If you were an indie folk-pop musician with designs to make a concept album for each of the 50 states, and one day BAM offered you a commission to write a symphony for the 25th annual Next Wave Festival, what would you do?
If you are Sufjan Stevens, the answer is you rock the house down. This weekend saw the world premiere of Stevens' The BQE, a 30-minute multimedia symphonic experience layered with video art and live dancers hula-hooping around the stage, while electric guitar, bass, drums, piano and banjo groove alongside a 31-piece orchestra. It should be overkill, the manic fantasy of a Ritalin child on a BAM subsidized power trip, but the whole thing comes together so flawlessly, the only way it could be any better would be if they were handing out methamphetamines at the concession stand instead of $3 cups of Coke. With the triple-split-screen film projection across the top half of the stage, the playful, tumbling tempo, and the light-up hula hoops (not to mention the dancers' glowing fluorescent orange nail polish under the blacklights), this was one performance that was made for people on drugs.
For those of us who didn't get the memo on that one, Stevens' ode to our most battered and baffling roadway is still a deeply delicious experience. There is an overall tone of metaphysical playfulness that pervades the piece, making summary statements such as "Sufjan Stevens thinks the BQE is great" or "Sufjan Stevens thinks the BQE is a big smelly blight on humanity" impossible. A truly postmodern artist, Stevens moves past such linear dialectics, managing to explore and express his feelings on the 11.7 miles of Brooklyn and Queens roadway in a decidedly non-linear way, encompassing seemingly contradictory experiences of blight an beauty, movement and stagnation, symphony and new wave indie-rock opera. Nowhere is this non-linear approach better expressed than in the hula hoop, shown both in portions of the video art and live on stage, where one adorable dreadlocked Asian girl is joined by two white girls in gleaming white-blond bob wigs (for the stage show, two boy dancers are also included, probably just to fill out the available stage space, while the film features a three-part screen perfect for three dancers).
Stevens augments the hoop-play in his symphony with a written piece for the BAMbill, "The Hula Hoop vs. The BQE," waxing poetic