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BAM’s traffic jam

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It started off like any other drive. Strapped into my seat last Saturday night, I gritted my teeth as the guy behind me got too close for comfort. Traffic in the lane to my right was a nightmare, and blinking lights had everyone in a panic. I wasn’t driving on the BQE, though; I was sitting in the opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, watching Sufjan Stevens perform his ode to it.

Once everyone finally parked and the motor mouths silenced, the real ride began. Kicking off the 30-minute, BAM-commissioned love letter to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, entitled “The BQE,” was a Super-8 film. A screen, split into three, showed scenes of the road from Queens to Coney Island; there were the formerly industrial spaces in DUMBO and vinyl-sided houses in Williamsburg, cars in stop-and-go traffic and gorgeous shots of streaky red brake lights at night. From the get-go, it was clear that Stevens had shifted into overdrive for this project.

The 32-year-old musician, known for his folksy, orchestral indie rock and plan to record a record extolling the virtues of all 50 states (so far Stevens has managed Michigan and Illinois), went all out. In addition to composing the music, which echoed the sounds of traffic over otherwise pleasant strings and woodwinds, Stevens shot the film and directed the production, which included a troupe of five hula hoopers performing a long, and surprisingly well-choreographed, routine.

Stevens joked about issues of civic pride being behind the project, but previously told GO Brooklyn, “In some ways, as a roadway, it reflects the kind of dizziness, constant motion, perpetual motion and activity of Brooklyn.” In watching the film and hearing the sounds, what struck me was the opportunity the show afforded each audience member to take away a unique experience. When I caught a glimpse of the Grade Fair market on Fourth Avenue, I thought of nights on the roof across the street where a friend used to live, and a shot of Astroland provoked cravings for a pistachio-banana cone from Deno’s. Stevens’s film was more than just images, it was a series of triggers.

Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with hubcaps, the 30-member orchestra was the backbone of the performance. Stevens himself was at the piano and out of the spotlight and those dazzling hoopers (sometimes spinning glow-in-the-dark hoops) were the eye candy, but the musicians producing the bulk of the sound had the power of a Mack truck. The seven-part composition was rocky at times, but so is the road. The orchestra’s obvious enthusiasm for the work shone through like high beams.

Not that the composer was a slacker. After “The BQE” rolled to a stop, Stevens came back on stage and performed over an hour’s worth of his older material. Judging by the cheers, this was what some of the audience had been waiting for. (I heard one fan say that he had been to all three of Stevens’s performances, and the Kensington resident didn’t disappoint, playing favorites like “Casimir Pulaski Day,” with a thousand-watt grin plastered across his face and, at one point, wings strapped to his back.)

Besides more comfortable seats at the Harvey Theater, “The BQE” might be the best investment that BAM could have made. While it’s programming is always on the experimental side for a large institution, productions like this really encapsulate what’s happening in the borough and introduce BAM to a slew of visitors who might not otherwise visit.

It’s exactly the traffic that should be driving the borough’s arts scene.

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