Strings Attached
Sufjan Stevens Goes Orchestral on Two New Projects

For a while now, I’ve been worried that my job might evaporate.

Those of you considering journalism as a career should know a couple of things. First, you’re never going to make a lot of money as a reporter. You have to do it because you love it, not because you’ll be able to buy your dream house. Second, the old journalism model is completely broken, and just about every newspaper in the country is circling the drain.

Back in March, the Chicago Sun-Times, which owns my newspaper, filed for bankruptcy. The heads of the company spent the next six months looking for a buyer, and they found one, only to see the company’s unions resist the deep, deep concessions he asked of them. For about a month, it looked like the deal would fall through, and I and everyone else in the Sun-Times News Group would be out of a job. And so I’ve been saving money and seeking other employment.

That didn’t happen. James Tyree’s new Sun-Times News Group started operations on Monday, kicking off what I believe is a temporary reprieve, but hope is a long-term survival strategy. And while it’s true I’m not getting a pay raise, I’m not going to immediately need those shored-up cash reserves and pithy cover letters I’d amassed. (Which is good, because I didn’t find anything I’d rather be doing than news work anyway.)

So, in a burst of ill-advised enthusiasm, I went online and ordered every album I’d missed over the last two months, while I was being frugal. There are 17 in all, and they’re all winging their way to me as we speak. I think next week’s column will be a large collection of small reviews, most likely, provided I have time to listen to all the new music I’m getting. So there’s your happy ending for you.

That’s next week. This week, two strange yet successful projects from one of my Discoveries of the Decade. But first, another movie review. Bet you can’t wait.

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It’s hard to believe this now, but there was a time when The Blair Witch Project freaked out the entire country.

I promise, it’s true. That ridiculously cheap and improvised experiment in faux-documentary horror looks pretty tatty now, particularly on DVD, and especially with the lights on. “Oh my god, a pile of sticks! Aaaaaah!” Yeah, I know. But it worked at the time – I was caught in its spell during the film’s theatrical run, because it was unlike anything I had seen. It trafficked in anticipation, rather than full-on scares, which I appreciated. And the marketing campaign was amazing. There are probably still people who believe The Blair Witch Project actually happened.

That marketing blitz was so effective that the makers of Paranormal Activity have cloned it. And dammit, it worked again.

Paranormal Activity purports to be found footage, all that remains of a suburban couple’s attempt to find out what is haunting their home. The action never leaves their house, and it’s all captured by Micah and Katie’s video camera, which they purchased to (hopefully) film evidence of the titular activity. They do – long stretches of this movie involve a single long shot of the bedroom and hallway, with very little happening. But the very little that happens is freaky indeed.

Again, I find myself under the spell of a movie that shouldn’t work. But the difference is, Paranormal Activity was made by filmmakers, instead of actors improvising with cameras. The shots are very specific, the lines written, and everything works to thicken that sense of dread. Every time we returned to that long shot of the bedroom, my stomach tied up in knots, and by the end of the movie (an ending which, by the way, mimics Blair Witch almost exactly), I was tense and queasy.

I daresay this movie is more effective than Blair Witch, despite using the same devices. And yet, I have a hard time telling people that it’s scary. It’s more unnerving than anything else, which for me, is much more interesting. If you’re expecting to jump out of your skin, you probably won’t. If you’re expecting to leave the theater shaken and creeped out, well, you might. But you should see Paranormal Activity in the theater. As with Blair Witch, a home viewing will likely not cast the same spell.

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Oh, Sufjan Stevens. Wherefore art thou, Sufjan?

It’s been more than four years since Stevens gave us Illinois, one of the five best albums of the decade. I vividly remember when it came out – it was the talk of that year’s Cornerstone festival, and though I didn’t buy it then, I did shortly thereafter. My first listen is still etched into my brain. I spent the entire 74 minutes waiting for the bad song, and there wasn’t one. I kept gasping, “This album is perfect” under my breath. It was then and it is now. Better than that, it was part of a series, the second of a planned 50 albums, one for each of the 50 states. Seriously.

Now, if pressed, I will say I know that Stevens wasn’t serious. Even if he only took two years between albums, it would take him another 96 years to finish his 50 States Project. I know this. And yet, I still had hope we’d hear a few more brilliant documents like Michigan and Illinois, albums that show a deep love for their subject matter and a scope far beyond it. Failing more 50 States records, I was hoping we’d at least have one more Stevens album by now. Something. Anything.

