‘Death with Dignity’ brought to life in new orchestral arrangement
Claire Lyons | Thursday, March 3, 2022
I am 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 statistics do not lie. For 2021, I was in the top 0.005 percent of his 6 million monthly listeners, solidifying myself (and 299 other people) as die-hard Sufjan Stevens fans. I’ve listened to everything he’s released at least two or three times; “Carrie and Lowell” and “Illinoise” are both on my list of all-time favorite albums.
To me, no other artist comes close. His insanely creative and immersive lyrics, his talent on almost any instrument he can get his hands on and his songwriting abilities all contribute to his virtually untouchable talent. His discography has an expansive emotional range that is applicable to almost any occasion. He’s a monolith of music. He’s hard to live up to. Basically, there’s no shade in the shadow of the Sufjan.
So, imagine my surprise when I saw a new release — with virtually no promotion, mind you — on Stevens’ Spotify page (I almost choked on a pretzel). Based on the album cover, I thought this 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, who could be Stevens’ doppelgänger. I figured this was another one of Stevens’ many collaborations with new musicians, but the single has since disappeared from Stevens’ home page. (I guess it wasn’t Sufjan-sanctioned.)
The reimagined version of Stevens’ deeply-loved “Death with Dignity” was released in anticipation of Allhoff’s upcoming album, “MORLA.” The cover forgoes the original’s delicate guitar and melancholy vocals. Instead, it opts for the musical stylings of a lush piano and string quartet, courtesy of Allhoff’s impressive background in piano and the Berlin-based Leonkoro Quartet’s talented musicians. The single is performed with palpable connection and emotion between the ensemble, poignantly capturing the original’s juxtaposition between joy and despair. The string addition adds so much dimension to the piece.
So, why isn’t Stevens collaborating with Allhoff and the Leonkoro Quartet?
Stevens is no stranger to classical music. As a child, he studied the oboe and taught himself how to play the piano. Since then, he’s written several phenomenal instrumental pieces in collaboration with other people: “Run Rabbit Run” with Osso, “Planetarium” with Bryce Dessner and “The Decalogue” with Timo Andres. He’s also written for movie soundtracks. He was nominated for a Grammy and Academy award for his work for the “Call Me By Your Name” soundtrack. His untitled piece for an unreleased Natalie Portman film won awards in my heart. It seems like this cover would be a great addition to his discography.
But in an interview with The Washington Post, Stevens expressed his distaste for the genre. He asserts that the piano is “somewhat of an overwhelming instrument” and that it “wasn’t allowing [him] to experiment and discover the character value of [his] voice. It was necessary for [him] to move away from piano, from classical music and [his] sort of pretensions about it.”
I think Stevens’ lyricism is what makes him such a powerful songwriter, but Stevens himself acknowledges his shortcomings. In his song, ”Futile Devices,” Stevens sings about how language sometimes fails to communicate all the feelings we’d like to express, that ”words are futile devices.”
If Stevens really believes this is true, I hope that he realizes his music speaks when words fail.
This classical cover is a tribute to that. This version of ”Death with Dignity” may have a piano as its voice, but its emotion is limitless. I think reissues of any kind always encourage comparison, but here, Allhoff isn’t competing with Stevens. He’s paying homage to a hero while remaining in a league of his own.
Single: “Death with Dignity”
Written by: Sufjan Stevens
Performed by: Tim Allhoff, Leonkoro Quartet
Label: Neue Meister Music / EDEL Records
If you like: Sufjan Stevens, Joe Hisaishi, “Her (Original Soundtrack)”
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5