Sufjan Stevens Presents ‘Round-Up’ at BAM Harvey Theater: Event Review

Sufjan Stevens is a man of many musical talents. Last night, I had the privilege of experiencing his latest film and music project, Round-Up, a contemplative film with a live score performance. Round-Up is a well-executed film that documents the rodeo events at the 2013 Pendleton Round-Up. Accompanied by a live music ensemble, Sufjan Stevens and musical quartet, Yarn/Wire, served up a magnificent concert. 

The music event took place at the Harvey Theater in the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The venue looked like it has risen from the dead; the architecture shakes at its bare brick walls, and ghosts of decades are carved out of the walls, columns, and ceiling. To the right of the entrance, past the box office, is a spacious waiting area where hard beverages and artisanal sandwiches await the crowd of hungry Sufjan fans. The BAM staff were undeniably friendly, giving the atmosphere a high rating. 

The theater was filled to maximum capacity. Many faces belonged to an older demographic who eagerly waited for showtime. The vast room was a beautiful sight to see. It’s as if the staff were afraid to do any touch-ups because surely in its prime, the theater was perfect the way it was. The lights dimmed low, and Sufjan Stevens alongside Yarn/Wire walked out from behind the red curtains.

As the film began to play, the sound of wind chimes filled the room as the audience gazed upon the beautiful and untouched hills. Taking it one step further, the ensemble began to play fast piano chords and xylophones, while Stevens was on percussion and shaking the tambourine. The music was in sync with the opening credits, coordinating with the slow-motion bodies and white lines covering the screen. 

For every scene, the music would change. In the beginning, different events such as bull and bronco riding and calf roping, were introduced to the audience as a preparation for what’s to come. The hard-hitting percussions and loud piano truly gave that feeling of excitement because at that moment, no one really knew what to expect. Although it was difficult to obtain the set list, it is safe to say that retrieving the names of the tracks were not at all important. The film and live score blended together so beautifully, and the meaning behind the slow-motion documentary was, in fact, more significant. 

The soundtrack uses rhythmic patterns from the percussions, pianos, and xylophones; drones and sound bits were just as crucial to enhance the suspended animation. The theme is man-versus-nature in the old American tradition of western rodeo. Aside from the previously mentioned rodeo events, the audience also experienced barrel racing, Indian relay racing, and a Umatilla parade

The most interesting part, however, is the film’s sequence. It’s as if the events met in the middle and worked their way out. For instance, women dressed in vibrant cowboy costumes covered in silver tinsel, and playing with hula hoops, were first introduced to the audience. The next couple of scenes were of bull and bronco riding, calf roping and barrel racing. The events brought us further into history as we take in the excitement of a Umatilla parade, acknowledging the beautiful and colorful garments of the Confederated tribes of the Indian Reservation. Then, the events worked their way out, showing clips of Indian relay racing, and back to bronco riding. The entire film has reminded me of who it was that first set foot here in America. And it’s truly a meditative film because it made me think how the western culture has changed, and how people in society who are not familiar with Western tradition perceive that culture. 

BAM will be presenting Sufjan Stevens’ Round-Up until January 25, 2015. The film is shown on the Steinberg Screen digital cinema projection system which comprises of a 35×19 ft screen, 30,000-lumen projector, and more than 40 surround-sound speakers. And with the live music ensemble right in front, it is an amazing experience you won’t regret seeing. For more information, check out BAM’s website here.