But aside from the odd track on compilations here and there, all has been quiet at Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty Records. In the four intervening years, we’ve seen a collection of b-sides, a box set of Christmas songs, and nothing else. I hope Stevens has been writing all this time, and we’re in for a double album of excellence sometime in 2010.

But wait, you’re saying. There were two new Sufjan Stevens albums this month, weren’t there? Doesn’t that mean the long drought is over? And to you I say, “Sort of.”

Yes, there are two new Stevens projects on the shelves. But unless you’ve been hoping that Sufjan would drop all that boring folk-pop he does and just concentrate on the orchestral side of his work, I wouldn’t start rejoicing just yet. The first new album is Run Rabbit Run, and it consists of string quartet versions of every song on Stevens’ 2001 electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit. And the second is an instrumental suite dedicated to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Neither of these records is bad. In fact, if you like orchestral music (which I do), they’re both fascinating. Take Run Rabbit Run. The source material was composed and recorded before Stevens had found his 50 States sound – it’s full of scratches and blips and bleeps, all on synthesizers. Still, there are melodies, even though you have to listen to Enjoy Your Rabbit a number of times to find them. It’s a strange anomaly in the Sufjan Stevens catalog.

New York string quartet Osso has taken on the challenge of arranging and performing these loopy pieces faithfully. They’re no stranger to Stevens’ work – they performed on Illinois, and have been part of his touring Illinoisemakers band. They clearly have great respect for the man and his music, so trust me when I say they performed these pieces faithfully. Every dissonant bloop, every white noise scratch, every electronic shimmer is transcribed and played on violins, violas and cellos.

It’s a fascinating listen. But really, it’s only worth that one listen. I promise you, you’ll be reaching for Run Rabbit Run as often as you do Enjoy Your Rabbit. This record obviously took a tremendous amount of time to put together, and these pieces sound as difficult to play as some of Frank Zappa’s orchestral work. But even after all that, it’s still a curiosity, still just a weird footnote in Stevens’ discography.

The BQE is much better, and much closer to a proper Sufjan Stevens album. Originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and performed in 2007, The BQE is a multimedia piece orbiting around a 40-minute orchestral suite composed and arranged by Stevens. It comes in an elaborate, yet very odd package, its artwork scrawled with nearly unreadable electronic graffiti, and in addition to the CD, you get a DVD containing Stevens’ mini-movie set to the score, and a ViewMaster reel telling the story of the Hooper Heroes, the three hula-hooping stars of that short film.

Cut right down to the musical core, however, and you’ll find something that sounds very much like the more instrumental passages of Illinois. “Introductory Fanfare for the Hooper Heroes” is suitably grand, its repeated brass section motif coming off both nostalgic and triumphant. The first movement, “In the Countenance of Kings,” is gloriously languid, not so much building as ebbing and flowing. The second, “Sleeping Invader,” has some nice staccato brass bursts atop a sweet string bed.

The biggest surprise comes as the third movement (“Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise”) segues into the fourth (“Traffic Shock”). As the strings and horns build up, Stevens throws in a mess of electronic beats and noise, and it’s startling – what was up until this point a gently swaying chamber piece comes alive. I’m not sure it works, not entirely, but it does inject some energy into the piece, and puts you at attention for the second half.

Stevens never pulls a trick like that again, but the remainder of The BQE is just as well-written as the first half. The question is, will you care much beyond one or two listens? I’ve come back to The BQE a lot more that I have Run Rabbit Run, but if I’m honest, the trilling flutes and brass fanfares just make me want to listen to Illinois again. I don’t want to be one of those clamoring for a “real” Sufjan Stevens album, because it’s obvious that to him, The BQE qualifies. And it is excellent work, an orchestral piece that retains the character of its composer.

But try as it may – and it does, mightily – it’s just not what I want. Four years after Stevens rewrote my life with Illinois, I’m still waiting for the next chapter. I applaud Stevens for taking on The BQE, because it was clearly a challenging labor of love. I’d just be a lot more receptive to it if I knew that the lyrical songwriter I love so much was still in there somewhere, aching to get out. If this is a side path, I’m on board – as I said, The BQE is excellent, for what it is. But if it’s a destination, then it’s one I didn’t expect, and while I’m not disembarking just yet, I’m hoping the next stop is more to my liking.

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Next week, whole bunches of things. As always, thanks for reading. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Twitter at

See you in line Tuesday morning.