Upon its issue on 1 May 1981 Michael Stearns' Planetary Unfolding (45'07") emerged as the clear standard for other such explorations. This release made history, and has retained its authority long after the flash of music technology that produced it. One reason why it has remained relevant for so many decades is because so many have tried to copy it. The deep Stearns sound and atmosphere established throughout Planetary Unfolding has been revived, recycled, reprocessed, re-interpreted and re-imagined continually in contemporaneous works ever since we first came in contact with it so many years ago. If studying the greats makes one greater, then we owe so much to this remarkable album. Its positive influence has catalyzed the generations that have followed it, which led to so much new and substantial music coming into our midst. Reflecting an interest in rendering sonically the unseen lines of The Universe, its two lengthy tracks, each in three movements, meditate on the mystery of the cosmos. Giving form to an expansive realm, Stearns offers us the use of his imagination to contemplate our place in the continuum of creation. Putting listeners on intimate terms with the present moment, its dreaminess and structural purity lends the music a kind of twilit mysticism. From stark, formless sensations to colorful whirlwinds of thunderous diversion, Planetary Unfolding is charged with inexplicable emotion, and once heard is apt to take up permanent residence within the listener. Over twinkling synth scales and heady string arrangements, we settle into a sense of hushed wonder. Soon, engulfed in ethereal voices, more vigorous feats extend to vertiginous heights, then branch off down unfamiliar paths. Where a quiet ambient march seems more instinctive than mechanical, rising symphonic electronic forms enthrall on their own. Further in, chord structures, amorphous and cool, present profound contrasts in harmony - in motifs which now anchor standard accounts of New Age music. Some music distracts, while other kinds numb, but the best moves the imagination. Here Stearns' dramatic pressure provides an ingenious continuity - rising Planetary Unfolding to a realm above more rote EM realizations. Every moment of this album offers something marvelous and new. So what place does it have in our world? Something this wondrous might seem to be emanating from the future. Yet, 40 years after its release the values that Planetary Unfolding present still seem from a time yet to come. A time, hopefully for us, not out of our reach.
- Chuck van Zyl/STAR'S END 31 March 2022