sufjan stevens - the BQE
  • FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2009

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Snaking it's way along the cusp of the outer boroughs, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway is a twisted, busted, and completely insane commuter contraption; the grand design of Robert Moses that, forty five years later, represents as cursed a piece a pavement - a nasty urban blemish of cement and steel, zooming over the heads of those unlucky enough to live below it - as we have in this town. Trenches and potholes dot its' landscape, constant construction clog its' traffic, lanes come to suicide ends with no warning, and blind turns hide stopped traffic lying in wait. Add the grandest of site seeing distractions - the Manhattan skyline, East River bridges - and twenty car crunches should seem the norm.

Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music over two years ago, The BQE (Asthmatic Kitty) is Sufjan Steven's 40 minute, compositional tribute to this piece of beastly, concrete folk lore, though even the most passionate of Suf fans might find this one a little tough to digest. It's an all orchestral composition after all, with Stevens relinquishing his role as sweet, modern folkie for that of both composer and conductor.

As an orchestral score (it comes with a companion video piece Stevens also shot), The BQE is certainly the most consequential work Suf has ever released to his adoring public. The piece begins with "Prelude on the Esplanade"; an abstract composition that makes picturing the swoosh of hell bent chunks of metal blurring their way down a catastrophic causeway easy to imagine. This is followed with a majestic blast of brass titled "Introductory Fanfare for the Hooper Heroes"...the Hooper Heroes being the cavalcade of hula-hoopers enlisted for the BAM shows to represent the perpetual flow of traffic streaking down the highway.

What follows is seven movements and three interludes of symphonic bliss designed to capture the spirit of Moses' monster, in all its' varied forms. "Movement III - Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise" is light and frilly, as playful pizzicato and gallivanting woodwinds mimic happy automobiles making it safe and sound to their final destinations. Others like "Interlude III - Invisible Accidents" start out harmless enough, head for the stratosphere, and end in a crash! Don't worry, I think everyone in this little fender bender is a-ok.

It's a satisfying, complete vision, sometimes reminding this reviewer of George Gershwin's great American masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue. Still, I'm not sure how Sufjan's fans will receive it. Sure, I think they'll dig the "idea" of The BQE. But they may spend too much time missing him - his banjo, his melodies, his storytelling, his sweet falsetto - to truly appreciate it as his work. That probably doesn't matter though. What matters is The BQE, and The BQE is a grand accomplishment indeed. Now if only they could do something about that damn roadway. - David Pitz
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