the area using echo, reverb and other techniques, then integrated all the resultant rustling and whooshing into compositions inspired by both the landscape and the sounds of the creatures that inhabit the region.

If that seems abstract or daft, the final recording is anything but. Shepherd and his four fellow players have created a cohesive piece of instrumental rock that builds to thrilling climaxes and finds satisfying resolves. Some of the music recalls Pink Floyd circa “Meddle,” with Alex Reeve’s guitar leads suggesting those of David Gilmour and Shepherd’s keyboards referencing the rich underlays of Richard Wright.

The suite of songs escalates to a long, fiercely percussive section that sounds like the most hypnotic jams of the German prog-rock band Can. The result functions both as highly attuned “environmental music” and as “head music” any stoner will love.


Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister
Planetarium (4AD Records)

The same applies to the “Planetarium” project. The piece follows in the celestial footsteps of compositions ranging from Gustov Holst’s “The Planets,” to Mike Oldfield’s “Music of The Spheres.”

This time, however, the artists find an original mix of space rock, freak-folk, choral songs, classical influences and whatever the heck noises the universe suggested to them. Unlike “Mojave Desert,” “Planetarium” employs lyrics, provided by Stevens, who also sings them. Fourth member James McAlister (a longtime Stevens’ collaborator) contributed the beats, while Dessner and Muhly handled the classical side of things.

Together, they performed alongside a string quartet and seven (!) trombones. Because Stevens often sings through a vocoder, or other synthetic effects, he ends up sounding like a cross between Neil Young on his electro “Trans” album and Tomita, the synth pioneer of the ‘70s.  Steven’s lyrics, many of which salute individual planets, ponder our place and role in the universe, an increasingly urgent question in this era of climate change.

The story the music tells is a long one. The album lasts over 75 minutes, but it needs that much space to make its impact. Like the “Mojave” project, “Planetarium” uses the breadth of the physical world to bring us deeper into ourselves.

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