[20 November 2009]
Grab your layperson’s guide to orchestral music terminology. It’s time for a couple of non-folk conceptual albums from arty wunderkind Sufjan Stevens—actually, one is rearranged by Osso. Both of these albums will alienate some fans of Stevens’ virtuosic lyrical-orchestral songsmithing in Illinois. However, if you can muster the attention in contemporary zap-saturated A.D.D. society, your adventures into the Sufjan orchestral realm should hold plenty of surprises.
Stevens’ 2001 album Enjoy Your Rabbit was a peculiarly pleasant turnaround following his singer-songwriter, indie-folk debut A Sun Came. Enjoy Your Rabbit was a set of lyric-free electronic compositions, as its liner notes explained, “programmatic songs for the animals of the Chinese Zodiac”. But it was only surprising compared to what preceded it. When you looked into the man behind the creation, a poly-instrumentalist composer who also has a fondness for the Ex and early Sonic Youth, the turnaround made complete sense. A similar shift follows his widely adored 2005 indie folk gem Illinois. Late 2009 marks the release of his CD-DVD project on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (the BQE), as well as the release of Run Rabbit Run, the New York City string quartet Osso’s classical re-working of Enjoy Your Rabbit.
More precisely, Osso is a New York-based female quartet with a cello, viola, and two violins, who have worked with My Brightest Diamond, Jay-Z, and the New Pornographers, among others. They had already made string contributions to Illinois, so an affectionate inspiration to re-arrange EYR hardly came from nowhere. The Osso rearrangements are perhaps more easily connected to the Chinese Zodiac signs that are the track listings, and some bear almost no relationship to Stevens’ originals; others have similar melodies and/or tempos.
A couple of cases in point. Astrological Oxes, like their empirical counterparts, are said to work diligently, step by step toward a goal. The original electronic version of “Year of the Ox” was slightly languid but infused with a kind of ethereal, almost haunting drone punctuated by R2D2 dialogue.
The string version begins with an adagio violin slowly climbing the scale, note by note, then rolling back down its hill to begin assiduously anew. Then a sprightlier violin jumps in like a chirping bird flittering about the sure-footed ox bearing his cargo up hill. Cello and viola get layered in, too, at slower tempo and smoother strokes of the bow. The choppily staccato violins at times are so repetitive that they masterfully recreate the machinic monotony of a squeaky wagon wheel on a long journey. Yet movements abound in all these pieces, and just when it’s getting monotonous, the ox reaches the top of the hill or his destination, is unharnessed, watered, fed, rested, an onlooker in a new setting.
The same kind of romanticism extends to “Year of the Monkey”. In the original Enjoy Your Rabbit version, the postmodern melange of electronic gurgles and blips is classically accompanied by a steady triangle and music box sounds, creating a steady dissonance. But the Osso version, has a patently Eastern string feel to it (by which I certainly don’t mean Boston). Like the Zodiac monkey, Osso’s strings are innovative, adventurous, with powerful memories, in their resonances with Chinese zither music.
Finally, listeners of the original and the Osso version will notice the presence of Rabbit in both titles. Why “Enjoy Your Rabbit?” And then why “Run Rabbit Run”? Ask the Chinese Zodiac.
Rabbits fall under a fortunate sign! Characteristics include high sensitivity to beauty; gracious and soft-spoken. Diplomats and peacemakers, love tranquility, a quiet evening at home. Rabbits are reserved and very artistic. In this light, Enjoy Your Rabbit had a tad of narcissism or insecurity about lack of appreciation transferred into—quelle surprise—a sure-to-be alienating electronic set of musical riddles corresponding to the Chinese zodiac. A beautiful album in some ways, is it also the imprint of an insecure enfant terrible trying to justify his position as artist in the music and surrounding world of heartless consumerism and Pavlovian emotional response, as much in music as anything else? Stevens was born July 1, 1975: year of the rabbit.
