By Vish KhannaOne of the most celebrated and respected artists in all of contemporary pop music, Sufjan Stevens is a Michigan native who calls Brooklyn, NY home. Stevens is a renowned multi-instrumentalist, composer, and songwriter who challenges himself with daring musical projects, such as crafting an album inspired by each of the 50 United States of America, two of which, Michigan and Illinois, are among the most astonishing releases of this young millennium. A founder of the equally ambitious Asthmatic Kitty record label, his latest effort was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is a remarkable multimedia feat called The BQE, which consists of a visually stunning film, a stirring orchestral soundtrack, a stereoscopic View-Master reel, and, in limited edition, a 40-page comic book about characters known as the Hooper Heroes. Hours before his most recent Toronto show at Lee's Palace, Stevens shared his thoughts on the BQE and the state of the world.
The BQE overwhelms me in many ways because it really is a stimulating and provocative kind of sensory overload. I see in it all of the pageantry and curious fascination with human ingenuity that you've infused your work with in the past but the visual motion of it all is something new. Can you discuss the creative process that inspired the BQE to come to fruition? Well, the object itself inspired the piece. There's a 12-mile urban expressway that runs from the bottom of Queens all the way through Brooklyn, framed by the Triborough Bridge and the Verrazano Bridge in the south. It's this sort of piecemeal road that cuts in and out of the neighbourhoods in Brooklyn.
Okay, so you see this bridge there and decide you're gonna do something. How did you come up with the approach that you ended up taking with The BQE? My first approach was pretty literal, which was to capture images of the expressway from all different angles, and I wanted to do that with moving pictures instead of photographs. So I decided to hire a cinematographer [Reuben Kleiner] from Pratt, an art university in Brooklyn. He helped me with all the 16 mm footage, which was shot on Bolex. And then I used Super 8 as well, which I've been using for years. And we just went around for a couple months and set up all these different shots, different angles, and tried different techniques. Some of it's stop-animation, some is time-lapse, slow-mo, night and day shots. So that was more technical, just gathering information.
Right. And then, looking at the footage, I would start to write movie soundtrack themes, ideas, and motifs that would accompany the images. Because the BQE is such an ugly, concrete form that doesn't inspire much, I decided to utilize other concepts. One of them was some of the principles of Subud, which is a religious group that my parents were in when I was a kid, from which my name, Sufjan, derives. So I used that, which was pretty arbitrary but it felt like a weird kind of conceptual starting point because it's so abstract. The group is about spiritual enlightenment and it's not even a religion; there's not really a deity. It's about transcendent spiritual experiences, which they call latihan. It comes from meditation that you do in groups. The cosmology and the symbolism of that religious organization started to work its way into the form, musically, of The BQE. So, I just started using those ideas. One of them is that there's seven rings and seven lines in the Subud symbol, so I started to focus on this idea of seven ― as a time signature, as a number of movements, and as a theme and religious number. There were also the lines versus the circle; conceptually it was about circular motion versus linear motion and the expressway represented lines and the transcendent mediation of Subud represented circles. There are different rings that relate to different levels of enlightenment. And then the hula hoop fit its way into that, conveniently, just because of geometry (laughs). So, it was all just gathering for months, all these different, pre-existing conceptual foundations, and then working them together, even if it didn't make any sense at first.
And the form of the film itself is these three angles of the same image, kinda juxtaposed together. What were you trying to convey there? We wanted to really capture the panorama of the landscape and cityscape of Brooklyn. The BQE itself is a very wide angle object. It's impossible to capture in a 6 x 9 or 4 x 3 format, which is what were using to film. So we decided to fabricate a wide-screen image by using three images. So, it's super-wide and it's all about intersections. It's all intersecting lines, and it's all linear. It created really interesting geometric shapes by juxtaposing different scenes and angles. It made for interesting visuals.
Yeah, it's a collage of images and colours in a way. For anyone, the BQE would be a lofty endeavour but, in some ways, you gravitate to this scale of artistic expression. What motivates you to take on such grand projects? Well y'know, I don't think I set out to make epic projects. I think the projects themselves become unmanageable in the process and I end up producing so much for a single project that they end up taking over and becoming much bigger and grander than I'd anticipated.