With ‘Round-Up,’ Sufjan Stevens Goes to the Rodeo — But Not the Country

(Photo by Ed Lefkowicz for BAM)
(Photo by Ed Lefkowicz for BAM)

In 2007, when people were expecting Sufjan Stevens to make another modest ode to Midwestern depression, he offered up a film project inspired by one of New York City’s greatest eyesores: the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The BQEhis first work commissioned by local arts institution Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), paired footage of the outer boroughs and its raised highway with an orchestral score as dramatic as it gets, seemingly in an attempt to extract beauty from an urban monstrosity. This week, Stevens premiered a counterpoint of sorts to The BQE via his second BAM-commissioned soundtrack, Round-Up. (If The BQE is any indication, the score will be released later on down the line, too.)

As Stevens declared in the program’s bill, “The BQE is about man and machine, and the conquest of industry on the East Coast. Round-Up is about man and animal, and the conquest of nature in the West.” In the process of pointing out this juxtaposition, Round-Up became a more human film than its counterpart. It also spoke to the performative masculinity and femininity at play in the distinctly American tradition of the rodeo.

(Photo by Ed Lefkowicz for BAM)
(Photo by Ed Lefkowicz for BAM)

Stevens shared the stage at BAM’s Harvey Theater with just four others, the members of New York percussion and piano group Yarn/Wire. An hour’s worth of footage shot at the 2013 Pendleton RoundUp in Oregon by We Are Film‘s Aaron and Alex Craig was projected on the screen behind them. Visually, the effect was a stunning thing to behold — all primary colors flashing by in slow motion. The additional footage shot in Brooklyn and upstate New York this past July — of rodeo-inspired hula hoop and lasso dancers, decked out in absurd amounts of tinsel fringe — felt a bit out of place, but it was also the footage the facilitated the most stereotypically Sufjan sounds: twinkly, fast-paced flashes of bells and piano. Still, there was an unsettling feeling behind all the manufactured glamour — appropriately, perhaps, since the same was true of the masculine posturing at the heart of the Craig brothers’ bronco and bull riding footage.

As bull riders waited for their turn in the ring, Yarn/Wire’s percussionists matched the tension with bowed glockenspiels, an instrument rarely seen but used to great effect in conjuring sparse eeriness. At times the sound reached life-affirming largeness that felt too big for rodeo imagery — a point of view I imagine Stevens would expect from an East Coast audience. The sound of life and death — rather than the sound of the West — was achieved with various percussion instruments, pianos and keyboards, and Stevens’ laptop effects. Stevens did not fall into the trap of overusing country western or Native American musical traditions in any way, only employing his trusty acoustic guitar for a folk song as the credits rolled.

(Photo by Ed Lefkowicz for BAM)
(Photo by Ed Lefkowicz for BAM)

Round-Up acknowledged some of the signature instrumentation of Stevens’ solo albums, but mostly it showed that he is capable of creating soundtracks that neither mimic himself nor the worn visual themes of his inspiration. Stevens created something else entirely, something that celebrated traditions like calf roping and Indian relay racing with a distinctly outsider perspective that neither claimed it as its own nor shunned it as barbaric.

Rodeo opened January 20 and runs through January 25.