Run Rabbit Run is equally pretentious (in a pop culture age where references to high art are, as much as ever, exclusive markers of social difference), a coy reference to Updike’s canonical novel Rabbit Run, another American Dream work about a discontent middle-class man searching for inner-peace and outer-stimulation. Rabbit is the opposite of the Chinese astrological sign, which is about living and appreciating tranquility and a stable home life. In practice, Updike’s Rabbit is more of a tiger, impatient, energetic, adventurous, and insatiable for attention (their humanitarian and affectionate qualities apply less easily). What does it mean for Osso to turn the Chinese Zodiac’s most fortunate sign into the sign of an American Dream/nightmare? Perhaps it’s just playful—period.
Enemies of electronica will find the Osso album more accessible and entertaining than the Stevens original. Furthermore, Osso’s titular connection with the American Dream/nightmare may ironically have more in common with Stevens’ most recent conceptual project the BQE than the BQE has with his own Enjoy Your Rabbit.
Enjoy Your Rabbit might be read as a huge middle finger to anyone who pines for a poppier, folkier Sufjan Stevens to go “automatic for the people”. For anyone who found Stevens too precious and artsy for indie rock, the loathing will augment ten-fold a few seconds into this album and/or the accompanying DVD. Pretensions aside, that would be a pity.
A conceptual album inspired by a highway? Actually, it is a serious meditation on American modern life, the place of the automobile in it, the very common sense of progress tied up in humming highways, coughing cars, congested commuters, and traffic time. Stevens deftly expresses his empathy, awe, fear, and disgust for his object and the way of life it symbolizes.
The BQE is historically the brainchild of Robert Moses (1888-1981). Moses was an urban planner with a concrete (literally) and cars vision of progress, and is credited as being the master designer of modern New York, responsible for most of its bridges, shorelines, tunnels, and highways, in ways that favored the automobile over public transportation. The BQE is a mostly elevated highway running from just north of downtown Brooklyn, through Williamsburg, and over to Queens via the Kosciuszko Bridge. The BQE boasts 160,000 vehicles each day through Brooklyn and 120,000 through Queens.
The film was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Stevens shot most of its dog-eat-dog, every-car-for-himself footage in Super 8mm and 16 mm. The DVD and CD are part of a grand multimedia package, also including 40 pages of liner notes and photos, as well as a stereoscopic 3D View-Master reel.
Stevens’ own take on Moses and his highway are quite clear in the DVD and his accompanying statements, where he critiques Moses’ work as “fiercely antagonistic to the natural, bucolic, and egalitarian”.
The video premiered in 2007 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, its images projected onto a screen while hula hoopers swiveled about in its foreground. Spinning is a motif in the film, from tires to hula hoop. The symbolism is apparent. This is David Byrne’s “Road to Nowhere”, without the fancy-free optimism of adventure; it’s mostly dystopic.
The music and visuals together will certainly be compared to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece of technological dsytopia, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, and its moving soundtrack by Philip Glass. Steven’s composition is textured and profound, full of movements, speed, and burnouts, which while seemingly critical of its object, is also somewhat empathetic with the people subjected to it (as he is part of what he describes). “It’s a great insight into the psychology of man,” Stevens told NPR. “Put a human being behind the wheel of a car and put them on the BQE”. But he aimed not just to condemn in this work: “My job as an artist is to find beauty where there is ugliness,” he continued in somewhat cliche-speak, “And I think this object is all about the beautification of a dilapidated object of scorn”. Sounds like a young artist with a social conscience, empathy for others, and sensibility for the mundane and its history—a tenuous balance for someone so critical of Moses, the creator of the “object of scorn”.
Like the wheels of the tires,lives, and world he documents, BQE goes round and round—always, eventually—cruising and puttering through a range of delightful twists and turns, annoying, torpid stretches, and high octane joy rides. It is symbolic of huge parts of modern life, and yet is fixed in its particular local details. Do the details matter? It is at times derivative, but it is overall a transcendent work by one of the most promising musician-artists in the contemporary scene.