SUFJAN STEVENS’ RODEO ROUND UP
I was kinda late to the whole Sufjan Stevens thing. I walked in on him playing the Sevens Swans LP from beginning to end at my first ATP festival 5 or 6 years ago, and I was blown away. I bought the album on vinyl right after the show and have been a fan ever since. His records are pretty hit or miss for me, but when they hit… man, do they hit. Case in point, the song Djohariah, which somehow channels Maggot Brain and Nick Drake and Neil Young and the spirits of the four winds all at once.
Last week I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to hear him perform a live score for his movie “ROUND UP”, a dialogue-free portrait of The Pendleton Round Up Rodeo in Eastern Oregon that he directed in collaboration with Brooklyn filmmakers Alex & Aaron Craig. Sufjan was joined on stage by the band Yarn/Wire – a Queens-based 4-piece consisting of two pianists and two percussionists.
The music was really something special. Hypnotic and mesmerizing and very clearly descended from Philip Glass. The kind of music that makes you wished you’d smoked a joint before the show, but alas I came straight from work so there was no such tomfoolery.
Sufjan peppered in drum machine SFX and the random sequencer beats while the two pianists laid a long repetitive rhythmic foundation for each piece. From time to time ,each person in the band would stop what they were doing and evoke some new cosmic sound from their instrument by some unorthodox means. Dragging two string bows across the vibraphone keys. Running a piece of string back and forth underneath a piano wire like flossing teeth. Playing some weird note in unison with what looked like kazoos. It sounded wonderful and made you want to hang out at their practice space while they make shit like this up.
The film itself was beautiful to look at, but it got very repetitious after about 45 minutes. The entire thing was shot in at 300fps, which will make just about anything compelling to watch, but it simply felt dragged out – as if BAM had insisted on a 90 minute piece so they could sell out 5 shows or something.
The rodeo was broken up into sections for each stage of the event, mixed with portraits of the cowboys, or their clothes, or the Oregon locals. This was periodically interrupted by 3 heavily adorned hula-hooping cowgirls. They were pretty damn sexy, but after the third time, they just felt gratuitous. Each of these sections had its own piece of music, that was rigidly structured to match the edit shot for shot. This got way too repetitive as well. Not everything has to cut on the one.
Nevertheless, it was a nice evening out for a Wednesday in Brooklyn. I admire Sufjan’s range and his commitment to constantly moving beyond his comfort zone. As long as he keeps making great songs every now and then, he can experiment like this all he wants. If you like hearing live soundtracks and you have some weed brownies handy, this show is for you.