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Reflections with Timo Andres

The pianist and composer on bring the latest release by Sufjan Stevens to life


JULY 30, 2023 | ISSUE 12

Timo Andres - Photo by Michael Wilson
Timo Andres - Photo by Michael Wilson
Sufjan Stevens by Dawn Miller

With a multiplicity of possibilities expanded by the technological advancements now at our disposal, more and more artists are collaborating across traditional industry boundaries. One such exciting crossover is celebrated indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’s foray into the world of ballet. Stevens, who has been nominated for both Academy and Grammy awards for his work, began collaborating with choreographer Justin Peck in 2012 to adapt his music for the dance. Their creative partnership has produced numerous scores, including Year of the Rabbit (2012), Everywhere We Go (2014), In the Countenance of Kings (2016), The Decalogue (2017), and Principia (2019). 

Stevens says that their latest collaboration, Reflections, written for two pianos and eleven dancers, is about “energy, light, and duality.” Released through Asthmatic Kitty Records and produced by Ryan Streber, it sees the return of pianist and composer Timo Andres performing alongside fellow pianist Conor Hanick

Although Stevens is that magical breed of self-taught musician who learned his considerable skill by ear, Andres’s proficiency in orchestral music composition and performance has bridged the necessary gap between artificial in-studio orchestras and real ones. Reflections is a distillation of Stevens’s expansive electronica and orchestral pop, and is electrifying in its condensed, two-instrument expression of the artist’s original sound.

Their connection dates back to 2017 when Andres recorded music for The Decalogue, fresh off its premiere at the New York City Ballet. Reflections was the third collaboration between Andres, Stevens, and Peck, recently followed by Illinois (2023) — a theatrical performance based on Stevens’s much-loved concept album of the same name — performed at New York’s Bard College. 

Andres’s interpretation of Stevens’s essence embraces the inherent, defining aspects of his work while gently transitioning it to the new context of dance, one that has the potential to uplift both forms of art. 


sM | You’ve worked with Sufjan Stevens before. How did this creative partnership begin?

TA ─ It was really a spur-of-the-moment thing. I jumped in at the last minute to record some promo audio for a ballet of Sufjan’s called The Decalogue, another Justin Peck ballet at the New York City Ballet. A mutual friend connected us. They said, “Oh, you need someone to learn some thorny new piano music quickly? My friend Timo is just the guy.” After it premiered, Sufjan got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to record the whole ballet. In the world of freelance artists and musicians, there’s no HR department. There’s no formal hiring process. It’s all just: “Oh, I know a guy who would be perfect for this.” Mutual trust. 


sM | Reflections is incidental music for a ballet choreographed by Justin Peck for the Houston Ballet. To what extent did the choreography inform your approach to your work? 

TA ─ Actually, I have seen none of it. Playing for dance is its own kind of special thing that demands a very collaborative form of interpretation on the musician’s part. I think part of why Sufjan wanted to record these scores separately and release them on their own was so that the music could speak for itself and be a little freer to do so. I think there were interpretive choices that my co-pianist Conor Hanick and I took that might have made things more difficult for the dancers, or might not have meshed with their rhythmic agenda.There was no specific dance in my mind that said, the music itself is extremely athletic─it suggests movement at all times. If I can presume to speak for Sufjan for a second, I think what attracts him to doing this sort of composition is making himself subservient in a way to this other artform, giving them something that feels really good to move to. 

Timo Andres - Photo by Michael Wilson


sM | On his general approach to composing music, Stevens has said, “A lot of the work that I compose is anachronistic as it doesn’t follow a genealogy of aesthetic. It can be a cornucopia of styles.” Aside from the challenge inherent in performing a new work, how are you able to pin down a work that is both novel and untethered?

TA ─ I would say that we’re living in an age where many composers, myself included, feel more or less untethered from any need to have an aesthetic agenda, or any need to fit oneself into a chronology of music history or style of music. And even when I interpret older music – say music from the classical canon – I’m trying to trace their lineage, their influences, and the circumstances of their lives that went into their work. I think all composers throughout history have fundamentally had an acquisitive ear, where you can’t help but go through life hearing all this different music and think, “What can I pick up from that? What can I draw from that’s useful to me, either interpretively or compositionally?” We’re like these magpies collecting beautiful objects to furnish our nests.

Sufjan’s music is really no different. Even if you look at his so-called pop albums, it’s always a carnival of references. When I heard his album Illinois (2005) in college, that was one of the things that made me think it’s okay to throw all these ingredients in the pot, even though they may not on the surface seem to have much to do with each other. Your music ends up all the richer for it. We all bring our own musical histories and baggage with us when we come to interpret a new piece.

Timo Andres - Photo by Michael Wilson