A look inside The Jazz Gallery


Darcy James Argue's Secret Society performing Real Enemies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 2015. Photo by Noah Stern Weber.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performing Real Enemies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 2015. Photo by Noah Stern Weber.

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To get started, I was checking out an interview that you did with Brian Pace where you discussed the big band as an “out of date” technology, and therefore as a prime source for continuous innovation, evolution, and repurposing.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.

TJG: Real Enemies explores the idea of paranoia as an undermining, subversive, constant social force. What did it entail for you to expose the concept of paranoia itself?

DJA: When my co-creators, writer-director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini, and I were conceiving of the structure of the work, we very quickly we hit upon the idea of dividing it into twelve chapters, which correspond to the twelve points on a clock. The ticking clock, the sense of time running out, of course the doomsday clock—these are very prominent in conspiratorial mythology. That really seemed like the right visual symbol, as well as the right structural underpinning for the work. When we did that, and carved up twelve chapters, it occurred to me that if I was writing a history of conspiracy and paranoia, clearly the language had to be twelve-tone music. There was no other way to tell this story.

Twelve-tone music, for people not already familiar, is a system of composing organized chromatic atonal music, conceived by Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna after WWI. It kind of took over academic composing in the United States after the Second World War, and became the doctrine of ‘serious’ classical music. There were rumors of a shadowy cabal of 12-tone conspirators who were dictating all of the grants and much of academia, forcing people who didn’t want to compose in this style to do so in order to have careers as composers. And like all conspiracy theories, there is a small bit of truth… and a larger, more paranoid tale to be told there.

But the fact that there is a conspiracy theory about 12-tone music itself made it irresistible for me as a language, process, and technique. I’ve worked with 12-tone techniques before, but this is the first time I’ve used them rigorously throughout an entire piece.

Now here’s the thing. I don’t actually like a lot of high-modernist 12-tone music. Some of it I like very much: Copland’s Inscape (1967) is an incredible piece, as is Stravinsky’s Agon (1957). And I certainly listened to a ton of American 12-tone music, especially when I was in the process of researching the composition for Real Enemies. Early on, though, I decided that 12-tone technique could be a toolbox, and that I didn’t have to use those tools to build the same kind of house that Milton Babbitt built. And so I did that.

One of the biggest departures from classic serialism is that Real Enemies is in twelve different key-areas. Typically the whole point of working in 12-tone music is to avoid any specific key-area. So I decided I was going to depart from that immediately. I thought, “every chapter is going to have a pitch center, a sense of home within all of this crazy chromatic activity.” The vast majority of hardcore 12-tone composers would look at Real Enemies and say “Well, he doesn’t understand how serialism is supposed to work.” But it was about taking a set of tools, seeing that they’re a great set of tools, and saying to myself, “instead of building a crazy modernist skyscraper, I’m going to build a sort of postmodernist yurt” or whatever.

TJG: It’s fascinating to hear you speak about 12-tone music in those terms. I just read a portion of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. He equates the total order of serialism with the total chaos of fascism, where composers become enamored and ultimately blinded by the technique’s sterility. It’s interesting to hear you using those techniques to turn against the main tenant of 12-tone music, which is that it is trying to distance itself from the concept of a key-area.

DJA: Of course, I’m not the first person to do this. There are plenty of instances and practices where people have embraced the tools and not the ideology. And actually, another big influence for me were the scores for all the paranoid movies of the 1970s, such as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All The President’s Men… especially the films of Alan J. Pakula, and the film scores of Michael Small and David Shire. Shire actually wrote a 12-tone score for The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, but it’s an incredibly fun, funky, catchy 12-tone score. That unlocked a lot of possibilities for me, because it was a vivid reminder that 12-tone music can be fun. You don’t have to be totally humorless and self-serious all the time. The results of these tools aren’t pre-ordained. You can write whatever kind of music you want with them, provided you set up the row and structure in a way that enables the kind of results you want to get.

TJG: Branching more into the idea of conspiracy, I read an interview from the Guardian with Isaac Butler. He spoke about the idea of conspiracy itself as a collection of disparate, found things, an accumulation of pieced-together evidence. Did that idea of piecing things together influence your process?

