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Sufjan Stevens in Pacific Heights

July 30, 2009

Alec Duffy has taken a lot of flack for his unconventional approach to sharing a piece of music. Duffy (pictured), a Brooklyn-based theatre director, won the 2007 Sufjan Stevens Christmas song-swap contest -- a song-writing competition wherein Stevens pledged to send a copy of an unreleased single to the composer who sent in the best original song. Around 600 people entered the competition. Duffy's song, "It's Christmas Every Day," won.

Instead of uploading Stevens' song, "The Lonely Man of Winter," on the Web, Duffy, together with his friend and fellow composer Dave Malloy, decided to organize special private listening sessions for small groups of people interested in hearing Stevens' song. This decision created an enormous backlash in fan circles, who felt that Duffy and Malloy should have taken a more democratic approach to sharing the song by making it available instantly on the Internet so anyone could hear it whenever they liked. The media got involved: several articles on the subject have appeared in the last few months in such publications as The Village Voice, New York Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. And the blogosphere has been bouncing with commentary.

Dave happens to be a friend of mine. So last night, I had the privilege of being part of the latest "Lonely Man of Winter" presentation and listening session -- the second such session to take place in the Bay Area. It was one of the quirkiest cultural evenings I've experienced in a long time and I fully support Duffy and Malloy's intimate theatrical approach to sharing the song. Although it's not as easy to hear "The Lonely Man" this way as it is to download it off the Internet, the setup makes he experience far more special. And it's not as if the curators of the event are being exclusive about who gets to hear the tune. Anyone can get in touch with them and organize a listening session. Obviously not everyone can fly to New York to do this. But the fact that sessions are now taking place elsewhere suggests that there may be more possibilities to hear the song outside New York as time goes on.

I'm not a huge Sufjan Stevens fan. I went along out of curiosity more than than anything else. Dave and I met for dinner at a Burmese restaurant in the Richmond district (the excellent Burma Superstar) and the walked up the hill to the well-endowed Pacific Heights home of a complete stranger.

Elizabeth, a Sufjan fan of several years, had read about Alec's song in the Wall Street Journal and had asked him to get in touch if ever a listening session were planned for the Bay Area. She said she would be happy to host. Another local groupie, Daniel, had sent a similar inquiry. With Dave in town to act as host and MC, and both Elizabeth and Daniel instructed to invite one friend apiece, the group (which totaled 7 owing to the unexpected presence of Elizabeth's spouse) was ready to go.

As soon as we arrived, Dave and I set about making chocolate chip cookies (a tradition of these listening sessions, I'm told.) Daniel made oolong tea in a tiny teapot. Sufjan Stevens music played on the speakers as we busied ourselves. In the course of conversation, we found out that no less then three of us play the oboe. I hear Stevens likes to score oboe parts in his songs, but the number was still exceptionally high by any standard.

Then, when everything was ready, Dave set up his laptop and we connected via skype to Alec in New York. He was sitting in his bath robe, ready for bed, but seemed happy to make our acquaintance. He told the story of the competition and the controversy. He read aloud the letter which Stevens had sent him when he won the competition. We asked some questions. Eventually, Alec signed off and the music part of the evening began.

First, Dave played a recording of the contest-winning song that Alec wrote. It was a lovely, simple thing, with Alec's voice sailing plaintively over the top of spacious block chords. I was charmed. Then more laptops were brought out. We all put headphones on, and on Dave's command, pressed play to hear the Stevens' song. I liked it quite a lot. Sad Christmas songs are more my kind of thing than happy ones. This one was pretty melancholy. Sleigh bells entered at one point to give the thing a slightly festive feel. In general, it left an odd mixture of warmth and chill inside me. We listened twice.

I looked around the room as I listened, hoping to catch my fellow audience members' eyes. But no one looked up. Everyone kept their gaze focused on the floor or middle distance. It was really hard to read the expressions on their faces. Daniel looked the most blissed out. But other than that, people gave nothing away.

A few minutes after the song finished playing for the second time, we all packed up our stuff, said our goodbyes and ambled out into the foggy night.

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