Run Rabbit Run
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Going against his songwriter’s instincts, in 2001 Sufjan Stevens followed up his debut album (the rambling ethno-folk implosion A Sun Came) with a series of fourteen instrumental songs inspired by the animals of the Chinese Zodiac (Enjoy Your Rabbit). The recordings were largely electronic, full of oblique glitches, repetitive trills and experimental textures, occasionally punctuated by meditative expanses of sound. The record’s art, created by Matt Morgan, consisted of a series of two-dimensional vector illustrations, outlines of dragons, tigers, and monkeys composed in stiff panoramics.
“At times eerie and ominous like a backwoods Autechere” wrote one online record guide; Enjoy Your Rabbit seemed less like a sophomore slump or a sophomore smash than an entertaining divergence. It was not, however, what you might call a good career move. Not that Sufjan had a music career at all. By day, he was a graphic designer, by night, a writing student at The New School.
Five years and a handful of (slightly) more popular albums later, in 2006 Sufjan’s peer, friend and neighbor Bryce Dessner (Clogs, The National), introduced an unlikely notion: to re-arrange the entirety of Enjoy Your Rabbit for the string quartet Osso, a hard-working ensemble that had appeared on Sufjan’s Illinois and My Brightest Diamond’s Bring Me The Workhorse. Dessner commissioned horn player/conductor/composer Mike Atkinson to arrange the first four of these songs (Rabbit, Ox, Lord, and Boar) for a performance at the 2007 Music Now festival in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Sufjan and Asthmatic Kitty were so entertained by the results they decided to explore the project further. They commissioned additional composers to write new arrangements of the remaining songs from the original album. Michael Atkinson contributed a fifth arrangement for Monkey. Osso violinists Rob Moose (Antony and the Johnsons, Beth Orton) and Olivier Manchon (Clare and the Reasons, Orchestre de Chambre Miniature) contributed arrangements for, respectively, the Tiger, Horse, Dog, and the Snake and Rat. Russian composer Maxim Moston (Antony and the Johnsons, Joan As Policewoman, Slow Six) arranged the Sheep, Nico Muhly (Bjork, The National, Philip Glass) arranged the Dragon, and Gabriel Kahane (who can be heard playing the piano cadenza on Sufjan’s cover of “You Are The Blood” on the Dark Was the Night Compilation) arranged the Rooster. Each arrangement was work-shopped democratically, allowing for players, arrangers, and songwriter to modify charts (and mollify awkward moments) over time, resulting in a populist project.
What happens when you translate electronic music for live instruments? The string quartet proves itself a capable ensemble: tireless, versatile, and resourceful in its paraphrasing of all the improbable sounds and textures of the original album. Computer-generated glitches are rendered as squeaks and squeals on the bow. Sequenced back-beats become resonant hand-taps on the body of the cello. White noise is scored for the players’ voices—the boar ends in a crescendo of hissing, while the sheep includes notation for tongue clicking.This explains the sound effects, but the most affecting textures on the album are entirely harmonic. Here, the quartet provides a vital component the original album lacked entirely—the human element (live players on live instruments)— allowing for greater emotional diversity, uncovering gorgeous anthems, melancholy dirges, and up-tempo pop tunes that were otherwise concealed behind a wash of synthetic sound manipulation. The album’s greatest strengths are its sense of humor, playfulness, and its anthropomorphic pleasures, expanded and exaggerated in the hands of able players.
Poet and illustrator Jessica Dessner (sister to Bryce and Aaron of The National) created painstakingly true-to-life pencil drawings of the animals.
- "t Run Rabbit Run serves as a welcome reminder that [Sufjan's] curious, try-anything spirit is part of what got our attention in the first place." Pitchfork