DJA: The process for this piece was, as I mentioned, Isaac and Peter and I carved out the grand 12-part structure. Then Isaac began writing this script that we called “the spine.” It was not a traditional bit of script-writing: there’s no dialogue, beyond spoken word found audio, clips which themselves were chosen relatively sparsely and had to be woven into the music: old snippets of Frank Church talking about the CIA manipulating the news, JFK talking about the threat of secrecy, and how we are opposed around the world to secret societies…. Those audio cues were specified in the score, as well as all the visual information that Peter would use to construct the film, which is on fifteen separate screens, so we had a lot of multi-channel information happening at any given time.

Working from the spine, I didn’t have any visuals yet, only descriptions. “We see an octopus,” for example, or “we see images related to the homeland, family, rows of corn, amber waves of grain,” that kind of thing. I had to carve out how each cue was going to be structured musically, and determine which musical events would correspond to those descriptions. Do they line up? Do they need to be reordered? When I had a completed mockup of a section, I would send it to Peter and he would create the 15-screen film to go with it. Then the three of us would review it together, and figure out where things needed to be tweaked. It was an iterative process of constant revision.

It was such a strange thing we were doing: a non-fiction multi-media essay on conspiracy theory, while still having it be a satisfying piece of theater for the audience. There had to be a sense of a through-line, a sense of progression and direction. So the music had to have a certain architecture that would support the slow boil of insanity that we tried to bathe the audience in during the piece.

TJG: With this slow boil of insanity through this underlying structure, is there an idea that the piece has this own underlying structural conspiracy?

DJA: The way the piece is constructed, it works on a macro- and micro-level. So you hear the row being articulated clearly at the beginning of the piece by harmon-muted trumpets playing into the belly of the piano. But the row is also the macro structure of the piece. The first note in the row is A and the first chapter of the piece is in A; the next note in the row is Eb, and the next chapter is in Eb… and so on, around the 12 chapters We also showed a rotating diagram of the row at the beginning of each chapter. I’m not sure if anyone necessarily realized what that was, but it was important for me to put it up there to give people a sense that there is, actually, a master plan.

Musically, there are themes from one movement that make an appearance in an altered form in another movement, where they mean something different musically, emotionally, timbrally, and so on. You can trace the evolution of these musical themes as they become transformed. So there was the challenge of creating 12-tone themes that people would actually remember, and creating the feeling of recognition when they show up again. That was part of the idea of the piece: to have these glimmers of recognition as the piece goes on, that mimics the process of trying to sort through a large body of information.

There’s this classic detective show/conspiracy theory trope called the “crazy wall”: the cork-board diagram with all of the lines connecting photos, newspaper headlines, bits of evidence in ziplock bags, and so on. Musically, Real Enemies is a 75-minute “crazy wall.”

TJG: In terms of the audio cues, will the pre-recorded tape cues make it into the recording session?

DJA: Yes. The spoken word audio is an integral part of the music itself. A lot of musical moments depend on having that spoken-word audio.

TJG: You mentioned that you got the title for Real Enemies after reading a book by the same title. What role does reading have in your process, and what are you reading these days?

DJA: I’m gearing up for the gigs and the recording session, while also trying to move back into my apartment after some renovations, so right now I’m reading nothing, which is sad [laughs]. I look forward to reading Kathryn Olmsted’s new book. She’s the author of the book Real Enemies, which is a social history of conspiratorial thinking, and was the original impetus for this project. Kathy’s new book is called Right Out of California, and when all this madness is over, I’m looking forward to checking it out. She very generously let us use her title, and she came out to both the openings at Stanford and BAM, and has been hugely supportive of this project. So I’m looking forward to reading her latest when all of this is done!

TJG: It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Darcy. Good luck with the upcoming performances and recording sessions.

DJA: Thanks so much!

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performs as part of The Jazz Gallery’s 20th Anniversary Concert Series on Friday, January 29th, and Saturday, January 30th, 2016. The band is led by Mr. Argue and features Dave Pietro, Sharel Cassity (Friday), Rob Wilkerson (Saturday), John Ellis, and Carl Maraghi on woodwinds; Nathan Eklund, David Smith, Matt Holman, Nadje Noordhuis, and Ingrid Jensen on trumpet; Mike Fahie, Ryan Keberle, Jacob Garchik, and Jennifer Wharton on trombone; Sebastian Noelle on guitar; Adam Birnbaum on piano; Matt Clohesy on bass; and Jon Wikan on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $30 general admission ($20 for members) for each set, $40 for reserved cabaret seating ($30 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.