Monday, 16 November 2009

The Law of Abstraction: Sufjan Stevens' Urban Legend

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound;

And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Wallace Stevens - 'Peter Quince at the Clavier'

I recently had what turned out to be the strange and insightful pleasure of interviewing Sufjan Stevens. The interview was for a feature in a major UK music paper, for whom I had to take a certain angle due to readability and word-count. This meant that about three-quarters of the interview had to be discarded. Because a lot of what he said was surely very interesting indeed, I offer an edited transcript of the interview, below.

He has three new albums out. Starting with the least good, there is Music For Insomniacs, a record he made with his step-father that is deliberate in its deathly boringness, as it is designed as a sleeping aid. For real. He also has out Run Rabbit Run, a re-imagining of his 2001 electronica record Enjoy Your Rabbit as performed by the New York string quartet Osso under the guidance of he who had the original idea for the new interpretation, The National's Bryce Dessner. That is a pretty interesting listen, but best of all is The BQE, his epic celebration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York that is also a film and a 40-page comic book. He mixes conceptual, often abstruse soundscapes with his usual method of using simple melodic themes to run through an entire album, with quite wonderful results. It is one of the best things he has ever done and he appears to be very proud of it, but there is other baggage weighing upon Sufjan right now.

That stuff can be outlined briefly here. It's not that big a deal, and he seems to have gotten over it, but it nevertheless exposes an issue facing genuinely important artists like him. It is most likely that by talking about his apparent 'existential crisis' in so many interviews he isn't really purging himself of his inner torment (he is far too measured for that), but rather trying to start a debate about distinguishing the substantial from the worthless in the crowded chaos that is recorded music nowadays. He is as focussed as ever, and has even come to terms with the rather silly 50 states project. A polymath and an intellectual he remains...

How do you feel about the fact these new releases are regarded by many as not ‘proper’ follow-ups to Illinois?

What do you mean ‘proper’? Because it doesn’t have songs? I feel like it’s a pretty orthodox sequence of events to go from epic song cycles or conceptual song cycles to conceptual film. It doesn’t seem like such a stretch. It was definitely a self-conscious decision to divest myself of the 'song' itself so I could just focus on music and arrangement and other forms like visuals. I think that it’s still working with the same principles as some of my previous records, though.

What did you do in the way of research for the project? Did you look for artistic precedent or spend a lot of time on the expressway itself?

Most of my time was spent on the actual expressway, it was an experience of retrieving information through observation and developing a visceral response to the expressway, due in part to the amount of time we had to spend filming, which was a lot. I didn’t do that much research, I read a few books, like the biography of Robert Moses, which is mostly about urban planning in New York in the fifties, and I read Jane Jacobs’ book which is a rebuttal of the modernist urban renewal movement. But that seemed meandering and heavy and didn’t relate to what I was doing. I wanted to relinquish anything too literal or historical and to invest myself in the sheer pleasure of experience through the senses. It’s extremely visceral, there’s no narrative and it’s completely impersonal, which I like. It’s kind of satisfying because I often try to render my self in a song and try and impose my own autobiography. That can be kind of exhausting - it can be a release to eliminate myself from the creative process. At least that was my intention, I’m not sure if that’s really what happened.

So The BQE is about feeling rather than, say, stories.

I think so, yeah. I think it’s about collecting information. It’s basically a film and a series of photographs. It’s very concrete in a way; photographs of this physical monument, this short expressway, but it’s assembled in a way that makes it abstract as well. It’s just colours, shapes and designs, movements and sounds. To me it’s very physical, in the way that experience is physical. You see and you taste and you touch. I kind of like that it’s reduced to primitive, sensory experience.

For a non-New Yorker, what is the significance of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway?

The expressway itself is really an anomaly as it is imposed on a pre-existing city, Brooklyn being a weird network of disparate neighbourhoods that grew together. In the forties and fifties when the government was funnelling money into rebuilding the infrastructure they conceived of this plan to join all the boroughs with bridges and highways, and demolish slums and eliminate bad neighbourhoods, to restore and revitalise the Great American City through the automobile. That was the trend in most cities around the country in the fifties. The BQE is just one small, inconsequential example of that. But it doesn’t work on such a ridiculous level, it’s such a failed attempt at arterial traffic movement. It seems absurd and illogical now. And it's become something else: an eyesore and an object of scorn, but at the same time this strange and endearing monument that’s fussed about in the papers every week. But it’s really only 12 miles long and very small compared with other highways.

