It was difficult to walk into the world-premiere of Sufjan Stevens’ “symphonic and cinematic exploration” of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway without feeling the foreboding sense that something musically important was going to happen. Lofty expectations would be the death of nearly any other modern indie performer, but Stevens – who’s previously announced such infamous knee-buckling goals like the 50 states project (which may or may not be “off,” but my bet is he’s already got all those songs stashed away somewhere) – welcomes them with open arms, and more often than not, goes on to trounce them, despite the pressures of his indie-celebrity status. He’s a guy many would love to hate (and try to), but he knowingly makes it impossible by his imminent likability: nerdiness coupled with model good looks, talent with a lack of public ego, and flair for the theatric that tip-toes the border between cutesy overload and endearing individuality.
The extension of Sufjan Stevens’ music into a classical, full-orchestra form is far from a stretch – his music already possesses such a cinematic, sweeping air that it seems all too natural. It’s been described several times over as merely an extended Sufjan Stevens song, which is accurate to a point, but too easy of a classification. Lots of reviews will name drop Phillip Glass because it’s a marriage of music and film, but this comparison is deceiving as a musical touchstone. The BQE is far more jazzy than anything Stevens has put together, nearly reflecting early classical jazz textures similar to those used by Milhaud at its quieter, brass-laden moments, of which there were many. It was also an homage to early pop and standards formats, revealing Stevens’ musical ancestors, some surprising, some not. In contrast to the warmth of the brass and the woodwinds, the strings were often wailing. Its structure was largely simple – quiet – louder – louder – quieter – quiet – louder – louder – and so forth, perhaps in an attempt to reflect rhythm of the road, though the music seemed rarely designed to set pace with the images or vice-versa. There was only one point when the music seemed to swell close to breaking point, which was surprising somehow, but ended up being a very positive thing when combined with everything else he was throwing out there.
The accompanying film was presented in three panes running simultaneously, either showing the same object from different points of view, mirroring shots, or similar items that are different (i.e. different store fronts). He seemed to pussyfoot around the highway itself for a good 5-10 minutes but eventually latched on to cars and never looked back. In addition, Stevens seemed to find it difficult to abandon the use of pretty girls on the stage in some fashion, so at two or three different points, hula-hooping women (and two men) took the stage to perform tricks, either in synchronized or domino motions.
It got to be very overwhelming, as it was nearly impossible to watch both the film and the people on-stage, as well as properly pay attention to the music. They tried their best to coordinate – for example, while the film focused on the lights of cars at night, the hula-hoop team brought out glow-in-the-dark hula-hoops (which were also sold as kitschy souvenirs) and performed in black light. Still, darling as that was, it was most easy to appreciate it when just the film and the music vied for attention.
Sufjan Stevens: “Seven Swans” (download)
Though it was marketed as the heart of the performances, the BQE lasted around half an hour, after which there was an intermission and a longer segment billed as “Sufjan plays the hits.” Stevens kept the orchestra to give his “hits” a fuller treatment. I worried that this might result in further overload, but Stevens proved intuitive to his works’ best presentation and managed to avoid over-orchestrating anything. He kept somber favorites like “Seven Swans” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” sparse (this night was apparently the only night he played “Gacy” in full, disturbing lyrics and all), while he let majestic pieces like “Detroit, Lift up Your Weary Head!…)” and “Chicago” benefit from a more complete sound. He continued his typical and BAM perfect quirkiness with wings for the band to wear and a long but naturally endearing story about how he melted his oboe so he could leave oboe camp, but saw a weird looking creature that scared him as he was running away, so he ran back and made good on practicing his scales. Afterwards, he said, “I’m going to work on that story, I promise,” and it seems he made good on that, too, as some said he had notes for his stories the other nights.
Sufjan Stevens: “Detroit, Lift up Your Weary Head!…” (download)
Before launching into “Chicago,” Stevens quipped in that bashful way of his, “It’s been a fun night and we hope you’ve gotten your money’s worth.” Of course, he knew we had, but he allowed us to feel like the final word was ours after a long night of well-planned gestures to tug on our heartstrings — and who doesn’t love a humble genius?
Image courtesy Flickr user tammylo