Gone, But Not Forgotten: Sufjan Stevens' BQE
  • TUESDAY, JANUARY 15, 2008

  • Posted by:


Baeble contributor Eric Silver has a lot to look forward to this year. But before he does, he has one more appreciative gaze back at 2007 in store. In this piece, Silver winds the dial back to November for a look at Sufjan Stevens' mysterious BQE Performances at BAM.
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As a new year of music and concerts begin to unfold, visions of tour dates dancing in our heads, 2007 at a glance was a juggernaut for performances. Between the Police and Led Zeppelin reuniting and touring, the Arcade Fire storming our continent, culminating in a legendary show (with an impromptu aftershow) on Randall's Island, Daft Punk's summer party in Coney Island, M.I.A. and Justice performing on consecutive nights at Terminal 5, to name just a few shows, it's easy to see where your savings and hearing went. And yet, something would seem terribly wrong if Sufjan Stevens' shows at BAM wasn't properly mentioned.

The November performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not a conventional venue for independent music, were curious from the start. Billed as only "BQE,” with the description that it was music inspired by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, it was hard to see where Stevens might be going with this idea. We’re not talking about New York’s answer to the Golden Gate Bridge here; the BQE is known to locals as a pit of congestion, unforgiving in its right lanes that suddenly become exits onto a bridge, constantly being torn up and worked on like an Orange County housewife, and general lacking of any sort of aesthetic beauty. To say the BQE is inspiring is the kind of optimism that is rarely found with the five boroughs of New York.

Going into the show, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The theater had instructions to close the doors once the performance began, an order reminiscent of Hitchcock’s instructions upon the release of Psycho, though hopefully not as ominous. It seemed as though the entire show would be a performance of completely new material, all inspired by an ugly highway, but what kind of music would it be? A friend even suggested that this could be the early stages of a “New York” album along the lines of the previous “Michigan” and “Illinois” albums.

Once inside, the atmosphere was that of what one might be accustomed to seeing at BAM: a modern dance troupe would have right in. Spectators ranged from the typical Sufjan Stevens crowd to families with small children, and older couples. Seeing such a spectrum, I wondered how many had season tickets to BAM, or if perhaps there was an NPR special that I hadn’t heard about. Either way, my parents seemed way behind the curve in hip-ness.

So “BQE,” it turns out, is a suite that Stevens composed, about 45 minutes long, with a full orchestra, three screens playing footage that he shot while working on the piece, and live hula-hoopers (that’s people with hula hoops). The suite began mildly, settling into a groove as the camera began to move along the streets in an overview of the area surrounding the highway. The music often echoed the likes of Gershwin and Gil Evans, with some parts that seemed incredibly reminiscent of Sketches of Spain, but soon enough Stevens added the flavor that seems to permeate all his work, and he didn’t even have to use a banjo to do it.

The video that accompanied the music had a similar nature. It began on a trek through neighborhoods, as though the BQE was waiting like a primadonna in its dressing room for the grand entrance. What basically amounted to little more than a camera hanging out of a car driving slowly down major streets in Brooklyn had a more profound effect, perhaps because of the origins of the audience. Driving through the streets of familiar neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, Stevens was able to zero in on universal landmarks for anyone who has been on these streets. Like a Scorcese film, there were moments where you wanted to nudge your neighbor and point out a store or church that you recognized. At one point I even saw the sign shop just across the street from my house, and it sounds silly, but that kind of thing means something. He wasn’t shooting the Travel Channel’s episode of Brooklyn and Queens, but something that belonged to the locals. It was as if he searched to uncover the true character of these neighborhoods, and he did an incredible job. Of course, just as Stevens had to put some of himself into his work, there was also the element of re-treading old steps. The Expressway, once it made its appearance, was reduced to abstract high speed traffic patterns, the kind that even The Real World uses in transitional shots. Cars flowed along in crisscrossed and inverted patterns, the same scenes being reflected into kaleidoscopic fun. At times the perspective was that of one car, speeding forward, braking, and changing lanes, as though we were one blood cell in a giant vein, traveling into the heart of the outer boroughs. It was fun to watch, but not particularly new, and what struck me most was that it was the fastest I’ve ever seen traffic move on the BQE in my life.

As for the hula-hoopers, they came running out at times with neon hoops, standing in formation, and, well, hula-hooping. At times, they competed with the video, at other times they were featured alone. It was a humorous element, especially within the hallowed walls of a theater that features top-notch performers, and I think we all learned that even at the highest level, it is most likely impossible to perfectly synchronize a hula hoop performance. But they did their best, God bless them. While the matching of traffic patterns with hula hoops might seem a bit random, it fit in perfectly with Stevens’ aesthetic interests, which seem to tend towards a romanticism of all things Americana. The playbill included an essay by the composer explaining and linking the significance of hula hoops to cars and highways, but honestly, I think he just wanted to see some hula hoops flying around the stage.

The second act, following an intermission that drove home just how strange it was to have kids putting down shots at the mezzanine bar and older couples sipping wine waiting for the same performance to resume, was a collection of Stevens’ hits, which could have been an entire concert in itself. He performed tracks from Seven Swans, Greetings from Michigan, and Illinois, interspersing songs with anecdotes, introductions, and even a short story that he had written a few nights earlier that had all the charm of his songs. All told, the performance was amazing, and a bargain at BAM ticket prices (scalpers were charging over ten times as much). “BQE” wasn’t necessarily the innovation that one might have expected, but it was very entertaining, and very Sufjan Stevens. I’m not sure how he does it, but there’s something about the way that Sufjan sees the world that is very addictive, and can even turn a monstrosity into a prom queen, if only for one night. That’s not to say I wasn’t relieved I didn’t have to take the expressway to get home afterwards.

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