Were you ever tempted to address those shortcomings of the expressway in any way?

Not intentionally, but it was the elephant in the room. They were the obvious issues that reside in a project about the BQE. It was about slum removal, which is a euphemism for eliminating lower social class people and immigrants. There’s all this manipulative politics that explains the direction of the highway - there were certain neighbourhoods that were cut off and neighbourhoods that were saved because of money and power. Those are all obvious issues, but the piece itself is not really about that. It’s a celebration of colour and shape and form. Just a painting in a way.

What was your first reaction when the Run Rabbit Run project was floated?

Bryce Dessner came to me with the original idea and I thought it could definitely work, even though I hadn’t thought of that material in so many years. I think it sounds better than the original record – it feels more human, and it's definitely more musical and the fact it was translated through several other arrangers apart from me and my own perspective makes it that much more interesting. I like it a lot.

Was there ever any temptation when it was being produced to step and say ‘don’t do it like that, do it like this’?

Oh yeah, I was pretty heavy handed. Over the course of a year they were workshopping and arranging, and I sat in on a few reheasals and had pretty strong opinions about things. The final outcome of the pieces are drastically different from the original arrangements, but all this was hopefully understood from the outset so I didn’t offend too many people. The quartet themselves also played a large part in shaping the pieces. It was definitely a co-operative, communal process. I think we were all extremely satisfied with the outcomes. There were details that I would make clear weren’t the best idea, but it wasn’t about who was right or wrong, it was a collaborative workshop.

What kinds of music have you been exposing yourself to since Illinois?

I’ve been doing a lot more programming and sequencing and working with beats, trying to get away from some of the tools of folk song like acoustic instruments, and working with synthesised sounds. I bought a really expensive analogue synthesiser, and have just been messing around and creating sounds. I have a fetish for these alien sounds, these otherworldy sounds that don’t seem to have any context. You can shape them or manipulate them with different oscillators, and it feels kind of weird, some of it is very amusing more than anything else. I really like synthesised music.

Is that a direction that a new album might take?

I'm kind of all over the place. Because I haven’t released a record of songs in so long I’ve been writing for a couple of years and amassed so much material. It kind of goes in all directions, and I need to step back and figure out how to organise it and find out what’s possible and feasible to shape into a record.

Your songs have always evoked a very literary America to me, something emphasised by your educational background [Sufjan did a Creative Writing MA and some of his stories can be found here]. Are you conscious of being part of any tradition in that way? There are certain moods and ideas that maybe hark back to the transcendentalists or Melville, for example.

That’s pretty dense American literature. Those people were philosophers and scholars, I’m just a songwriter. I have more of a pop sensibility and I don’t think I dig that deep. I wouldn’t take myself that seriously.

Is ‘classic’ American literature an influence though?

Hmm, only in so much that it’s required reading at high school and university. Everyone reads Thoreau and Walden and all that stuff, Emerson and the transcendentalists. But it seems like such an archaic philosophy. I’m not sure how much it influenced me, I definitely have an awe for the natural world that is overwhelming and I think that’s communicated in a lot of my music - almost a fear at the wonders of the natural world. But at the same time I’m very civic-minded and very urban and prefer to live in communities and society. I know there’s a bit of tension with the transcendentalists, because Whitman was a naturalist and a romantic but he was also very urban and lived in Brooklyn and felt an affinity to the city.

It’s a pretty common kind of tension in America, this urban-versus-rural combat that’s going on all the time, whether it’s in politics or in aesthetics or in a way of life, and it’s becoming more and more extreme now as people are moving back to the city with all the urban renewal, and the suburbs are considered this odd, problematic, purgatorial thing that is completely outdated now. There’s a conviction now to either move to the country or move to the city. It’s not happening on a massive scale but it’s definitely in our consciousness.

