The string quartet Osso played with primal energy.
People often joke that the Midwest is a few years behind the coasts when it comes to adopting the newest cultural trends, overlooking that many of these innovations stem from the Midwest in the first place. A fine example is the work of Sufjan Stevens -- the Michigan-bred musician whose career sprang from songs about the Wolverine State and our neighbor to the south, Illinois -- who visited the Project Lodge Friday night to share his film about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Though The BQE debuted two years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not far from where Stevens now resides, the indie-folk dreamboat has embarked upon a new tour to promote his original soundtrack to the film (which was released earlier this month with a DVD of the movie, a 40-page comic book and even a ViewMaster stereoscopic image reel), as well as Run Rabbit Run, a string-quartet version of his 2001 experimental electronica album, Enjoy Your Rabbit.
Despite its high-art leanings, the event felt more like a sleepover than a gala, but this only increased its appeal. Folks milled around a pot of apple cider in costumes ranging from Baberaham Lincoln (a bearded, top hat-sporting dude in a slinky dress) to the monsters of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, unsure what to expect from the performance but psyched that Stevens was on site -- and that they had Halloween parties to crash later. Though they looked downright wholesome, singer-songwriter DM Stith and the members of Osso, the string quartet formed to play Run Rabbit Run and bolster other projects by artists on Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label, proved to be a spooky hors d'oeuvre.
While Stith's soft, downtempo tunes could have been titled Where the Wild Things Aren't, their ability to lull the crowd into silent submission was impressive. No one dared to cough, shuffle or snap a photo during the most climactic moments of "Pigs" and "Thanksgiving Moon" for fear of shattering the gorgeous, fragile atmosphere. Full of dreamy oohs and aahs reminiscent of Jeff Buckley and melancholy, Nick Drake-style melodies, it was an ideal soundtrack for coaxing the last fall leaves from their branches.
Though a cardboard crown was perched atop Stevens' head the entire evening, his introductory remark that "this is the Asthmatic Kitty version of community theater" didn't make sense until Osso played their own set. After kicking off their shoes and changing into a few more sequins and zebra stripes, the quartet launched into several selections from Run Rabbit Run with energy that was downright primal.
The songs, which included "Year of the Rabbit," "Year of the Rooster" and "Year of the Boar," saluted the characters of the Chinese Zodiac with quickly shifting time signatures, the sharp sounds of plucked strings and numerous melodies that soared toward the heavens until being brought back to earth with a thunderous explosion of cello or a hawklike scream from the violins. Stevens made a wise choice in tapping A-list composers such as Michael Atkinson and Gabriel Kahane to arrange the pieces for strings, teasing beautiful harmonies and shocking melodies out of the electronic fuzz, and Osso's two violinists, cellist and violist (Madison's own Marla Hansen) breathed lots of life -- and wildness -- into their interpretations.
After the instruments had been packed up and the music stands stowed away, Stevens and his minions assembled a screen and projector as the crowd frolicked in the venue's colorful cave of cloth-cutout shapes and ribbons. Stevens introduced the piece at first as a "cinematic suite," but later admitted that "it's non-narrative, so there's no 'point' to it, but it has meaning to me," leaving fans wondering if it or its soundtrack would bear any resemblance to his popular 2005 album Illinois.
Featuring three panels of images of and from the expressway -- trucks, tenement buildings and billboards, plus geometric compositions made of looping traffic corridors, the lines painted between lanes and the pretty circles of light that form when a camera lens goes out of focus -- it was clear that Stevens' aspirations were arty. Using old-school Super 8 and 16 mm film lent it the look of a 1980s social studies filmstrip about commerce, transportation and civic pride. However, a trio of hula-hooping cheerleaders, who added a kitschy, almost psychedelic twist to the piece, made it seem more like an art-school project or even a selection from New York's famous Armory Show.
It was the symphonic soundtrack, though, with its nods to Gershwin and Ravel, broken by an electronica-fuled sequence resembling a video game, then reprised for the finale, that proved Stevens is king of the jungle: the concrete jungle of urban indie culture.