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Sounds of city streets
Culture Column by Martin Smith, December 2009
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) rips through the heart of two of New York's finest boroughs.
If you ever get a chance to drive along it, your journey will take you through a cityscape of dilapidated factories, graffitied walls and in the distance the gleaming skyscrapers of Manhattan.
I want to take a musical journey through the eyes of the composer Aaron Copland and the multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens. Just like the BQE, it's a journey of the old and the new.
Let's start with the old - Aaron Copland. Copland was born in Brooklyn of Lithuanian Jewish descent in 1900. The gifted Copland returned from a spell in Europe in the 1920s, full of musical ideas. His early work was a rejection of populist musical styles. As he himself said, "In my early life, I wrote music for a self-selected elite."
But the self-selected elite didn't pay the rent. The commercial and critical failures of his early major works, Symphonic Ode (1929) and Short Symphony (1933), caused him to rethink the paradigm of composing orchestral music. He became influenced by the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik ("music for use") and made a musical U-turn to write music that could serve both a utilitarian and artistic purpose - musical scores for plays, films and radio gave him a wider appeal.
There was another pull on Copland and the modernists of his generation - the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that ensued. Not only did it pull Copland to the left politically, but musically it reinforced his desire to reach a wider audience.
Copland joined a branch of the Workers Music League, the Pierre Degeyter Club (named after the composer of the Internationale). Influenced by the politics of the Communist Party (CPUSA) this group of composers - Marc Blitzstein, Henry Cowell, Charles Seeger, Copland and others - wrote popular songs, produced journals and encouraged each other to create "proletarian music".
Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock was the most important piece of work that came out of this group.
Copland became influenced by the idea of creating musical landscapes that reflected an idea of "American democracy". This was in tune with the CPUSA turn towards to the Popular Front in the mid-1930s. Compositions like Appalachian Spring and Four Dance Episodes from "Rodeo" both use a musical language to suggest the open spaces of the American West and a pioneering spirit.
His most famous composition, Fanfare for the Common Man, exalts a strong sense of patriotism and democracy in a similar vein to Frank Capra's films and Woody Guthrie's anthem, This Land Is Your Land. Despite the Great Depression and because of the Second World War, Copland's music is full of hope, progress and democratic zeal.
That's the old. Now let's look at the new - Sufjan Stevens.
Multi-instrumentalist Stevens was born in Detroit in 1975. Although he has recorded music in many different styles his music is rooted in the lo-fi folk tradition. He is working on his "Fifty States Project" to write an album about each state in the US. So far he has written two, Michigan and Illinois. But it's his latest album - The BQE - that interests me the most.
The BQE was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The project is dubbed a "symphonic and cinematic exploration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway".
And that is exactly what it is. The music is lush. There are no vocals. Gone are the acoustic guitars and banjos and in their place is a 26-piece orchestra. It is achingly reminiscent of Copland. The music evokes the image of the road that brings life to New York and yet at the same time you sense a city in decay.
The CD also includes a DVD (shot in Super 8mm film and standard 16mm) of multiple images of the BQE. It is a cross between a Kraftwerk video and Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. Like one of those people who stand on motorway bridges staring at the traffic below, the viewer becomes mesmerised as cars and the expressway merge.
Copland's compositions were a form of classical folk music based on an ideal of endless optimism and democratic hope - by the end of the 1940s the US was a country at the height of its power. Six decades on, we see Stevens, a musician rooted in the lo-fi folk scene, creating a sound inspired by Copland. But while it is a celebration of a city, this time it also paints a picture of a society on the road to nowhere.
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