Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sufjan Stevens, BQE

This week while driving on the Long Island Expressway we heard on WNYC Spinning on Air an interview of a musician and selections of his work.

The comment made in our truck while on our way to Home Depot was something like, "Yeah, I think this is the guy I started to play his music and it freaked me out. I had to shut it off. He did an album of electronic music about animals that sounded like someone who had never done electronic music."

But there was something else going on here in this orchestral music that we were hearing on the radio. As soon as I had an opportunity I followed up to get hold of the entire symphony, laid back with the headphones and let it rip. As some of my friends & family already know I have one hell of a lot of hours driving on the Robert Moses built expressways around, within and out of NYC. Plus a bunch of years living and working in the Willy-B/Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

It is not solely a dedication to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, or the original commission by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or the intimacy of my decades of familiarity with the expressway, either on it, near it, under it -- there is something gloriously grand in Sufjan Steven's symphonic composition BQE that makes me feel that it could only have been bred, born and nurtured in the soul of Brooklyn.

Though that sentiment may be in great part an illusion seeing as Sufjan is originally from Michigan. Though his banjo wings and his Methodist upbringing could be magically misleading.

I am not a reliable music critic, don't intend to be , I know my taste is eclectic (give me Dongjing any day), but anyone that titles a composition "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois", would not remain off my radar for long. Though I will say that if you breeze around looking up YouTubes and such you will find a very mixed bag.

The largest complaint that can be found on the internet about Sufjan centers on his being stylistically all over the place, either a pop-folk indie, or symphonic composer, and if you listen to his work (other than his symphony) you may immediately notice that it varies in quality, at times remarkable then just as suddenly it falls off a cliff somewhere. I was asked why an artist would behave in this manner and it caused me to reflect on how, as a writer, I can hit a note here, and miss there, fall off a cliff or bash my face into a brick wall, and that my own work is, as with Sufjan... it is all over the place. I never really have a feeling for when it is good, or bad, I'm involved and engaged in the minutia of the fungus on the tree trunk, let alone looking at the forest from outer space. Difficult to hold down, difficult to pin down, an existential leap through an obstacle course brought on by a being alive and awake. Perfectly willing to change the rules of the game to take the game onto another playing field, or to evaporate the playing field entirely in favor to sit on a sofa and eat chips. If one follows their creative inspiration, as obviously Sufjan is doing, and they have the least bit of a complicated human nature then they are not going to fit very well into the boxes provided by audience expectations in a world of mass-commodity media, either in music or in literature (and it appears Sufjan is also a writer). What one needs to anticipate from Sufjan is something entirely else next time.

THE BQE- A Film By Sufjan Stevens from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Interlude I—Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Traffic Shock, BQE - Movement IV
Album, DVD etc. available at Rough Trade.

A full CD soundtrack, the DVD of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway footage, a 40 page booklet with liner notes and photos as well as a stereoscopic 3-D Viewmaster reel. Asthmatic Kitty, Stevens' label, to release a limited edition double gatefold vinyl edition of The BQE on 180-gram vinyl with a 32 page booklet, and a black and white version of a BQE themed Hooper Heroes Comic Book.