sonic space

thoughts from space. music, art, performance, and anything that makes me glad i'm in the universe.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

sufjan @ BAM 11.3.07

it's been a month since the show, and i'm still trying to get my thoughts together to the point where i can write about it. but if i don't put some thoughts into words now, i will probably never post about it. so here goes.

there were two parts of the show - "The BQE" and "Sufjan Plays the Hits." both segments were amazing, overwhelming, intense, and strange. "spectacle" is the word that always comes to mind when i think of live sufjan performances. this night redefined spectacle.

part one: The BQE
the bqe, sufjan's six-movement instrumental tribute to the brooklyn-queens expressway, was alternately bombastic and subtle. the piece was presented with a film about the bqe projected on a huge screen behind the orchestra. there were also live performers doing a hula-hoop routine during a couple of the piece's movements. it was left to the audience to prioritize the various media - do you watch the film? the orchestra? the hoopers? or like me, rotate the eye among all the elements, and then, frequently, close the eyes and just listen. there were moments when i closed my eyes without even realizing it, taking it all in for several minutes at a time before noticing that i wasn't watching the show. it was fairly dark but the familiar figure of sufjan at the piano was clearly visible, and i watched him as he watched the conductor, the orchestra, and his hands as they moved over the keys. the music built to noisy and chaotic heights, fell to quiet meditation, and built again. when it was over, i wanted to sit and think in the dark for a while, but there was loud applause, the lights came up, and intermission began - time to reenter the world, sudden, abrupt.

part two: Sufjan Plays the Hits
the part i was most anticipating arrived after intermission, when the lights again went dark. after the bqe performance, which was entirely instrumental, i felt the audience leaning forward, eager for the first sound of sufjan's voice. the orchestra and the band were arranged on the stage, around the piano where sufjan touched the keys and the opening notes of "concerning the ufo sighting near highland park, illinois" filled the space. and then, his voice breathed out the words, unseen, but somehow a tangible material presence nevertheless. a moment to remember.

the setlist included mostly songs from "illinoise" - which made sense, as those songs lend themselves to the orchestral treatment easily. but i longed to hear some of the songs from "michigan" and "seven swans" - it would have been amazing to see sufjan play "holland," "for the widows in paradise," or "the dress looks nice on you." he did one song from michigan: "detroit, lift up your weary head," which i know he does well in an orchestral setting from watching his amazing "austin city limits" performance. a new song with a creepy tone - "barn owl, night killer" - intensified an already claustrophic mood set by pieces like the haunting "john wayne gacy, jr." interestingly, sufjan didn't sing all of the words to "gacy" - he improvised with mostly nonverbal singing, and at the end, said he thought it was time to retire the song, that maybe it was something he shouldn't be singing about. these two songs, along with the gorgeous and transcendent "casimir pulaski day," were moments where i held my breath, involuntarily, caught in the spell of the music, the suffocating emotional intensity of the lyrics, and sufjan's mesmerizing voice.

when it was over, and the lights came up for a second time, i was elated, dazed, and again wanted to linger in the dark, to stay in that uniquely sufjan space. but i stood up, collected my coat, started talking with my husband and friends, and we spilled out with the crowd into the cold brooklyn air. the spectacle was over, lost, as with all live performance, except in memory.

(but it lives on youtube. some wonderful folks were taping the night i saw the show. the clips are of varying quality, but worth watching.)

(and this very cool photo of sufjan is from the asthmatic kitty website:

Friday, June 01, 2007

it was forty years ago today...

happy birthday, sgt. pepper's.

if only the (surviving) beatles could see my two-year-old son yelling the lyrics to the title track, while jumping around the house like a maniac. i guess the life-size mural of john, paul, george, and ringo that we painted on the wall of his room had something to do with it, but our little guy is a major beatles fan.

