Sufjan Stevens, “Convocations”
A “convocation” (from the Latin convocare, meaning “to call/come together”) is a group of people formally gathered for a unique purpose, generally academic or ecclesiastical. Over the past year we’ve been deprived as a society of that simple-yet-significant action. We haven’t been able to gather in a physical sense to dance, sing, or even mourn for lost loved ones. Sufjan Stevens’ new 49-track space music odyssey Convocations wrestles with this not through verse and acoustic instruments, but in a cosmic grapple between melody and atonality. Convocations is a precarious and complicated release, like a bough of a flowering tree buckling under too much weight, or a laugh escaping the mouth of someone too tired of weeping.
This isn’t merely a companion piece to what are arguably Sufjan’s best albums, Carrie & Lowell and Illinois. It also doesn’t sound anything like a continuance of the synth fever dreams he concocted for 2020’s The Ascension. The synthesizers on Convocations ripple outwards through the stages of grief and solace. Stevens possesses a dreamy and dissonant relentlessness on this one. The death of his father casts a shadow across the chasmic five volumes (Meditations, Lamentations, Revelations, Celebrations, and Incantations). The whole damn thing is a true wonder to unravel in one sitting, but not exactly anything reaching approachable in chunks—you need to carve out a healthy two hours for this one. Stevens released the whole thing in its entirety as a series of weekly digital convocations on YouTube, which is a brilliant way to deliver this type of music.
This release pulls heavily from the oft-forgotten ’70s ambient genre offshoot of “space music,” itself splintering off from “Raummusik” (spatial music), krautrock, and the German classical forms from Karlheinz Stockhausen and Robert Beyer. Space music has always been a go-to genre for those struggling with anxiety and depression since this genre is often seen through the prism of psychonautic listening, and for some individuals it can evoke the feeling of floating above a physical space in a trance-like state. This is alluring for depressed individuals since it has the effect of removing oneself from the environment to create a sense of calm.
Convocations, on the other hand, can feel claustrophobic and then calm in the very next moment. Meditations and Celebrations are the most relaxed volumes and curl up into the soothing effects of more traditional ambient music. Lamentations and Revelations are the most tumultuous and difficult volumes. Overall, the nonstop push and pull over the course of two-and-a-half hours and five volumes creates a sort of structural elasticity to the music that draws the listener in as much as it repels them. Taken as a whole, it’s a Sisyphean mass of music that is unsettling, transcendent, and confounding all at the same time. Only Sufjan Stevens would take music labeled as convocations and turn its gaze so inward on his isolation and loss that it somehow became cosmic and spiritual.