David Byrne once described your music as ‘transcendental nostalgia’. I know you dislike being labelled nostalgic, but what’s your reply when people describe you in that way?

I do feel that my music doesn’t feel very contemporary. There is something very Romantic and old world about it in the sound and shape of it. Even in the aesthetics and packaging of the records, there’s something mid-century about it. I don’t mind that, but I don’t have much respect for nostalgia or sentimentality. I like to look forward and I like the idea of existing in the here and the now. I like present tense philosophy. I think my music is a compression of nostalgia and modernism and this kind of neo-futuristic, apocalyptic religious sense.

What is your stance these days on whether music can be or is a necessary expression of faith, or can you divorce the two?

I think music is mystical, in that it’s invisible and it’s physical. It’s not seen by the eye but felt by the body and spirit. That’s an indication of its spiritual value. It’s an ecstatic form. It’s spiritual and religious but it’s also more pointedly mystical and mysterious and I think that’s what makes it infinitely accessible and interesting, and that’s what makes it so relevant. Even in a very concrete, physical, material world, we still feel these spiritual impulses from music, art and poetry.

Is that belief a product of your upbringing and childhood or is it something anyone can experience?

I think it’s just in me. I don’t think it has anything to do with my conditioning or upbringing or any kind of personal religious experience. I think it’s just inherent in the human psyche. We’re socialised and we’re educated, and over time there’s a philosophy of logic that has shaped the way we see the world, and that’s integral and physical. It’s experienced and it's learned. I believe you can socialise a man but he will always be a spiritual being. As long as we’re finite, as long as there’s an expiration date… man is wholly spiritual.

Would you call yourself a patriot, in any way?

No, not at all. I hate that term because it’s just so dogmatic. I loathe this mindless allegiance to the principles of a nation, whether it’s a doctrine or a flag or government. I don’t believe in any of that.

But is it possible for the definition of patriotism to be manipulated to not mean the jingoism you hint at, and celebrate other aspects of America?

Yeah. Man, we’d have to come up with a new term. Patriotism and nationalism are just too loaded. I’d rather just say I’m an American and have an unavoidable allegiance to that identity. It’s not a decision one makes, it’s just a matter of fact, of place.

I’m so preoccupied with identity, like most human beings are, especially as an American because we lack a concrete history. My obsession with identity leads to a discursive inquiry into the subject of Americanism and patriotism, but I don’t think that I necessarily am bound by an allegiance to this country at all. I can take it or leave it. But at the same time, it’s just a matter of fact. It’s who I am and it’s where I live.

Have far have you become disillusioned at how convoluted music has become thanks to technology and the so-called democratisation of music-making? You referred once to the futility of ‘contributing to the white noise’. Are you able to overcome that?

There is an excess that’s seems unending and impervious to understanding, because of the availability of music through the internet. It can be overwhelming, but it’s important for people like me to not get anguished for too long on the cosmic, greater process. I tend to despair sometimes over meaning. What’s the meaning of a song? Of an album? What does it mean that I’m on stage in front of people? What is this dynamic? What is this relationship? I tend to question all these things and I don't go into them thoughtlessly. Sometimes I need to just relax and get over it. Generally I like that there are so many resources available for musicians, and that the major market music industry has been collapsing for the past decade is really extroadinary because it opens up so many possibilities for creative inquiry, because making music is accessible and affordable now. It’s nice to have restrictions though, I think that in the previous decade it was more challenging to make a record and release it. Now everything is possible, but not everything is permissible or plausible.

Are you still unreservedly motivated to share your music with the world?

Well I just did a tour for three weeks and shared my music with the unsuspecting public, and a lot of it was new material. You always have to wrestle with the motivation behind motivation. Am I creating for myself? For a public? For God? For nothing? Is there just a void? Are all the sounds we create consumed by a vacuum? These are probably juvenile existential qualms, but I can’t help it.

Three songs: 'You Muses Assist' by Alasdair Roberts, 'Ned Ludd's Rant' by Alasdair Roberts, and 'Hazel Forks' by Alasdair Roberts. Spoils is a great great great great great album.

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