Friday, March 16, 2007

sxsw 2007

there has been a lot of really great coverage of sxsw in pitchfork and other places. pitchfork's guide is great.

also, the times ran a quick list of the ten artists to watch from this year's festival.

one interesting tidbit i read today in the times is about david byrne's presentation on record companies and the changes he thinks they should make in the age of digital distribution. i wonder if this was one of byrne's ironic powerpoint presentations? i saw one of his powerpoint performances ages ago in the village at a literary event, and it was really inspired.

out of all the great artists playing at sxsw this year, so far i've only checked out girl talk, which i really liked. next up i want to hear the pipettes, menomena, and malajube... so much listening, so little time.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

wikipedia enters the avatar state

today's featured article on the main wikipedia page is about avatar! the article is very comprehensive, with a great section on the many cultural influences that have been worked into the show. it also includes info about some of the great avatar toys and collectibles that are out there.

while anxiously awaiting the third season of avatar to air, i'm checking out the fansites frequently for info... and i just read on avatarspirit that there will be a new actor playing iroh next season. iroh is one of my favorite characters so i'm disappointed to hear about the change - mako, the actor who has played iroh since the beginning of the show, did a wonderful job of bringing iroh to life.

Friday, February 16, 2007

sufjan's kennedy center show on 2.5.07

i've been so disappointed at the lack of video clips from sufjan's kennedy center performance. some clips are surfacing slowly on you tube, but i (and lots of others, including pitchfork) thought the concert would be available on the millennium stage website, which has a great track record for making live performances available online. but the sufjan show is not going to be posted on the site.

the few you tube videos show a performance that works well at times, but also has some weak points. overall it seems like sufjan's music sounds best when performed by his own mini-orchestra, rather than the kennedy center orchestra. the orchestra overwhelms sufjan's voice on several songs. you tube also has video from sufjan's show at the zellerbach auditorium (uc berkeley) on 10.11.06 - worth watching in relation to the kennedy center performance. the zellerbach show was with the sufjan orchestra, and it's perfect.

Monday, February 05, 2007

listening project notes

will i ever finish my sufjan listening project? i'd love to take down my old posts, reorganize them, and publish it in one (hopefully improved) piece. but i just don't know if i can finish it. i've revised my recommended playlist so many times it's absurd.

i hope i can see some live clips after sufjan plays at the kennedy center tonight. his performances are so interesting and unexpected - i can only imagine what trickster sufjan has up his sleeve for the kennedy center audience. like the now-iconic wings the band wore on austin city limits, or the recent impromptu jam with david byrne at a benefit concert (i read about this on pitchfork, and they have a clip). i wish i could be at the kennedy center show tonight, or at least have the chance to watch a live webcast, but it looks like the show will be available on the awesome millennium stage site, which has tons of archived performances.

at some point, if i ever finish this project, i'll post an annotated sufjan playlist, which will compile my choices for his best and most interesting songs. right now, i'm so into greetings from michigan that it could be the whole playlist...

Monday, January 29, 2007

sufjan's homemade orchestra

i've been watching clips of sufjan performances on you tube - the watching part of my listening project, i guess. sujan's performances are really interesting. and you know, it's what an artist does live that determines if the band is good, or great. i love bands that really get artistic with performances.

the first two bands that come to mind are the flaming lips and spiritualized. the flaming lips have tons of people onstage, in costumes, dancing. there are lights, video screens, confetti, balloons, disco balls, you name it. live, spiritualized can rock out, or be meditative and dreamy. the ultimate spiritualized recording - which shows off what they can do in concert - is the royal albert hall live album. with a choir and horn section joining the band, the gospel according to jason spaceman is especially kick-ass.

and sufjan, with his homemade orchestra onstage in costumes. part of the sufjan mythology is that he is largely self-taught, and likes to encourage people to play instruments they've never tried before. live, his mini orchestra totally pulls off the task of reproducing the sufjan sound, which seems like an amazing feat. on you tube, you can watch enough suf video clips to see how the sound has evolved as the musicians get tighter as a group.

the listening project that must not end; or, how i tried to put down my ipod but sufjan stevens stopped me

after listening to sufjan's entire discography multiple times, i have to say that it will be hard to move on to the next listening project. there is something really incredible about putting on one of sufjan's albums and heading into that universe for a while. i'm going to have to suf out often, even after i pick a new listening project.

whatever you think of sufjan - and there are plenty of critics and controversies - you have to respect his talent. he is a multi-instrumentalist who plays more than twenty instruments on his albums. one critic's use of the word "overachiever" to describe sufjan is not far wrong - as the more than forty songs about illinois on illinoise and the avalanche attest to - but it's the attitude in that statement that bugs me. suf has big ideas - like the fifty states project - but i think that rocks. why not dream up a massive project?
the suf listening has gotten me thinking about religion. i think i might do the spiritualized discography next.