Fringe, dust, rust, rope, leather, and ample helpings of red, white, and blue: All of these Americana adjectives and artifacts conjure a specific, classic image when the conversation loops around a rodeo. Men tipping cowboy hats, bucking, beautiful beasts, and a chorus of “YEE-HAW!”s are guaranteed to present themselves when a spectator moseys up to an arena or a fairground to watch one of these rough-stock extravaganzas in person. When rodeos are portrayed in movies or cartoons, the scenes are familiar — from the setting to the characters involved, right down to the spur in their step and the twang in their accent.
Country and bluegrass feel like a fitting soundtrack for the festivities, and that’s where Sufjan Stevens seeks to reinvent an American institution.
Stevens has a full year ahead of him with Carrie & Lowell, his forthcoming full-length and first studio release since his last Christmas album, 2012’s Silver & Gold. But the Brooklyn-based songwriter, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist will be kicking off 2015 with the third in a series of collaborations with the Brooklyn Academy of Music — this one titled “Round-Up,” an audio-visual exploration of rodeo and the preconceived notions its surrounding culture entails. As he did for his previous team-ups with BAM, (2007’s “The BQE” and 2013’s “Planetarium”), Stevens and a live musical ensemble will perform before a vivid backdrop. “The BQE” offered up scenes from New York City streets. “Planetarium” projected otherworldly light effects and lasers. “Round-Up” — which features the Queens-based percussion-and-piano quartet Yarn/Wire — treads unfamiliar territory on a more terrestrial level, with surreal scenes from rodeo life unfurling alongside Stevens’s soundscapes.
A few years ago, Stevens spent time road-tripping through the Pacific Northwest and stumbled upon the Pendleton Round-Up, a century-spanning tradition that draws thousands of visitors to the rural reaches of Oregon for a week-long celebration of bull-riding, cattle-roping, relay races, and more each September. He found himself taken with the landscape and the action it inspired — namely, its stereotypically “Western” attributes — and he couldn’t look away from the experience even long after he left Pendleton.
“I’ve been living in New York for fifteen years, so I was really struck by the abnormalities of the uniform, the costumes, the dress, the attire, and the vernacular,” Stevens says. “I felt like such an outsider. Whenever I’m uncomfortable or I feel foreign or alien or I’m on the periphery of something, I get really excited, because I feel like I want to figure it out and make sense of it all. I had never been to a rodeo in my entire life, which is ridiculous. It was like going to a baseball game, but instead of athletes, it’s cowboys. I’m really not into cattle ranching or rodeo per se, but the kind of anachronistic traditions and the aesthetics, the kind of processional approach to everything — they have parades and pageants — all of that seemed really exciting to me.”
Stevens made plans to return to Pendleton for the purpose of shooting footage of the rodeo himself, but other artistic commitments forced him to (happily) relinquish the lens to brothers and documentarians Aaron and Alex Craig. Over the course of the four days the
Craigs and their team spent at Pendleton, they amassed 60 hours of footage, all shot
intensely close up and at a pace that’s about as far from the rodeo’s typical pulse as they could get.
“The film is all shot in slow motion, so it’s meditative and invasive,” says Stevens of “Round-Up”‘s visual component. “They used zoom lenses and they had really close access, so the video starts to investigate this choreographic exchange between man and animal. That’s kind of what the film is about: that relationship and this dynamic that’s incredibly physical and really beautiful.”
The timeless quality of the footage he encountered also played a part in shaping Stevens’s compositions: The Craigs turned a modern lens on Pendleton and the rituals that have taken place in its bullring for well over a hundred years, and their film inspired Stevens to do the same.
“There’s very little sort of modernization of that tradition,” he says. “The hats are the same; the chaps are the same. The only things that really change are the cowboys are carrying iPhones, and the style of the sunglasses. If you blur your eyes and look at the footage they captured, these events could’ve taken place any time in the past 50 years.”
The deliberate choice to reframe the rodeo’s rhythm led Stevens down a slow, sure musical path, one that meets images of rippling bronco muscles and airborne cowboys with the steady hand of a complex, electronic exploration. The snap of a banjo string isn’t present at Stevens’s “Round-Up,” nor is the wail of a lovelorn country ballad — and the shirking of the Americana coil forces the audience to focus on these familiar sights in a new light.
“I want to try to present this footage and this culture in a way that’s not traditional, conventional, nor seen through the orthodoxy of the American West,” says Stevens of the “Round-Up” score. “When we talked to the management at Pendleton, they were really excited and assumed it would be bluegrass or country-western or banjo music, and I was like, ‘No, this is going to be really meditative and Zen.’ The music is very simple, subdued, repetitive, and completely restrained, and it’s not traditional at all. There’s a bit of a dichotomy and an antagonism between the style of the music and the cowboy aesthetic, but I think it’s because of the nature of the footage and the way it was shot at 300 frames per second. What the Craig brothers captured was really a very close, intimate, and voyeuristic presentation of the physicality of the event.”
“Round-Up” speaks to Stevens’s ambidextrous ability with multisensory projects, and though he has no immediate plans to work in an audio-visual capacity on this level in the near future — Carrie & Lowell is calling, after all — his latest engagement at BAM taught him more about process and limits as a creator than he anticipated.
“I’ve been thinking more about how I’m setting a precedent and developing more of an anthropological survey of these traditions,” he says. “Because I do so many things, I need to remind myself first and foremost that I’m a songwriter, and that’s what’s most important. When I work on these side hobby projects, I need to be constantly measuring my commitment levels and make sure I’m not exhausting myself or using all my resources, but to focus on the task at hand and to get it done and not have an existential crisis over it.”