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: http://www.asthmatickitty.com/)