‘Death with Dignity’ comes to life in new orchestral arrangement // The Observer

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I’m probably one of the biggest Sufjan Stevens fans in the Midwest (and maybe even the world). I know that sounds like a hard sell, but my Spotify stats don’t lie. For 2021, I was in the top 0.005% of its 6 million monthly listeners, solidifying myself (and 299 others) as die-hard Sufjan Stevens fans. I listened to everything he released at least two or three times; “Carrie and Lowell” and “Illinoise” are both on my list of all-time favorite albums.

For me, no other artist comes close. His incredibly creative and immersive lyrics, talent on nearly every instrument he can get his hands on, and songwriting abilities all contribute to his virtually untouchable talent. His discography has a wide emotional range that applies to almost any occasion. It is a monolith of music. It is difficult to live. Basically, there is no shadow in the shadow of the Sufjan.

So imagine my surprise when I saw a new release – with hardly any promotion, mind you – on Stevens’ Spotify page (nearly choked on a pretzel). From the album cover, I thought it was a release from the legend himself, but no. The single was an orchestral cover of “Death with Dignity” by award-winning German composer, Tim Allhoff, which may be Stevens’ doppelganger. I thought it was another of Stevens’ many collaborations with new musicians, but the single has since disappeared from Stevens’ homepage. (I guess it wasn’t sanctioned by Sufjan.)

The reimagined version of Stevens’ much-loved “Death with Dignity” was released in anticipation of Allhoff’s upcoming album, “MORLA.” The cover forgoes the delicate guitar and soulful vocals of the original. Instead, he opts for the musical styles of lush piano and string quartet, thanks to Allhoff’s impressive piano experience and the talented musicians of the Berlin-based Leonkoro Quartet. The single is performed with a palpable connection and emotion between the ensemble, poignantly capturing the original’s juxtaposition between joy and despair. Adding strings adds so much dimension to the piece.

So why doesn’t Stevens collaborate with Allhoff and the Leonkoro Quartet?

Stevens is no stranger to classical music. As a child, he studied the oboe and taught himself to play the piano. Since then, he has written several phenomenal instrumental pieces in collaboration with others: “Run Rabbit Run” with Osso, “Planetarium” with Bryce Dessner and “The Decalogue” with Timo Andres. He also writes film soundtracks. He was nominated for a Grammy and an Academy Award for his work on the “Call Me By Your Name” soundtrack. Her untitled piece for an unreleased film by Natalie Portman won awards in my heart. It looks like this cover would be a great addition to his discography.

But in an interview with The Washington Post, Stevens expressed distaste for the genre. He claims that the piano is “a bit of an overwhelming instrument” and that it “did not allow [him] experience and discover the character value of [his] voice. It was necessary for [him] move away from the piano, classical music and [his] kind of claims about it.

I think Stevens’ lyricism is what makes him such a powerful songwriter, but Stevens himself recognizes his flaws. In his song, “Futile Devices”, Stevens recounts how language sometimes fails to communicate all the feelings we would like to express, that “words are futile artifices.

If Stevens really believes this to be true, I hope he realizes his music speaks when words fail.

This classic blanket is a tribute to that. This version of “Death with Dignity” may have a piano as a voice, but its emotion is limitless. I think reissues of all kinds always encourage comparison, but here Allhoff is not in competition with Stevens. It pays homage to a hero while remaining in a league of its own.

Only: “Dying with Dignity”

Written by: sufjan stevens

Interpreted by: Tim Allhoff, Leonkoro Quartet

Label: Neue Meister Music / EDEL Records

If you want: Sufjan Stevens, Joe Hisaishi, “She (Soundtrack)”

Clovers: 5 out of 5

Tags: Call Me by Your Name, carrie and lowell, classical, cover, instrumental, Orchestra, piano, sufjan stevens, Thinkpiece, Tim Allhoff

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