Best known for his banjo and guitar-based songs inspired by Americana and Appalachian music, his multi-instrumental concept albums or his fondness for Christmas songs, the incredibly talented and original indie folk singer songwriter Sufjan Stevens released in 2009 a highly ambitious score of modern classical music.
Originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2007 and performed live over three consecutive evenings in November that year, The BQE is a work of epic proportions. Alternating twinkling piano with a roaring fanfare, a jazzy muted trumpet with fluttering woodwinds, pizzicato strings with electronic interludes, The BQE is an impressive symphonic piece in seven movements “courageously” performed by 36 musicians.
The BQE is literally an ode to the “Brooklyn-Queens Expressway”, the 12.7 mile long interstate highway connecting the two New-York boroughs. Designed and built between 1939 and 1964 by New-York architect Robert Moses, the BQE is today
a battered and beaten urban roadway, baffling to drive, plagued by relentless construction and inexplicable traffic jams, dilapidated in form and function, and ransacked by the imperious and chronic powers of the cosmopolitan surrounding it.
Sufjan Stevens – liner notes
The “antiquated” roadway nevertheless triggers a majestic orchestral composition by Sufjan Stevens as well as a lengthy thought-provoking and meandering essay in which the musician outlines the rationale for his inspiration.
More than a stand-alone composition, The BQE is a multi-media project and works as the soundtrack to a film made by Sufjan Stevens himself and Reuben Kleiner. Shot on 8mm and 16mm film and edited into a 40mn split-screen triptych, the “cinematic suite” mixes super 8 footage of the congested highway with dreamy and sometime psychedelic sequences. Several interludes in the film and score introduce the “hooper heroes” or three hula-hooping superhero sisters.
The circular shape of the vintage plastic toy echoes that of the car wheel and sparks at the same time some fascinating “hoop theory” on the part of Sufjan Stevens:
Like the driver of an automobile, the hooper is contained within a physical habitat, a moving object. But while the automobile traverses a finite linear path (deliberately going somewhere), the hoop is hypnotized in a perpetual and circular motion, going absolutely nowhere, a planet revolving around its sun.
Sufjan Stevens – liner notes
The “Hooper Heroes” also feature in the 3D View-Master reel and in the comic-strip book accompanying the vinyl edition. Influenced by the music of many 20th century modern composers like Benjamin Britten, George Gershwin, Philip Glass, Steve Reich or even by the orchestral arrangements of Gil Evans for Miles Davis, The BQE is a beautifully executed visual and aural exploration of suburban New-York playing as an imaginary soundtrack to busy urban life.
Well, the expressway is a symbol of movement, and motion, and I wanted the music to have a sense of perpetual motion. So a lot of it is in 7/8, because when you cut a beat out of a measure, it can create a weird hiccup, which suggests that there’s no beginning and no end. And, although I initially wanted it to sound very sleek and cool, like Steve Reich, a lot of it is very cartoonish. In a lot of Italian neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, people customise their car horns to play the theme from The Godfather, or the Dukes Of Hazzard. There’s a trumpet solo that simulates that!
Q&A Sufjan Stevens – Uncut
See the Ashmatic Kitty Records page for the exhaustive background to The BQE.