Sufjan Stevens. Photo by Danny Renshaw.
I met Sufjan Stevens in his publicist’s office adjacent to the Highline, a wonderfully successful example of urban planning. His latest work, The BQE, tackles a less popular industrial monument. The project continues Stevens’ characteristic ambition, consisting of a film, score, comic book, photo essay, stereoscopic Viewmaster reel and a short liner note essay. Over grapes and cashews we talked of his own experiences on the expressway and the lost halcyon days of unfettered capitalism.
Jack Palmer Why the BQE?
Sufjan Stevens I was commissioned by BAM to do a piece for the Next Wave festival, and they said it had to be about Brooklyn. I knew immediately I wanted to do a piece about the BQE because it felt like it was an underdog as a monument.
JP Do you drive?
SS At the time when I was commissioned I didn’t own a car. I think I was permanently borrowing a friend’s, this little Mazda hatchback. It was so small, and the first time I used it I got a flat on the BQE and had to be pushed off and go to one of those flats-fixed, hole-in-the-wall shops. This was a long time ago, and I’ve spent time on it just taking cabs; and also I think, anyone just as a pedestrian or as a cyclist still has to reckon with it, because it maneuvers in and out of neighborhoods.
JP Do you remember the first time you took the BQE?
SS The first time I took it was the time I got the flat. The very first time I ever drove on it. A historical moment. It was that little stretch between the Flushing exit and the Tillary, which is elevated, surrounded by warehouses.
JP The project has so many different elements-a soundtrack, the film, comic, booklet, viewmaster reel—how did the idea originate and progress? Was it your intention from the beginning to have so many parts?
SS No. I was commissioned as a musician, so the first concept was musical. But I didn’t want to write songs; I knew I wanted it to be a piece. And then I immediately knew I wanted to capture it visually, because I’ve always wanted to do a short film. So the film became the primary focus, and the music was an accompaniment. Then when I incorporated the hula-hoopers that added a more personal element of these symbolic characters, and I worked with the designer on their outfits and they ended up looking like superhero outfits, so that then inspired the comic book.
In the process of shooting the film on 16mm we also wanted to record still photos and I got my friend Danny to photograph, so it became a series of photo essays. And then I felt some weird conviction to summarize the politics through written expositions, and then it became liner-notes, essay and some of that was originally used as program notes. And the Viewmaster reel was my friend Elaine’s idea—she was the main hula-hooper and she told me all the time I should put a Viewmaster reel in a CD, because of the geometry and the shape. We had gone through all these other elements, I figured we might as well go there. It was really heedless, unrestricted inspiration and just completely whimsical and never looking back and never second guessing and I will probably never do that again but I decided to just go for it.
JP Did you compose the music to the film or shoot the film first and adapt the score around the film footage you had?
SS I created the film and the music simultaneously, but I think the film takes precedence in terms of its shape and its rhythms. I definitely had motifs and themes and sort of grand concepts for the music, but I eventually had to edit it to fit into the sequence. So most of the shots in the movie—except for the prelude and the postlude—are about 10 to 15 seconds long, and I knew the music had to be severed by all these increments so I kind of worked with that. A lot of the music is based on these arbitrary, exterior concepts of 7/8 time, which is based on the symbolic image of the Subus sign, which is seven rings with seven lines. And it’s all based on suspension, and the way that the BQE is suspended. It’s also based on concepts of compression and congestion. How the BQE is comprehensive, it’s completely about addition and subtraction. So a lot of the music is mathematically based around this weird numerology but it doesn’t necessarily sound like that—it’s just the concept.
JP I really like the triptych split screen approach. The idea that you have the same view of the same thing but in different times, so you are constantly replicating the same journey but seeing it from a slightly altered viewpoint. Where did the idea come from? Were you inspired by any other directors?
SS (pause) Split-screen is used at the end of Carrie when she’s committing all these violent acts using her superpowers. It allows the director to create simultaneous actions from different vantage points. And it’s really bizarre in that movie, but I remember really loving that, because it’s so effective. You get the perspective of Carrie inflicting violence and you get the perspective of the students running out and burning up, getting run over by cars.
JP Did you have a particular concept behind your use of the three cameras?
SS Well, the idea for me was to create wide-screen panoramas because the BQE is linear and horizontal and we were working on these old Bolex 4×3 cameras. The vantage point didn’t seem quite wide enough, it didn’t have a wide depth of field, so it was almost in the middle of the project that we decided to do that. It was as much about capturing the panorama as it was about capturing all possible angles and wanting to fit it all into 30 or 40 minutes. There was just not enough time to reveal all possible perspectives. And then probably the third variable was the architecture of the opera house, which required wide angle because there were the hoopers in the front, the orchestra in the back and on top was the widescreen, but it all seemed to geometrically fit together.
JP How do you envision people listening to the soundtrack separately? A few days ago a friend drove me from Brooklyn to New Jersey and we listened to the soundtrack; it worked very well, and came to the climax of the piece just as we entered the Holland tunnel—it was a bit creepy. Do you imagine people listening to it on their own journey on the BQE, or elsewhere?
SS (laughter) Yeah, I would urge anyone to try listening to in the car and drive from Verrazano up to the Triborough, see if it matches up. I mean, it’s intended to accompany the film, first and foremost, so as a soundtrack I am not sure if it really stands on its own. It certainly works in any environment of linear motion. I would definitely recommend listening to on a trip on a train, or in a car. It’s all based on these concepts of programmatic music, accompanying something, a narrative or a film or whatever. And I think it works well accompanying everyday life in motion.
