Issue 22, Magazine

Sufjan Stevens on His Orchestral Project, The BQE

Drew Fortune :: Tuesday, October 20th, 2009 4:50 pm

For a man who has never shied away from grand ambition, Sufjan Stevens’s latest project, The BQE, a cinematic suite inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, appears to have gotten the better of him—a project with a scope and feeling too large to fully capture. A sprawling undertaking, incorporating an orchestra of over thirty people, companion comic book, 16mm cinematography and choreographed Hula –Hoopers, the two-year endeavor is finally being released as a dual CD/DVD package on Asthmatic Kitty. Upon release, Stevens, the man who famously announced plans to release an album for each of the fifty states, is finally ready to take a step away from the epic and learn to appreciate the modest. Call it Stevens’s Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo, the project may have been a vision impossible to realize, but the Detroit native is not beaten and, like his hometown, is slowly learning to rebuild from the ground up.

Speaking with Stevens from his home in Brooklyn, the boy who grew up playing too many instruments is enjoying some much-needed downtime. At an early age, Stevens had a voracious appetite for all things musical and, while self-taught, was composing sonatas on a toy Casio by age eight. By college, he had become proficient on the oboe, recorder, banjo, and guitar. The list goes on—even Stevens doesn’t know how many instruments he can play. Following the success of Come on Feel the Illinoise, a concept album devoted to the state of Illinois, Stevens ascended from underground folk oddity to a marquee name, a title that Stevens never dreamed or cared to achieve. Music is an adventure, something that can never be figured out or conquered, yet Stevens is the intrepid explorer, eager to reach the summit or die trying.

I’ve got a nerdy, journalistic question for you: While women are typical muses for artists, how did the American landscape become your muse?

Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know if it’s the abstract, stereotypical condition of America as a “blank canvas.” You choose your own adventure and create your own reality here. And I don’t know how much of that is actual reality or how much of that is just part of our propagated heritage. Immigrants come here to sort of create a new life for themselves, and I think it’s even true of people born here. Even if you’re born here you have the sense that you can leave you hometown, escape the cultivated reality of your family, and create your own reality somewhere else. Because there’s enough space, there’s enough landscape, there’s enough room to choose your own adventure. I’ve always liked that. My family’s been really scrappy—we always figured it out and made our way through trials and tribulations. My parents were always industrious with whatever they could do to make ends meet. I think that’s sort of what I’m doing. I really don’t have any credentials at all. I have no authority in terms of music or songwriting or writing. And yet still, somehow, it’s like I’ve been able to figure it out and make it work.

Let’s talk about The BQE. The whole thing is a triptych?

They were just three simultaneous projects, which were all linked together. They are choreographed and linked together. It’s mostly sixteen-millimeter film that we shot on a Bolex camera. It’s kind of an old sixties student camera. And some of it is Super-8. The images are mostly of the expressway in Brooklyn.

The footage looks really clean.

Yeah, the footage is pretty good. You know, it was just me and my friend, Reuben Kleiner, doing it. He’s a cinematographer. It was just the two of us. We didn’t have a production or anything, so we were really happy that most of it turned out good. You never know with film. You shoot video and you know right away if it’s working, and with film you have to wait until it gets developed.

Something could’ve gotten washed out and you’d never know.


So how big was the orchestra for the score?

Uh, I think it was, like, thirty or thirty-five people. And that includes five of us who were in the band. There is some guitar, bass, drum stuff. But, yeah, it was definitely over thirty people.

And you acted as composer?

Yeah, I wrote all the parts, which I’ve never really done before. I’ve done a bit when we toured—I’d write charts out if we had symphonic instruments on stage. But I’ve never done an entire orchestral piece. It was really kind of fun.

Pages: 1 2

3 Responses to “Sufjan Stevens on His Orchestral Project, The BQE”
  1. [...] Sufjan Stevens talks to Death and Taxes [...]

    Posted by: Bites: Mobycons, Gaiman’s Twitter, The Road, Bo Diddley’s beat, and more « Vol. 1 Brooklyn October 21st, 2009 at 10:37 am
  2. [...] his recent interview with Death+Taxes, Stevens confessed the project was “a heedless, irresponsible venture down a [...]

    Posted by: Death + Taxes Magazine October 28th, 2009 at 1:51 pm
  3. [...] talking about our boy Sufjan: Sufjan Stevens Can Make an Expressway [...]

    Posted by: Death + Taxes Magazine November 6th, 2009 at 2:06 pm