Discovering a New Way to Listen to Sufjan’s “Illinois”

There are several ways to listen to music, and new theories are emerging often, even for classic rock albums. As part of his ongoing musical scholarship, Jonathan Gerber, assistant professor of psychology, and his wife Alison, also a musician and poet, have explored one such new theory. As a result, the Gerber’s—who toured with their band in their native country of Australia—have been accepted to present at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Music, April 11-13, 2013, in Grand Rapids, MI. Here’s Gerber’s abstract of their talk entitled, “How to Listen to Illinoise“:

Jonathan and Alison Gerber

“This talk will outline a new theory of Sufjan’s Illinois, the last great post-rock album, and perhaps the last great Christian statement of art. While often appreciated as an auteur piece or as an influence on the banjo-folk revival, Illinois is best listened to as a minimalist piece in the tradition of Wim Merten’s book, American Minimal Music. In Illinois, Sufjan neatly weaved together threads from many areas of twentieth century music, using the post-rock techniques of one of his heroes: Stereolab. This paper and presentation thus charts a history from early 20th century classical through Phillip Glass, Brian Wilson, Talking Heads, and the post-rock of Stereolab.

“However, Illinois is far from being a bower-bird collection of styles that these other artists became because the concrete topic of a state allowed this twentieth century noise to become something new, for a coherent narrative statement to arise out of the bubbling influences. Illinois solved the problem of minimalism by breaking its boundaries. To listen to this solution, we need a new way of listening, a way that is truly minimal. We will explore how to listen like a minimalist and then how that impacts our appreciation of Illinois. In doing so, we will see a hidden structure at the heart of the album, one that all existing critics, and perhaps Sufjan himself, have missed.”

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