The soundtrack album presents a conundrum for a critical listener. How best to evaluate music divorced from its accompanying artwork? Does one need to have experienced music and performance to appreciate the compositions, the feelings they invoke, and the story they tell? In short, can the music stand on its own merit?
In the case of Reflections, the answer is a regrettable no. Composed by the enigmatic indie mastermind Sufjan Stevens and performed by pianists Timo Andres and Conor Hanick for the Houston Ballet, the record is certainly virtuosic and pleasant to listen to. However, without movement, visuals, and the theatre of live performance, the album feels indistinct and largely forgettable.
Stevens, whose eclectic discography spans indie, folk, electronica, Christmas songs, and music for film, is no stranger to experimentation. Having collaborated with choreographer Justin Peck and the aforementioned Timo Andres for ballets before, Reflections does not necessarily represent a new direction for the multi-instrumentalist, even with the addition of pianist Conor Hanick. The music then, while wonderfully performed, does not break new ground. Andres and Hanick, both classically trained pianists reputed for mixing old and new, do a fine job blending technical skills with a variety of textures and styles, but the result does not feel particularly outstanding or unique.
The opening composition, “Ekstasis”, demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of Reflections. Beginning with frantic cascading harmonies and punctuated by dissonant stabs, the piece then concludes with a thoughtful – if brief – coda of stirring chords. It’s striking but abrupt, with clear skill on display but without a satisfactory realization of ideas nor much of an identity. “Euphoros” is strong, particularly for its recurring motif and tension. It is, however, all too short; its crescendo never quite materializes, and as a result, it is an anticlimax to an otherwise potent build-up of energy.
The second half of Reflections feels far more developed. “Mnemosyne” is a welcome change of pace for its soft and open sounds, moving away from the frenetic and to the considered. “Rodinia” is lovely too, and Andres and Hanick complement each other brilliantly with warm and bright melodic counterparts.
“Reflexion” is a standout, despite its unfortunately short length. Perhaps typically for a piece mirroring the album’s title, the composition comes closer than any others here for advancing a particular feeling and emotional journey. Still, again, it ends just as it seems to be beginning. With an appreciably ludicrous title, “And I Shall Come to You Like a Stormtrooper in Drag Serving Imperial Realness” is a grandiose closer. The Jaws-esque motif provides an ample canvas to play off, with piano movements that can excite and dazzle, even if they leave the listener without much of a sense of where they have gone and what has been expressed.
Reflections is commendable as a technical accomplishment that, in its best moments, stirs at deeper thoughts and feelings. The musicianship and, on occasion, compositional chops from Stevens, Andres, and Hanick should not be overlooked, and when combined with the performance, could well present a powerful and total experience. For listening purposes, however, Reflections does not provide a clear picture.