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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to hear a grand celebration of a modest highway. It's the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It snakes between warehouses and apartments in New York City. This battered old roadway turns up in the movie "Quick Change." Bill Murray and Geena Davis play bank robbers asking for directions to the BQE.

(Soundbite of movie, "Quick Change")

Ms. GEENA DAVIS (As Phyllis Potter): We want to get on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) What?

Ms. DAVIS (As Phyllis Potter): The BQE.

Unidentified Man: (as character) What? You know, geez, we don't know where that is.

INSKEEP: In the movie a pair of construction workers cannot direct them, even though they just took down a sign that once pointed the way.

(Soundbite of movie, "Quick Change")

Mr. BILL MURRAY (As Grimm): You know, I want to thank you guys. You could've given us help, but you've given us so much more.

Unidentified Man: (as character) Hey, that's what we're here for, right?

INSKEEP: This expressway has not turned up in very many other works of art -until now. The musician Sufjan Stevens made it his inspiration for an album called "The BQE." He created a soundtrack for an expressway that may resemble a road you take everyday. It's clogged with cars and perpetually under construction. Stevens begins with a steady electric sound that feels like a traffic jam.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Stevens spent months on this roadway watching the expressions on his fellow drivers' faces.

Mr. SUFJAN STEVENS (Musician): It's sheer horror or resentment, anger. It's man transformed into beast. And there's vindictiveness and then hopelessness. It's a great insight into the psychology of man, is put a human being behind the wheel of a car and put him on the BQE.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: So just as I kind of get my shoulders really tense from listening to that intense and lengthy noise, suddenly I hear what sounds almost like Gershwin music to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVENS: Right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVENS: Well, this movement has a certain sort of respect for Brooklyn. It's called "In The Countenance Of Kings," and obviously that's a play on words for Kings County, which is Brooklyn. And I think it's a real almost like a love poem for Brooklyn. It's looking at all the buildings and the roads and the people and it's sort of a romantic view of Brooklyn.

INSKEEP: Romantic, even though parts of it are decayed, like this roadway that you put at the center of your piece here.

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah. I mean, my job as an artist is to find beauty where there's ugliness. And I think this project is all about the beautification of a dilapidated, you know, object of scorn. I would have a hard time writing a piece about the Brooklyn Bridge or Grand Army Plaza because these to me are museum pieces and they have sort of an inflated history. And you know, I can't really get my hands around these objects because they're so iconic.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: I had a sudden image of children dancing in a field somewhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah. Well, that's, you know, this is also a score to a film and in the film I introduce these hula-hoopers that sort of act as these kind of like enlightened beings.

INSKEEP: As hula hoopers so often are.

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah. It's sort of a trance-like sport.

INSKEEP: Just so I understand, did you import hula-hoopers to the BQE, or are they a natural phenomenon here?

Mr. STEVENS: No. I imported them. They're imposed. It sort of comes from that whole tradition of ceremoniously opening up a roadway in the '50s in which they would bring in a marching band and there would be baton twirlers, and I think the hula-hoopers are sort of related to the baton twirlers.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This music makes me want to talk in a newsreel announcer voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Spanning the globe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: A new highway opens in New York City.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: That's what you're thinking of there - those old newsreels with the ribbon cutting or smashing a bottle of champagne on the highway or whatever they may have done.

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah. I mean so much of the score is beautifully dated. You know, I was - spent so much time meditating on this object of the '50s. Everything began to feel really sort of heightened and romantic.

INSKEEP: Do you on balance like driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway?

Mr. STEVENS: I can't get enough of it. I spent nine months of my life driving back and forth filming this project and writing the score. And I think through that I reached enlightenment. Traffic no longer bothers me. And I love that they're constantly renovating it and it's changing, and I notice all the little places where they're adding shoulders and rebuttressing and repainting.

INSKEEP: I feel like I'm talking with a character from Siddhartha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: The novel about the guy who goes through different stages of life seeking wisdom and ends up as - basically as a simple ferry boat.

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVENS: Well, I think a lot of this piece is about enlightenment. It's transcending the mundane elements of everyday life and finding inner peace. You have to find your little quiet corner of solitude.

INSKEEP: And your quiet corner just happens to be stuck in traffic.

Mr. STEVENS: Exactly. That's where I belong.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Sufjan Stevens is a resident of Brooklyn and composer of "The BQE," commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. See the video that goes with that music at NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's NPR News.

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