Photography by Ed Lefkowicz
Music is meant to be visualized. It slows the world down and molds a mental image of what we’re hearing. For some, it’s made of personal memories. For others, it’s the synesthetic bursts of abstract shapes. So when musicians try their hand at other mediums, there’s a lot to be explored. Is this product what they hope their songs evoke, or is this what the song leads them to visualize? Does a single, proper way to view music even exist? When a section of life unfolds in front of you with vivid starkness, it becomes invaluable in its rawness, and, as any fervent artist would tell you, an urgency sweeps over to share this creature before time kneads its candor away.
Three years ago, Sufjan Stevens was tromping around western America for an immersive road trip. He found himself in eastern Oregon that summer, and at 36 years old, he was fascinated by the Pendleton Round-Up, the 100-year-old aggressive Oregon tradition of bull-riding, relay races, and cattle-roping that drew thousands and showed no signs of stopping anytime soon. He stood on the edge of the grandstand as an outsider. This was man versus animal disguised in patriotic costumes, and the gruff imbalance branded itself into his mind. Instead of reaching for his banjo, he reached for a camera.
So, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter grabbed filmmakers Alex and Aaron Craig, returned to the event, and shot 60 hours of footage in 300-frames-per-second glory. Round-Up is a gripping documentary told through slow motion, and unlike his natural storytelling, Stevens relies more on style and composition than wordy ramblings. Live, it feels like a dream. Opening footage of a cowboy slowly drawing from his cigarette — a Marlboro, of course — is merged with shots of women hula hooping in silver wigs. You can practically hear the crack of the ropes, the vernacular spritzed on their lips, and the thud of their backs flat on the ground when their horses lose their balance. There’s no narrative here; the 75-minute film and live score gorgeously hint at the similarities between humans, animals, and the untouched Earth.
It’s a purely aesthetical and conceptual piece elaborated by Stevens’ mesmerizing score. He predominantly manned electronics, keys, and sleigh bells while the Yarn/Wire quartet took over grand pianos and dragged bows across xylophones. The influences, while obvious, fit snuggly, namely the repetitive trance of Philip Glass mirroring the glossy onscreen nod to Werner Herzog. A baby calf darting across the field was soundtracked by an a cappella number. Hula-hoopers in gaudy cowgirl outfits batted silver eyelashes to glitch electronic ecstasy. Brooklyn’s BAM Harvey Theater turned into a crumbling relic held together by minimalist themes.
This isn’t the first time Sufjan Stevens has explored artistic formats. He awkwardly danced his way through the Age of Adz tour in neon Duct Tape, cut paper ornaments for his most recent Christmas box set, and got ink underneath his nails for a comic book. For some reason, this feels much different. Unlike his BAM works, 2007’s The BQE and 2013’s Planetarium, this came across as a fully finished work that refrained from taking itself too seriously. Stevens’ outfit — red Converse, a black T-shirt with a cheetah roaring, and a faded mustard baseball cap curved from the nerves of stressed hands — made sure of that. Round-Up easily could have been a black tie affair.
The Craig brothers have a beautiful intimacy in their work that kept the violent flailing of rodeos from being painful. Instead, the orthodoxy of the American West was zen. A cowboy’s lasso twirled in the air to heartfelt piano, plunging around a cow’s neck with unfamiliar ease. As the body jolted back, it moved with a rubber elasticity, the rippling muscles looking, oddly enough, relaxed. The violence of human-versus-nature came across as a give and take. Part is due to how Stevens’ music placed curiosity and regality atop the slow-motion movements, indulging in a multi-sensory voyeuristic dichotomy. It’s the same style we saw in the brothers’ video for Stevens’ “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, but here, the slow-motion run of a bronc and whipping flags in a parade felt like modern marvels. There’s a nostalgia for the western world we’ve forgotten, but here we are, watching it unfold from across the country.
The audience’s heart rate slowed as a collective in realization. We are the cowboy. We are the cow. We are the hula-hoopers and the children’s toothless grins and the string of spit that flies from the calf’s gums in defeat. The slowed suspension of moving images allowed for a clear, concise meditation on the manipulation of nature and our acceptance of it as innocuous. Maybe that’s why each performer bowed with demure charm come the end.
Afterwards, I waited for the subway underground. The surroundings were more in line with The BQE — spinning wheels, squeaking trains, rusting pillars — but everything sounded muted. I watched a rat scamper on the tracks. Eventually, he locked eyes on a half-eaten orange. He grabbed it and began walking backwards, dragging it to a crevice in the tracks where a dirty napkin and crumbled burger wrapper lay. With two paws on both sides of the opening, he pried it wide and burrowed his face deep inside before sinking his teeth into the orange and pulling a chunk clean from the rind, translucent pulp hanging off his front teeth. Had this been captured the same way as Round-Up, the dynamics would change. His wandering eyes would look hopeful, the discarded fruit would look fertile, the napkin like a picnic blanket. The farther he shoved his head in, the more delicate his moves looked, like the particular cuts and divides of slicing the Thanksgiving turkey.
His violent rips at the pulp looked harmonic, concerned, intentional, something I’ve never considered before with rats. Rarely do we process life, let alone moments, that slowly. Music is the most accessible way to slow down time. It’s also a reminder that time doesn’t actually exist, giving us the freedom to create meaning from anything, including the single note of a rat’s squeak as the subway train comes flying overhead, plunging him into temporary darkness.