The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway has been the backdrop for endless frustration — and plenty of car horn symphonies — but now it’s inspired an honest-to-goodness music composition by indie rock superstar Sufjan Stevens.
Stevens, the 32-year-old, Kensington-based indie pop star with seven albums and a slew of guest appearances and collaborations to his credit, found great inspiration in the 11.6-mile stretch of road. He was so moved by the pavement that he penned a half-hour-long music-and-video composition entitled “The BQE” that will have its world premiere with a three-night run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Nov. 1.
Although he calls Brooklyn home, Stevens — who isn’t quite a mainstream superstar, but has been featured extensively in independent films, on television and in magazines like Topic and McSweeney’s — is a rare on-stage sight in the borough, so GO Brooklyn excitedly checked in with him to see what the driving force behind his new project was.
GO Brooklyn: The BQE can be a pretty rough road on the best of days. What made you decide to write music and make a movie in honor of such a vile highway?
Sufjan Stevens: I guess because it seemed like a contradiction to have a limited-access expressway running through the villages of Brooklyn, and I found that to be absurd and really exciting. And in some ways, as a roadway, it reflects the kind of dizziness, constant motion, perpetual motion and activity of Brooklyn.
GO: “The BQE” is just a part of the concert you’re doing, but it will be 30 minutes of music and video. Were you involved in creating the visual as well as the musical?
SS: I shot it with my friend Ruben Kleiner. We shot it all on 16-mm film and Super 8. We set out to do an exercise in observation and were focusing on little square inch pieces and sections of it. Then we tried to get the broad picture; we went on top of buildings to get a bird’s-eye view and went in people’s houses to look over the BQE. We spent a lot of time just driving back and forth and even had a mount to attach the camera to the car.
GO: You’ve said that your goal is to release albums about each of the 50 states. Does the music of “The BQE” cover Brooklyn’s contribution to New York?
SS: In some ways this is all part of the greater plan, and it’s part of the grand scope of the project: evoking a national identity. It’s also a divergence, because it’s not under the constructs of a state album. I’m not intending to evoke the sounds of Brooklyn or simulate those sounds through a musical piece because this is specifically about a Brooklyn anomaly, something that exists in spite of Brooklyn. I find literally that the sounds of the BQE are very different than the sounds of Brooklyn, of the streets and neighborhoods. It’s very metallic; it’s hydraulics and brakes and this sort of repetitive hum of traffic. It’s a big party of sounds.
GO: Speaking of parties, how do you like living in Kensington?
SS: I like it a lot because it’s remote and … it’s extremely diverse. I think Cortelyou Road is one of the most diverse streets in the entire country. There’s no consensus in terms of the ethnicity and the kinds of people who live there, it’s so mixed. There are little boutique shops coming in and some great restaurants — you should go to The Farm [on Adderley]. It’s two blocks down on Cortelyou. That’s the place to be; it’s really good food.
GO: Since you so rarely play Brooklyn, how did you get hooked up with a huge gig like this one?
SS: They asked me to do a piece to be part of the [25th annual Next Wave] festival and it’s been a really great exercise in working with a larger creative institution. I’ve never actually worked with that kind of collaboration before. I’ve worked creatively with people but never in the context of an institution. I was a little suspicious at first, because I’ve worked with large groups before — Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center in [Washington] D.C. — but this is a much bigger kind of relationship, because it’s a commissioned piece.
GO: Has this experience inspired you to play more Brooklyn shows?
SS: Contractually, I’m not allowed to until after [this show]. Afterwards, I’d love to play more in Brooklyn. There’s a reason I haven’t played that many shows this year. Part of it is because I’m writing a lot and part of it is because I’m working on this particular project. And for me, there is a season to tour and a season to stay home. This year has been the season to stay home.
GO: Would you want to collaborate with BAM again?
SS: I think this is the beginning of a long-term relationship.
GO: Are you asking [BAM President] Karen Hopkins to go steady?
SS: [Laughs…] Yes. I just asked her out on a date. We’re going to the Viennese place across the street afterwards for some Bratwurst [at Thomas Beisl Restaurant].
Sufjan Stevens will perform “The BQE” at 8 pm on Nov. 1–3 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are sold out, but cancellation tickets could become available day of at the BAM box office. For information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.