Asthmatic Kitty (2009)
Sufjan Stevens, known for his flamboyant showmanship, sought to outdo himself with his latest release. The BQE project, marketed as “a cinematic suite inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Hula Hoop,” is a multimedia package consisting of a CD, DVD, Viewmaster image reel, and lengthy booklet complete with an essay—eccentric, to say the least. Originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The BQE was shelved indefinitely after three initial performances in November of 2007. On October 21st of this year, that changed. Its latest incarnation not only ensures it a firmer place in cultural history as a peculiar artifact from an equally peculiar artist but also offers viewers everywhere a chance to encounter its multi-medium bombastic splendor in the comfort of their living rooms.
Before saying anything more about the project itself, it is important to set out the focus of this review. It is not, like many other reviews of The BQE, going to focus strictly on the musical portion of Stevens' project. To review a soundtrack apart from consideration of its parent film is, in the mind of this reviewer, foolish. (Stevens' iconic status as an indie music god seems to have shocked many into this kind of unbecoming infantilism—forgivable, but also avoidable.) No mistake about it, the dominant medium of this project is the film, as testified to by the Asthmatic Kitty press release and Stevens in a recent interview in Bomb Magazine, and we should give them the benefit of the doubt, which is generous, because the music on its own is, frankly, unremarkable.
Stevens’ minimalist composition on The BQE is fitting for the soundtrack genre: the lack of strong solo voices, human or instrumental, and the emphasis on evocation through clear mood and emotional cues simultaneously create a fitting space for the film’s images and avoid drawing attention away from the feature presentation. A mash up of soundtrack styles, the music recalls that of early slapstick cartoon TV shows, Glitch, 90s Video Games, and silent film accompaniment; brimming with a formless, primeval energy, if one listens only to the soundtrack, it is impossible not to hear where the images should be. And, thus, as a soundtrack it is completely successful. Soundtracks are not meant to capture your attention but push it elsewhere, namely, to the object they support, a film. Fortunately, in this case, the film provided does more than simply fill the artistic void; intimately intertwined with the accompaniment, it lifts the music out of a purely supportive role and treats it as an equal.
And, in fact, The BQE’s greatest strength is this dialogue between film and music—Sufjan is creating a new, visual music. When watching the film portion of the project, one is reminded of similar projects like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera; just replace people with cars, and substitute an imagined relationship between image and sound with its real counterpart and you have the same film. With its unique use of multiple screens, the footage is able to create a unique visual equivalent to harmonic and melodic motion. But while the conversation between musical tempo and cut speed, melody and color, and camera focus and harmonic dissonance, is clearly discernable throughout, its significance is anything but apparent.
What could images of glowing superhero Hula-hoop women, city traffic, and fireworks accompanied by an orchestral climax mean? What do the many simultaneous frame speed and musical tempo say? Are they condemning or celebrating the monstrous marvel of 1950s urban planning and its creator Robert Moses? Is this the work of the mysterious, goddess-like Hula women? Are these women an- or protagonistic in relation to the infamous expressway, the viewers and NYC? Ultimately, these questions remain unanswered and become secondary to the pleasure aroused by the kinetic energy of the film’s metered cinematography and passionate musical composition.
Stevens’ BQE is not a sermon but an invitation to meditation. By filling the film with elusive symbols and imagery, backed by highly connotative composition, the viewer must work to paradoxically create and understand the meaning of the piece. Although an essay written by Stevens included in the CD’s booklet and the separate for-purchase comic book provides some aid at analysis of the film, what Stevens says about the Expressway itself applies also to his own work and gives the best advice for approaching it,
“At some point, all the semantic colors of art theory [or, in this case, narrative] recede into white noise. Even as the BQE is diffused and consumed by its own ghastly saturation (like a snake eating its tail), all the expository psychobabble surrounding its charms begins to resound the autistic repetition, a recurring nightmare, the stammering-stuttering of a nervous child, a dog returning to its vomit, a vicious cycle, an absurd circle of thought.”
Stevens’ BQE, like the real BQE, bursts forth in poly-sensorial abundance, and there is no one way to process the overload; rather, there is only the possibility of rich experience and fruitful encounter–which, as the real BQE inspired Stevens, may or may not inspire viewers to similar feats of artistic excess.
In the end, The BQE makes the fifteen dollars and forty minutes spent worthwhile. Particularly memorable are the first 25-minutes and the finale (specifically, Interlude I and Movement III and IV and VII). And while at times the piece loses its vibrancy and creative energy degenerating into something akin to Window’s media player visualizations, the good outweighs the bad. The BQE is much more successful than most ambitious multi-medium experiments and deserves praise for its accomplishment of balancing sensorial pleasure and intellectual stimulation in an ultimately memorable way.
Zach Marr is the music editor for Wunderkammer.