More Adz and Ends: Sufjan Stevens Bonus Interview
In the course of publishing an interview, editing is inevitable. My recent three-part interview with Sufjan Stevens is no exception. In this post comprised of discussions that didn’t make it into the interview proper, the artist talks about the music of Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Shara Worden–who will open for Stevens at his August 2 concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park–architecture,the term “composer,” his perspective on contemporary music criticism, and more.
Daniel J Kushner: Your music has been appropriated for a wide variety of music purposes, as string quartet music, hip-hop samples, and also as ballet music. Does this extrapolation of your work s inform how you think about what you do?
Sufjan Stevens: Yeah. I mean, I think that music has a function, and we forget that it can have mutiple functions and it can be site-specific…And I think there’s something very iconoclastic about going into an H&M store and being accosted by techno music or dance music, because I think that that’s a misuse of form. The form itself, it’s meant to engage with movement and bodies, and you know, the dance floor. And we go in the restaurant, and there are these speakers everywhere and they’re imposing this music on us. And I think that we’ve become even careless in how we do music and exploit it, and it’s part of this constant soundtrack. So I think about function a lot.
One of the reasons why I don’t like to play outdoor festivals is cause I think there’s something really sacrilegious about blasting sound through a huge PA system in an outdoor environment. There’s something very environmentally irresponsible about that, you know? There’s something very strange about that that I’ve always had trouble dealing with. I like to think that music can have multiple functions but should always be sort of deliberate and responsible and sort of accommodating to each environment….I don’t think as a society we’re ever going to grow weary of music. I think it’s always going to be valuable. It’s funny, cause I think of architecture as being vital. Architecture is this sort of discipline in creating space which [sic] we inhabit, and architecture matters more than anything else because it’s all about physical matter that covers us. We live in these rooms, in these spaces.
Music has no physical matter at all, it’s just waves, I guess. I don’t even know what it is. It’s just waves. And yet emotionally and psychologically it matters to us probably far more than architecture. I think people have more opinions and allegiances to songs and styles than they would to architecture, for some reason. And I don’t know why that it is, even though it doesn’t matter—like physically doesn’t have matter. It still matters more to people. It’s a mysterious thing.
Kushner: I wouldn’t ask the question about labels if it didn’t seem so relevant. In talking to contemporary composers, it just seems to be this ever-present issue that some people really take personally. Is it contemporary classical? Is it indie classical? There are all these terms floating out there that people choose either to utilize or avoid. It’s a really perplexing problem without a real answer. The label itself doesn’t say anything or explain anything about the music itself.
Stevens: Yeah, well music journalism and music criticism today is pretty sloppy and irresponsible with language, and there’s actually no accountability in terms of the kind of flagrant labels they use. There are a lot of run-on lists of descriptors and modifiers that aren’t usually very responsible. And I think I’m less interested in these descriptors and modifiers than I am in concrete nouns. I think if you’re going to call something what it is, you should use a noun, because a noun holds up better…
[Writers are] really desperate to kind of describe something, but they describe it as a list of modifiers that are constantly cross-referencing or alluding to previous work. It just feels very kind of insular and circular and reductive….it makes for really clumsy prose, cause as a reader you have to wade through all those references and there’s no concrete terminology on which to stand so that as a reader you feel confident about the subject at hand. Maybe it’s just an inherent problem in music journalism or writing about music, because music doesn’t have shape or form—like you said, it’s ephemeral. It’s extremely subjective, and it’s a mysterious phenomenon, and the desperate need to categorize is indication of how mysterious music is.
Kushner: I was wondering what you thought of the current music scene in New York, particularly the Ecstatic Music Festival?
Stevens: [Shara Worden] did a My Brightest Diamond show with all new material…I was kind of blown away by Shara’s new songs because they’re really exuberant and very generous and dynamic, and they were very confusing too. I was having that conundrum, that labeling conundrum, wanting to to reduce it to a formula, form or term, and afterwards I was just baffled by it all. And I kind of liked being really confused. Some of it was like weird 60s Gospel/Broadway theater, there was like a theatrical element to it, there was dance. Some of it was just real simple folk, but then it had all these really kind of dense wind arrangements, tone colors and flourishes. But then it had these big fat beats too. It was very beat heavy, and it felt kind of like poppy and hip-hoppy. She’s becoming more soulful…I was really confused by it all, but where her other previous stuff has been very focused, you know? She was doing this dark gothic rock thing, and all this new material is really turned away from that and is much more dynamic, more joyful.
Kushner: It seems like she’s emerging into the most natural version of her creative self, or a fuller representation of her creativity. I think that was the nature of that festival as a whole. I think if you walked away confused in terms of how to categorize something, it’s probably a good thing. For me, this happens in your music too. In the cases of songwriters like you and Shara and others, I don’t really separate composer from singer-songwriter. I think you’re all composers who happen to use song as your medium of choice.
Gustav Mahler is a composer, but he’s most well known for writing songs. Technically, he was a songwriter, but no one refers to him as a songwriter. I don’t know what distingiuishes someone from being a composer or not being a composer. I don’t make that distinction, but as we’ve determined, that distinction doesn’t matter so much. [Editor's note: Upon initial publication, the quote contained in this paragraph was incorrectly attributed to Sufjan Stevens. This quote was in fact spoken by the interviewer.]
Stevens: Who cares what I think, too, because I think that my hesitation with the term composer, it’s like personal hang-ups with the connotations of that word, composer and composition. And my instinct is to dumb down what I do. I always just want to keep it simple. People ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I write songs.” They say, what kind of music, and I just say, “Pop music.” End of conversation. It’s such a vague, kind of all-encompassing term, but it’s good enough for me.
Kushner: Is the connotation of the composer that it’s too complex and not accessible enough?
Stevens: Maybe, that it’s too important, more important than I’m willing to concede.
Kushner: Maybe music somehow feels more personal [than architecture]. You can take ownership and make it your own more than you can take ownership of that great building you walked by. I think that’s what it is, at least in part…
Stevens: An object, just by the nature of its physical being, resists possession in a way because it’s an object, you know. You can’t carry around a building obviously. You can’t possess it, in a way. I guess you can own it, like real estate, but that’s short=lived anyway. Music is nebulous. We talk about intellectual property of music, but that’s just politics. I don’t know what that means. That’s why I really believe that the song sustains its own consciousness and is dispossessed of its owner, and then it basically yields to the multitudes of listeners, of consumers, and everyone owns the song.
It’s such a relief for me to acknowledge that because I feel far less possessive of my own music, and I feel lest earnest and less despairing about its worth, or its value, and more willing to just make it, create it, do my best work possible, and then give it away.
Kushner: Precisely because it never belonged to you to begin with?
Stevens: Yeah. It’s not concrete so it doesn’t feel like I own it. It feels nebulous.
Kushner: The implication that you’re presenting is really interesting, which is that the physical things that one can make into a commodity or possess, those are the things that you actually can’t control, and it’s the things that seem totally intangible and unattainable, and those are the things you can really own. I think that’s a really epiphanic thought. It’s kind of revelatory, and it flies in the face of our culture for sure…
Stevens: We’re born into this world naked and screaming, with no possessions. And we leave in the same way, you know? We can’t take it with us. All we have is our bodies and our souls and that’s it. I don’t even think our bodies are our own. I think that’s just borrowed. So give it away, that’s what I say. Give it away.
NOTE: Sufjan Stevens’s August 2 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn is sold out. For more information on the August 3 concert, visit Celebrate Brooklyn! here.