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Playing in Traffic

Indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens tries his hand at an orchestral suite—about the BQE.

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Stevens beside his beloved, grimy highway.  

Sufjan Stevens may be the first 32-year-old indie darling to have his classical debut at the Next Wave Festival, but he’s in no danger of becoming Leopold Stokowski anytime soon. He stands in a rehearsal room at BAM with the gelatinous bearing of someone who’s taking a big risk and just might fall on his face in public. He hugs his thin arms to his chest and tucks his hands into his armpits, drops them nervously to the sheaf of notational papers on his music stand, then scratches his chin. He’s bedecked in cool-Brooklyn finery: a black T-shirt with a faded map of the United States on it, black cargo pants, sneakers, and not one but two hats—a baseball cap topped by a wintery thing with Sherpa earflaps curling into space.

“Let’s do B  onward,” he says, referring by letter to a section of his 30-minute, seven-movement orchestral suite, The BQE. His musicians—three or four each of brass, woodwinds, and strings—don’t pay much attention. They’re a young, not-at-all-staid bunch, bantering avidly among themselves about their parts. Scattered among them are empty chairs for the players who couldn’t make it to rehearsal. Stevens’s conductor isn’t here today, either. “I’m terrified to conduct,” he mumbles. “I can do some tapping.” He refers to his pages again, then briskly announces, “Let’s start at C … C, yeah.” He holds a pen in the air and prepares to count them down. “Let’s do this on five!” An involuntary gasp escapes him. “Oh boy,” he whispers.

The musicians raise their instruments, and on five, they strike up. Trumpet, trombone, and French horn stomp an angry rhythm. Flute, clarinet, and oboe begin trilling wildly over them. The string section saws and screeches. The sound is frenetic and chaotic, but for a minute or so it holds together, a clashing cacophony of busy traffic and super-speeded city life. It’s almost like cartoon music, with heavy, doofus-y bass parts and shrill, high titters. Then, without warning, the brass section gets ahead of itself and the rhythm starts to come apart. The woodwind trilling turns into a hissy argument. Instruments cut each other off, change lanes without warning, and crash into one another. It’s a multicar pileup!

Stevens waves his pen in the air and can’t help smiling. “I’m sorry,” he says as the sound dies down. “That was awful.”

It’s not easy being 2007’s wacko cultural wonder boy. For three nights beginning November 1, Stevens—cult-embraced purveyor of freaky chamber folk-pop—will present an actual symphonic evocation of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The challenges here are many-layered. Though Stevens has arranged orchestral bits for his records and taken string sections on tour, he’s never attempted anything of this complexity: writing and rehearsing a purely instrumental piece for 38 musicians that also happens to have a visual component (16-mm. film shot by the highway). And the musical parts themselves are complex—it’s not like the players are blowing an eighth note here and there. “The parts are challenging,” says French-horn player Theodore Primis. “You look at the page, it’s just black notes. Tons of black notes.”

“It’s definitely very busy,” Stevens agrees. “The piece is about constant motion and repetition. A lot of it is written in canon form, so there are repetitive sequences of chords and melodies that start to overlap and form a round. There are fugue elements as well. It introduces themes and then deconstructs them later on.”

The fact that he’s new at this clearly has Stevens daunted. “It’s definitely beyond me. I’ve started to develop an interest in music that is far removed from my abilities. And that’s very frightening, because a lot of the life of the music is out of my hands, and I’m incapable of performing or playing most of it. So I have to hire these professional players to read it for me.”

What’s more, this is a piece about one of the ugliest roadways known to New Yorkers, a road every outer-borough navigator hates with an instinctive passion. Think about the BQE, and you think of decaying tenements, boarded-up warehouses, grime-encrusted retaining walls, and pothole-pocked pavement. You think of smog, congestion, and poor urban planning. You think, Get me out of here! What you probably don’t think is, Wow, this would make a great symphony!

Yet Stevens, who lives in Brooklyn, says the decay was part of the allure. “The movements each have a way of evoking images, sounds, and sensory information based on experiences on and around the BQE. But it’s taking those sensory experiences—which in reality are very mundane and urban and sort of uncomfortable—and romanticizing them, exaggerating them in some ways, so that they become more sublime and beautiful. It’s a beautification of an ugly urban monument.”

Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yan) Stevens is, on some level, the perfect person for this weird task. His albums have shown him to be a master of intricate artifice; he builds little sonic shadow boxes, filling them with odd, unconnected details, frequently playing most of the instruments himself—hermetically sealing his hushed, vaguely tormented voice at the center. He’s also demonstrated a flair for high concept. His 2001 album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, released on his own Asthmatic Kitty label, offers paeans to the different signs of the Chinese zodiac. And in 2003, he began what he claimed would be a 50-album suite about the states of the union. Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State eulogized failing towns with banjo, piano, and irregular time signatures. Come On Feel the Illinoise was grander and artier, with ridiculously cumbersome song titles like “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and It Involves an Inner Tube, Bath Mats, and 21 Able-Bodied Men” balanced out by a couple of genuinely rockish tunes that ended up on TV soundtracks.

Illinoise was a big deal in the small indie pond. It made critics’ top-ten lists and won Stevens a New Pantheon Award, which goes to albums selling under 500,000 copies. Mainstream success came calling. Stevens ignored the overture. “I’m getting tired of my voice,” he complained to the music Website Pitchforkmedia.com, which worshipped him. “I think the direction I’m going to go next is to work with a small string-and-horn ensemble and do more composition and arrangement.”


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