Selection from the comic book. Click image to enlarge.
JP I read you have an MFA in creative writing. (nods) Was it the first time you had written a comic book?
JP Was it different writing a comic to writing fiction?
SS Oh yeah, so different, it was really difficult. My fiction tends to ramble, it’s very discursive, it’s sort of unbridled, but the comic book aesthetic is so lean and so minimal and I wasn’t quite successful in writing the narrative in an orthodox way, because I think the comic book is way too wordy; it goes off on tangents.
The illustrator is a lot more experienced in graphic novels and comic books, because he used to edit this series called Meathaus. So, my first narrative sketch was twice as long as what it ended up being and he was really anxious the amount of words. He’s a visual artist, not a writer, and he took offense to the amount of words, because he felt the image couldn’t communicate. I felt a real anxiety about the form.
JP How did you decide to do a comic book as part of the project?
SS Because in including the characters of the hoopers in the film we felt they had opened up all these possibilities of this mythology. It allowed us to create a mythology about the hula hoop and to further conceptualize the character of Robert Moses and urban planning, and evoke that in the comic book form.
JP Where did the idea for the hula hoopers come from?
SS The guy who was playing trumpet with me, his girlfriend was a hooper. She went to classes and she started hooping just for fun. It’s kind of a big fad now, hooping for fun.
JP Do you do it?
SS I do it sometimes. I took some classes at the Y. So I saw her hoop, and she was so beautiful and so good at it that I asked her if I could incorporate her into the film and would she mind dressing up and starring in it. So it really came from her and conceptually it seemed to work really well as an opposition to the linear, finite architecture of the expressway versus the circular, perpetual architecture of the hoop.
JP There is a contrast in the project between the desire to glorify Moses’ BQE, yet also a revilement the destruction of the urban planners, particularly in the comic book. Do you feel this is a mixed message?
SS There certainly aren’t any solutions. I haven’t proposed any solutions.
JP Did you do much research into urban planning?
SS A little bit, I am a really lazy researcher. I’m not a great student of history either. I read parts of the Caro biography of Robert Moses, went to a Robert Caro lecture, went to the Museum of the City of New York, and other museums at the time were doing these retrospectives on Moses and it was shedding new favorable light on Moses. Then I hired a research assistant to do more data research with the Department of Transportation. But I found there is such little scholarship on the BQE specifically because it is a minor project compared to the parks, and the bridges and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Very little had been written about the BQE.
It took so long to build. The first section was built in ‘39, which was the Kosciuszko Bridge, and it was completed in ‘64. Robert Moses became this looming figure of heroic enterprises and also a tragic failure. There’s this beautiful narrative arch to his life; he comes to power and is this almost divine figure coming to restore the city and build it up and rebuild the infrastructure of the city for the good of mankind and then of course that leads to massive possession of wealth and power, and he’s destroyed by that power and brought down by the people. And now we’re living in the post-industrial, postmodern age of the glass-and-steel condo. (laughter)
JP How do you feel about the developments in Brooklyn, like Atlantic Yards and superfunding the Gowanus?
SS I think I am more interested in the ramshackle here-and-there capitalist enterprises like one person buying property and these weird towering condo structures going up, because there doesn’t seem like there is any authority of consciousness that is imposing itself. These huge civic projects of the ’50s are impossible today. This is why the Highline is so remarkable in that it was ever built, it’s like a miracle and its gorgeous and its at the service of humanity. And yet it exists as a monument to industrialism. So I feel it’s all things and it’s a pretty amazing accomplishment. But I think that just the fact that the World Trade Center is still a gaping wound so many years afterward is a real testament to how much has changed in urban planning and the city itself has been a financial, bureaucratic mess. So I feel a certain reverence for Moses and what he was able to accomplish. It wasn’t just Moses, it was the times; it was post-war, lots of money and federal support available and there was a certain kind of unification of the American consciousness, overconfidence. We don’t have that anymore, now the American aesthetic has accommodated a greater sense of irony (laughter), despair and self-loathing and I think that’s just as much part of our consciousness as patriotism, capitalism, democracy.
JP Do you feel that is reflected in your work?
SS It’s hard for me to be objective about what I’m doing and what it is reflecting.
JP A lot of your music is quite earnest.
SS The BQE is decidedly earnest and romantic. I think a lot of it is tongue-in-cheek, there’s a lot of comedy. Sometimes it sounds like Loony Tunes. I think I am making fun of myself. I am making fun of that sense of patriotism and glorification of monuments. It’s really hard to take it seriously now, to be committed to an ideology. That sort of earnestness has gone.
JP Do you have any further cinematic aspirations?
SS I would like to do a narrative movie at some point but it is so expensive. I’ve been doing these smaller abstract animated pieces that are just color and light, just a series of sequential photographs. I have amassed hundreds and thousands of them, so they are all just sitting on a hard drive. It would be fun to shape that into something. I don’t know if that’s a cinematic aspiration or just a side project, hobby art piece.
JP You are not going to move to Hollywood and try and make it…
SS Yeah, I don’t know how movies are made.
The BQE is out now from Asthmatic Kitty Records.