Monday, November 23, 2009

Sufjan Stevens' THE BQE with DM Stith and Osso

(Originally published on In Review Online. The BQE screened in the Twin Cities on October 29 at the beautiful Southern Theater.)

Sufjan Stevens has recently broken out of his Brooklyn shell, and taken his show on the road in true cult art hero form. Playing a handful of very small shows (the one locally sold out in under three minutes online) stocked with new material, Stevens seems to be preparing to unveil something new. But not just yet. His second order of business is to wheel out his 2007 multimedia project, The BQE, in the form of a new CD release and a 13-city music film event. Originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The BQE is a film meditation on the chaos and beauty of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The pre-packaged tour and release lacks some of the ceremony and the sight-specific context it has in Brooklyn, but is nonetheless a testament of what popular art can be.

Fortunately I had more than three minutes to buy tickets for the BQE stop in Minneapolis, but the show, with Stevens present to introduce the film, was sure to sell out. The three part show—including Asthmatic Kitty label mates DM Stith and Osso as well as a screening of The BQE—makes its stop at the Southern Theater, a 100 year old, 200 seat theater that hosts an eclectic mix of dance, performance and music. I get to the theater to pick up my tickets at will call having no idea what to expect from the evening. My first surprise is that I must have been ahead of the curve on ticket buying because my assigned seat is row three, front and center. DM Stith takes the stage first in his pink stocking feet backed by the string quartet Osso. Stith, who has a unique voice that pleasantly reminds me of Mercury Rev front man David Baker, alternates between his acoustic guitar and baby grand piano to deliver delicate yet somewhat eerie vocally driven songs.

After a brief intermission (to allow people to buy more beer and wine in the lobby no doubt) Osso strolls back on stage followed by Sufjan Stevens to introduce the band. Unbeknownst to me, Stevens and Osso have been working together to transcribe his mostly electronic songs from Enjoy Your Rabbit, which has now manifested itself into a release of its own, Run Rabbit Run. Stevens describes the personal nature of the songs and acknowledges how great it was to transform them with Osso, all the while wearing what looked like kid’s snow gloves. (I am totally distracted by the fact that he is compulsively taking them off and putting them back on only to take off one then the other, then put one back on, then both off… Anyway, his intro is rambling and my mind is wandering.) Osso is made up of two violins, one viola and one cello. Although I am not familiar with their music, I have had my moment of Sufjan love and bought everything the man made and am very familiar with Enjoy Your Rabbit. Hearing the songs filtered through the string quartet’s hands is lovely and almost dream-like since I haven’t listened to the CD in a few years. Cellist Marie Bella Jeffers takes it upon herself to introduce the songs. Unwilling to stop at just telling us the titles, she rambles—even more than Stevens—between every song and by the end it gets a bit old.

Yet another intermission (beer and wine) and time for the headlining act. Stevens comes back onstage (sans snow gloves) to give some background to The BQE. He explained how he was fascinated by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as a hodge-podge of poor urban planning and a demonstration of the irrepressible human condition to move from one place to another. When the BAM commission came his way, he knew immediately that it would be about the BQE. After the screening in Brooklyn, the project took on a life of its own resulting in a comic book and a nice reel for a Viewmaster. He admits a sort of obsession; barrowing cars just to drive it back and forth. His introduction is a kind of ah-shucks admission to his creative compulsion that feels a little too self-consciousness. Ironically I had just spent some time in New York staying with a friend in Queens. My friend had complained about absurd subway projects in Manhattan when what the city really needed was a line between Brooklyn and Queens, and as a result I had a more political context for The BQE in the back of my head. All of that fell away when the images hit the screen. A beautiful confluence of image and sound, The BQE is not unlike those exhilarating collaborations between Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass but from a more local and, dare I say it, more important perspective. Even though that local frame of reference is lost on an audience who primarily live in Minnesota, it’s an amazing celebration of place in all of its messiness and splendor. The three framesets, originally projected from three projectors, has been transferred into one, making the image size from the DVD essentially 12x3. I wondered how hard it could have been to drag a few 16mm or 8mm projectors into the space and sync the soundtrack, but was willing to accept the logistics would have been, not impossible, but more complicated.

The show, lasting over three hours, met my lofty expectations and I grab the CD release for a cool 15 bucks without even realizing that I was getting a CD, a DVD, a photo/intro booklet, and the "Super Teenage Hooper Heroes" Viewmaster reel with images from the comic book. Half of the booklet is an essay by Stevens ruminating on the BQE and the far-flung connection to the Hula Hoop. It’s an interesting read with enlightening expositions such as, “To drive on the BQE is to embrace the anarchy of an amusement theme park. Interminable roadwork, for one, heedlessly confines and divides traffic into a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome Existential Odyssey of the Mind. There are no rules, except to stay alive.” His obessiveness of the roadway becomes very clear in the eight-page, small type dissertation. The DVD is barebones with no menu and just the film in triptych form exactly how it was projected at the show. The soundtrack easily takes a back seat to the images, but the music on its own should not be underestimated. It is a magnificent symphony that has no problems challenging grandeur with a pop sensibility. The entire BQE package is impressive and a smack in the face to the digital download zeitgeist. Hidden from the limelight, it would seem that Sufjan Stevens’ populist wave has past, but, with his recently flurry of events, he may just be building up to his next tsunami.

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