Sufjan Stevens – Run Rabbit Run + The BQE

January 01, 1970

(Asthmatic Kitty)

 

www.asthmatickitty.com

 

No one can never accuse Sufjan Stevens of being short on
ambition.  Ever since making his bow at
the beginning of the Millennium, he’s etched his niche by combining elements of
rock, folk, mayhem and mysticism to create some of the most diverse and
fascinating musical soundscapes in the current pop idiom. His original
intention to record an album inspired by each of the fifty states may have short-circuited
early on (for now anyway), but Steven’s cinematic sweep remains intact, as
manifest in the near simultaneous release of two of his most extravagant
offerings yet.

 

Borne as an evolution of his sophomore set, Enjoy Your Rabbit, the similarly themed Run Rabbit Run (5 stars out of 10) takes
its theme from the animal signs of the Chinese Zodiac, rearranging the order of
the original set selection and adding the orchestral interpretations of the
Osso string quartet.  Those unnerved by
the electronic treatments served up originally may find some consolation in
these new instrumental entries, but where the influence of Terry Riley and
Steve Reich held sway the first time around, the impact of Stravinsky and
Phillip Glass collide here. It becomes an obvious example of pseudo avant-garde
classicism, with staccato violins versus mournful cello and viola, each taking
aim at Stevens’ melodies in a fractured but frenzied tug of war.  Having worked with Stevens before, the
musicians obviously retain some degree of synergy with the composer’s intents,
but given the skittish feel, many of these movements come across as
scattershot, random musings.  The call
and response mode predominates, as manifest in a kind of pluck and strum
effect, but when the musicians focus their approach in unison, as on the wry
“Year of the Horse” and the surprisingly straight forward. “Year of the
Dragon,” everything seems to meld as it should. A somewhat strange Chinese
dish, once digested only the most appreciative will find hunger for it an hour
later.

 

If basing an album on the Chinese zodiac feels somewhat
outlandish, then what’s to make of a disc devoted to both the Brooklyn-Queens
Expressway and the Hula-Hoop? But while it’s difficult to find much promise in
such an unlikely premise, Stevens pulls it The
BQE
surprisingly well.  A soundtrack
to an experimental film (a DVD is included in the package) the dozen-plus
movements combine as a sweeping cinematic suite that enhances the succession of
video collages seen onscreen.  Stevens
proves as adventurous a film-maker as he is as a composer, dividing the screen
into three linked conceptual images – buildings, automobiles, glimpses of urban
life and, of course hula-hoopers – creates a fascinating series of vignettes that’s
best viewed in glimpses, lest the kaleidoscopic views start to simulate
something akin to a Vulcan mind meld. 

 

Unlike Run Rabbit Run,
The BQE (7 stars out of 10) soundtrack
boasts a more cohesive feel; once beyond the opening drone of “Prelude on the
Esplanade,” it shifts from sweeping and majestic early on to subtle and sublime
for the middle interludes and more ethereal towards its finale.  Even so, the piece works best as audio
accompaniment rather than a stand-alone experience, unless, of course,
psychedelic additives are employed to enhance the encounter.  As for the connection between the two themes,
Stevens links them effectively in a scholarly essay written for the CD/DVD
booklet, laying out not only the historical origins (who knew, for example,
that architect Robert Moses, builder of more miles of urban highway than any
other individual before or since, never owned a driver’s license?), but
offering a sociological perspective on their existential significance.  

 

Heady stuff. Be forewarned.

Standout Tracks: “Year of the
Horse,” “Year of the Dragon” (Run Rabbit
Run
); “Introductory Fanfare for the Hooper Heroes,” “Movement I: In the
Countenance of Kings” (The BQE) LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

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