Music For the Road

From the Playboy Blog, 11/6/07

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The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is a hellish nightmare for many New York commuters. Built in the 1930s, the BQE is a marvel of ugly engineering that affords drivers a view of some of the most run-down portions of the city as they sit in traffic. Many people would love to see the expressway demolished. Indie rocker Sufjan Stevens thought it needed … a symphony?

Stevens has an affinity for mundane subjects (i.e. the states of Michigan and Illinois—he’s written an entire album about each). But I doubted his ability to make me appreciate such a symbol of urban blight. Still, I was curious enough to check out the show at BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) this weekend.Stevens’s “BQE” featured video of the expressway and surrounding neighborhoods, which he shot with a 16mm camera. The video played on three adjacent screens that hung above the orchestra. At the outset, images of dilapidated buildings and graffiti flashed before our eyes. Later we saw night traffic in fast-forward. Stevens used the three screens to create kaleidoscopic images of headlights and brake lights converging and then separating as they flew down the highway.

The vintage-looking video was beautiful on its own, but Stevens’s perfectly synchronized 30-minute symphony brought it to life. Stevens had never worked with an orchestra before, yet he managed to compose a beautifully intricate score for a 38-piece ensemble. Some portions had a classical feel, while others featured rock grooves driven by drum set and electric guitar. Playful strings and a muted trumpet punctuated the flashing still photos, while strained, high-pitch violin captured the mood of a hot summer traffic scene.I’m not an expert on symphonic music, so I can’t analyze the piece with proper Italian terminology. But I can say that I was mesmerized. Three months ago I moved to Brooklyn, only a few blocks from the BQE. I like my neighborhood, but I never would have called it beautiful. Then the shiny chrome rims in the storefront right outside my apartment flashed on the screen with a majestic flourish. I was a little choked up, I’m not gonna lie.Sufjan Stevens captures life not at its cleanest, but certainly at its most real. And somehow he convinces us that the common and the dirty are still subjects worthy of great art. For those who saw “BQE” this weekend, the animosity for the monstrous highway abated, at least until the Monday morning commute.

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