If the singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens can write a tender ballad about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, as he did on his 2005 album "Illinois," then surely he has the musical sophistication to find poignancy in a subject as ungainly as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Say what? Sure, the Brooklyn Bridge has stirred the imaginations of poets, painters, and songwriters. Even the 59th Street Bridge had Simon and Garfunkel feeling groovy. But as epic landmarks of civil engineering go, the BQE is about as inspiring as a garbage truck. Unless you are Sufjan Stevens.
"I've always been obsessed with roadways," he said. The performer was talking recently as he prepared the music and staging for "The BQE," a commission from the Brooklyn Academy of Music that opens a three-night run on Thursday as part of the 2007 Next Wave Festival. The arrangement required Mr. Stevens to focus on a Brooklyn theme, and it occurred to him that all he ever heard about the expressway was its negative side — like the way its construction destroyed neighborhoods as the project wound along an 11.7-mile path across the four decades it took to complete.
"Bad planning, congestion, pollution," said the 32-year-old singer, who has lived in six Brooklyn neighborhoods since moving to New York seven years ago, and who has stated a desire to write a song cycle about every state in the union. "I knew there was something greater to say about it. It's a good way to read the history of Brooklyn from pre-war to World War II to the postwar era. Originally, it was built for transportation purposes, but during the war it served defense purposes. After the war, it was there to create jobs. I think it's much more relevant now than ever, with the building boom around the city, and the Atlantic Yards project. It's hard to imagine we're living in an era with hundreds of projects going on simultaneously."
The production "The BQE" may not be the most obvious sort for Next Wave, which often leans on long-established performing artists for its programs. But BAM's executive producer, Joseph Melillo, apparently decided to take the meaning of "next" to heart.
"It's going to be a big surprise to everyone," he said of "The BQE," which was initiated after several conversations with Mr. Stevens, of whom Mr. Melillo became a fan when one of his staff members gave him a copy of "Illinois," a song cycle about the Midwestern state. "Sufjan lived in Brooklyn and I thought he should have a relationship with this institution," he said. "He's an incredible resource to call on."
As fertile an imagination as the songwriter possesses, the BQE posed a huge challenge. Mr. Stevens consulted the standard text, Robert Caro's "The Power Broker," a biography of the urban planner Robert Moses, who masterminded the roadway. Mostly, Mr. Stevens had to dig up details from scratch.
"It was an exercise in observation," he said. "We scouted every square inch of this serpentine, ugly roller-coaster expressway. When you look at everything else around it, it doesn't make sense. It just ploughs through. It has no business being there. It's just there."
The composer worked up a wordless suite which will be played by a small orchestra, accompanied by projections of films shot on a 16mm camera by Mr. Stevens and an associate. "We went out there every day for nine months," he recalled. "Some days we'd be out there for 17 hours. I didn't think I would get physically ill, but I did."
Though captivated by the occasional "breathtaking panorama," Mr. Stevens may have been internalizing the worst of what he saw. "I was really struck by the deterioration," he said, "by how difficult it is to maintain a modern transit structure through the years. I've seen ancient monuments in better shape."
Yet the songwriter kept looking, and as he did, he took note of some heartening contradictions.
"I really like the part that runs below Carroll Gardens," he said. "It's submerged and there's an overpass that, as a pedestrian, gives you unusual access to what's going on." Mr. Stevens was particularly impressed with the scenery of Newtown Creek, a nightmarishly polluted body of water near the Brooklyn-Queens border in Greenpoint.
"People are kayaking in there," he said. "And there's a real wildlife presence. It's all marshland and it never went away. I believe nature always wins. It's losing the fight now, but in the end it will destroy us."