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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: The BQE


1) Prelude On The Esplanade; 2) Introductory Fanfare For The Hooper Heroes; 3) Move­ment I: In The Countenance Of Kings; 4) Movement II: Sleeping Invader; 5) Interlude I: Dream Sequence In Subi Circumnavigation; 6) Movement III: Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise; 7) Movement IV: Traffic Shock; 8) Movement V: Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns; 9) Interlude II: Subi Power Waltz; 10) Interlude III: Invisible Accidents; 11) Movement VI: Isorhythmic Night Dance With Interchanges; 12) Move­ment VII (Finale): The Emperor Of Centrifuge; 13) Postlude: Critical Mass.

General verdict: If somebody expects me to evaluate a neo-classical symphony on the pressing issue of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I'd say too much honor for me.

It is highly likely that the huge effort made for Illinois wore Sufjan out — on the whole, over the next twelve years he only came out with two «proper» LPs, and the first one of these was sepa­rated from Illinois by half a decade (not to mention that he had to openly abandon the «50-state project», realizing that the endeavor was a tad more than he could chew). Nevertheless, that entire interim is filled with all sorts of side projects, collaborations, and occasional goofs, some of which are, if not necessarily better than the high points of the man's career, then at least nearly as intriguing — like this one, for instance.

Apparently, the Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Sufjan to make a movie about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — along with a complete orchestral soundtrack. For somebody not living within a ten miles' radius of the BQE, this probably does not sound like a particularly hot proposal; and having watched about a couple of minutes from the completed documentary, I have to state that visually, it is hardly that more exciting than simply taking a seat on the ramp and watching cars go by for about fifty minutes — though, admittedly, there is plenty of artsy editing, some psychedelic montages, and plenty of subtle visual aggrandizing that guarantees life will never be the same again if you ever decide to take a ride on the Interstate 278.

However, Stevens is a music-maker first and a movie-maker l... never, and what matters here, if anything ever matters at all, is the orchestral suite he wrote for the occasion: a forty-minute piece rehearsed and performed live on November 1–3, 2007, then properly recorded, allegedly also in one live take, in the studio. On the whole, one should probably think of the piece as a grand symphony, written very much in the vein of traditional American classical music — think Ives or Copland — despite featuring some trademark Sufjan elements as well (heavy emphasis on chimes and woodwinds, for one thing), as well as poking its nose into more modern elements: ʽTraffic Shockʼ, for instance, is a near-completely electronic movement. Another very obvious influence, since it also refers to both the aural and visual aspects, is that of Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi suite: it is almost always mentioned in conjunction with BQE, but we should also remember that Glass is primarily a minimalist, while Sufjan, at least after his earliest works, has clearly moved on to a much more dynamic frame of reference.

Just how good this work is is simply not for me to state. As pleasant background accompaniment to your chores, it does its job dutifully: as a stand-alone piece of art, I guess it can hardly be judged without reference to its lofty predecessors, and something — though I could never formu­late it explicitly — something suggests to me that once the dust clouds settle, Ives, Copeland, Reich, and Glass are not exactly going to huddle together on that shelf to make free room for Sufjan Stevens. The orchestra does a good job in that this is probably the first of Sufjan's projects that does not give off that «music in a dollhouse» effect, but at least the dollhouse was his perso­nal know-how, and now that he has crossed into symphonic territory, we can, at best, confirm that the man has done his homework and paid his dues — but has he created something outstanding here? has he innovated, has he discovered some fabulous new musical themes that link the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway straight to Heaven? I have no idea.

I do believe that if you happen to love both Sufjan and the American classical music tradition, the Expressway might take you higher, after all — since the music combines the legacy of jazz-and-vaudeville-influenced classical motifs with Sufjan's own friendly-whimsical personality, at least in spots. But if you are not a big fan of either (like myself)? Tough luck. In any case, I reserve my right to make a better judgement for after I have pronounced one on ʽAppalachian Springʼ, which is probably not coming any time soon.

1 comment:

  1. Oh no again Sufjan Stevens. How many albums this guy has?