Instrumental Expressways: Sufjan Stevens and “The BQE”

Technically, I’ve never seen the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But while hearing Sufjan Stevens’ new album, an orchestral suite inspired by and named after the ‘BQE’, pictures of the highway instilled in my mind. They look like this:

The view from an overpass at night. Cityscape is visible, traffic lull is audible.
Freeway at rush hour: angry honks punctuate the amusing song of a million routines colliding.
Sleepwalking down a boulevard, everything moves in hazy harmony.

These are but a few of the many images invoked by “The BQE,” the latest release of Sufjan Stevens and Asthamtic Kitty Records. Stevens wrote the suite for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and used it as the soundtrack for a silent film he created centered around the BQE, a leviathan of urban planning, “one of Brooklyn’s most notable icons of urban blight.” Plunging through suburbia and industrial zones alike, the BQE inspired Stevens to write the 13 pieces that constitute “The BQE.” Completely instrumental, the pieces are reminiscent at points of composers such as Gershwin (see especially “Movement V—Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns”), Ives, and Elfman’s earlier years.

A “cinematic suite inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Hula-Hoop,” the album marks yet another new style for Stevens, a composer who refuses to be pinned down into a single genre. And yet, for those familiar with Sufjan’s prior works, “The BQE” will contain reminiscence, even if through a fresh sound. The instrumental interludes scattered throughout “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” (2005) can be seen as forerunners of “The BQE.” The feeling conveyed by both, as with Steven’s vast body of other works–such as the electronic “A Sun Came” (2000) or folk “Michigan” (2003)–is identical, and yet the medium differs drastically between them. Just as, for example, The Odyssey of Homer and William Yeat’s poem “The Stolen Child” convey similar images of nostalgia and endless adventure’s siren song, Stevens seamlessly adapts a myriad of methods for manifesting his insightful perspective on community, movement, and the supernatural. “The BQE” is Sufjan’s orchestral manifestation of this perspective. Each piece depicts Stevens’ meditation on the foibles of humankind, sometimes through impish joy, but always with an undertone of quiet observance of folly inherent in humanity’s determined strides through freeways and decades.

Were I to describe “The BQE” in a word, it would be “trill,” which is fitting considering the subject matter is an expressway. Certain tracks, such as “Movement VI—Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges,” especially communicate the  rhythmic chaos of city traffic. Variations on this imagery—which correspond, in “The BQE,” to certain musical themes—are endless, just like various combinations of trills. Fast? Slow? Minor? Major? Sufjan Stevens grasps the city’s voice, which like any voice, communicates unity through a variety of tones.

From something concrete and mediocre—the BQE—Stevens creates “The BQE,” an inspiring reconsideration of a thing deemed irredeemable. Stevens explores the beauty he finds beyond and beneath mere appearance in even the most unsightly environments. In doing so, Stevens, a practicing Anglo-Catholic, proclaims the same Gospel that Christ proclaimed when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

“The BQE” was released by Asthmatic Kitty Records on October 20, 2009. A free download of the track “Movement VI—Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges” is available from their website.

Published by

Robin Dembroff

Robin Dembroff is a student at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, pursuing degrees in Philosophy and English Literature. Her writing has been recognized by the Visalia Times Delta, Ayn Rand Institute, Michael L. Roston Creative Writing Contest, Torn Curtain – The Zine, Biola English Guild’s St. John the Apostle Paper Conference, and the Biola History/Gov’t/Social Science Department’s J.O. Henry Award.