As The Jazz Gallery heads into 2016, it still has a few special 20th Anniversary Concerts in store. The first one, happening this weekend, features the return of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society to our stage. The Gallery was an early supporter of the band’s work, commissioning Argue’s pieces “Jacobin Club” and “Obsidian Flow” as part of our 2008-2009 Large Ensemble Residency.
Argue’s most recent project, a multimedia theater piece about conspiracy theories called Real Enemies, premiered this past November at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to much acclaim. Secret Society will perform music from this project, as well as other unrecorded works, at The Gallery this weekend. We spoke with Mr. Argue this week about the musical structures undergirding Real Enemies, documenting the piece in the studio, and the elemental attraction of live performance.
The Jazz Gallery: To get started, I was checking out an interview that you did with Brian Pace where you discussed the big band as an “out of date” technology, and therefore as a prime source for continuous innovation, evolution, and repurposing. Could you elaborate on how the big band serves as a continuous source of inspiration for you?
Darcy James Argue: The thing about having a big band in this day and age is that you really do have to be a complete lunatic to want to make music this way. The practical considerations are insane, in terms of getting people in the room for a rehearsal, organizing them for the gig, and having them walk away from the gig with slightly more money than when they walked into it. We’re gearing up not just for this weekend at The Jazz Gallery, but also for a recording session the following week. And the logistics of that are complex: there aren’t that many big recording studios left in New York. You need a space big enough for the sound to bloom and go places. You need isolation booths for the drums, bass, and soloists. So it’s not something where you can just set up a laptop and microphone in your apartment and record.
Any rational person looking at this set of circumstances would simply say, “That is a totally ridiculous and impractical way of making music. I should focus on my duo project.” And certainly with today’s technology of computers and samplers and looping effects and sequencers, you can generate some big sounds from just two people. So it takes a kind of maniacal devotion to acoustic music to be that devoted to writing music for people blowing into tubes. You’re trying to overcome all of these incredible financial and logistical hurdles in order to create this sound of literally eighteen people’s air coming at you.
TJG: So given all of these insane limitations, how does the form continuously motivate you?
DJA: The sound that you get when you’re standing in front of those eighteen players and you can hear the whole picture and it’s hitting you in a massive wave of air… It’s addictive. So when it’s going well, it really is the best feeling in the world. I hope it’s a great feeling for the people listening to the music as well, especially in a more intimate space like The Jazz Gallery. There’s something special about being in a small room with a large band that you can’t get under other circumstances.
TJG: Getting the people together and making the project happen is in itself a huge hurdle. So what is it exactly about that acoustic, immersive sound that speaks to you?
DJA: I’m not sure it’s something I can really put into words. There is something ineffable about it. Certainly there are all the timbral, coloristic, structural choices available to you with a large ensemble, but many of those choices would still be available if you were working with a laptop. So it’s a matter of figuring out that x-factor.
You can also see the means of musical production. They are right there in front of you. There’s no instrument more obvious than the trombone [laughs]. You can see the slide moving, and there’s a direct and visceral connection between the gesture the player is making and the sound that you are hearing. That’s not a connection you’d get from watching someone type a command into their Max/MSP patch on a laptop. It feels a bit like a sort of ancient magic when you have all those acoustic instruments working together.
I try to make unexpected sounds as well: strange combinations of instruments or mutes, timbres and textures that maybe people haven’t heard before, and I really try to use instruments in coloristic and novel ways to generate sounds that are mysterious. Maybe a listener won’t quite know how the alchemy is happening, but they can try to piece it together by looking up at the band. If you hear an intriguing sound you can watch and say, ‘Oh, that’s a bass trombone with a bucket mute, playing together with a piccolo,’ for example.
TJG: Given that The Jazz Gallery performances won’t have multimedia, and in many cases the music and media for Brooklyn Babylon and Real Enemies were conceived together, how do you feel about splitting them up in a case where the full presentation isn’t possible?
DJA: So with Brooklyn Babylon, and with the more recent multimedia project Real Enemies, there was some serious staging involved—screens, lights, costumes, and so on. Those are big multimedia pieces. We’re not able to do that at The Jazz Gallery, because it’s a small space. But with Real Enemies, which we’ll be recording afterwards, for release this fall on New Amsterdam Records, as with Brooklyn Babylon, the music stands on its own. You know, in the way that Stravinsky’s music stands on its own when you listen to any of his ballets. There’s one experience, which is kind of visually and sonically overwhelming, deliberately so. But the music also works in concert—we performed it at Stanford last fall—and that affords the audience a chance to focus more exclusively on musical elements, and have a different and, I think, equally rewarding type of experience. It’s satisfying to play a more intimate venue like The Jazz Gallery and present the music in that smaller space, where people can focus on the individual musicians and really get a vivid sense of all of the intricate details of the music that might get lost in a larger production.
TJG: I think that’s a great sentiment. This New York Times article on Brooklyn Babylon ended with this sentence: “Even if Brooklyn Babylon has a future life through interactive technology, the live performance will be its irreducible identity.” Since you’re going into the studio to record Real Enemies, what do you think there is to be gained from this interactive technology of recording? What can we gain in distancing ourselves from the live performance?
DJA: In the case of recording, it’s obviously a document of the musical work. It allows people who weren’t at BAM—or who aren’t able to make it to The Jazz Gallery—to hear this music. Real Enemies is a work that I’m very proud of. It’s music I’ve been working on for the last couple of years, and I’m excited about going in and, in a detailed and focused way, getting it all on tape.